In Drought-hit Kenya, Selling Water Keeps City’s Young People in Business and Off Drugs

Now onto his third job since finishing high school a decade ago, Festus Chege is hoping his latest venture as a water vendor in Githurai, a growing suburb to the south of Kenya’s capital Nairobi, will pay off.

Like many young people from poor families, the 30-year-old passed his high-school exams but lacked the funds to pursue his studies, confining him to work in the city’s fast-expanding informal sector.

Kenya’s current drought, which is affecting some 3 million people across the East African country, has led to a drop in water volumes in reservoirs serving Nairobi residents.

The city authorities have been forced to ration water services, giving priority to critical facilities like hospitals, as well as manufacturers. Taps in poor households are now empty of piped water most of the time, and they have little choice but to buy their water from vendors like Chege.

“The water business is good,” said Chege, who has been selling water for the past four months. “People call me to supply them with water as early as 4 a.m.”

Chege, who uses a rickshaw to transport the water, sells 20-liter drums of water for 50 shillings ($0.49) each. In a day, he can supply as many as 40 drums, earning him 2,000 shillings — more than double a government clerk’s wage.

It’s five times more than what he was making last year hawking secondhand clothes.

“There were days when I would find myself idle because of a lack of customers,” said Chege. That’s when he would join his friends to smoke bhang, a form of cannabis — a common pastime among young slum-dwellers who take the drug in secret dens.

Now, Chege says he no longer has time to mess around with drugs because he is busy from dawn to dusk selling water.

In January this year, he joined a youth group called Ni Sisi Sasa (“It is our time”), which helps jobless young people in the neighborhood improve their lives. One activity it offers is water vending.

The group has a water depot in Githurai, which purchases its supply from the Kiambu County Council water unit.

Group members like Chege buy water from the depot at low rates and resell it to local residents at a profit.

“By the end of the year, I want to make enough money so that I can enroll in a teacher training college,” said Chege. He plans to continue supporting the group even if he realizes his ambition of becoming a teacher.

Growing population

According to the Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company (NCWSC), the capital’s residents need 740,000 cubic meters of water daily to meet demand.

Currently only 462,000 cubic meters of water are being supplied due to declining water levels in the Ndakaini reservoir, said Philip Gichuki, NCWSC’s managing director.

The reservoir, which supplies 85 percent of the city’s water, has a capacity of 70 million cubic meters, but due to poor rains this season, it is only around 40 percent full.

For instance, the Aberdares water tower in central Kenya — the source of rivers feeding the reservoir — has received just 250 mm of rain since December, way below the 1,000 mm it would normally receive in the rainy season, said Gichuki.

“The shortage has forced us to ration water,” said Nairobi County’s executive for water, Peter Kimori. “Estates have been forced to look for alternative sources due to the rationing.”

The county government plans to sink 140 boreholes in Nairobi’s fringe estates to ward off future water shortages.

But experts like Gichuki say more will be needed to meet demand in the capital due to its growing population, as rural migrants flock to areas like Githurai where many find work as manual laborers.

According to the World Bank, there are over 4 million people — around a tenth of Kenya’s population — living in Nairobi and its suburbs. In 1963, when Kenya attained independence, the city was home to only a third of a million people.

Creaking infrastructure

Gichuki said the solution was to upgrade the city’s water infrastructure.

“[It] has not been developed since post-independence days,” said Gichuki. “This is leading to the increasing water pressure and shortage in Nairobi.”

Fred Kihara, water fund manager at The Nature Conservancy, an international NGO, said the worsening water problem in Nairobi is linked to climate change, as rainfall volumes in central Kenya have declined.

On top of this, the government is not doing enough to conserve water towers like the Aberdares, he added, by preventing forests being cut down for farming, for instance.

“Clearing of trees reduces the soil’s ability to retain water which seeps into rivers feeding reservoirs like Ndakaini dam,” said Kihara, explaining that without trees, the water evaporates faster.

Meanwhile, Kenya’s Central Organization of Trade Unions says 4 million jobs are needed for the country to cut poverty to zero by 2020.

Youth unemployment has shrunk to 15 percent from 25 percent in 2006, as the economy’s informal sector has expanded.

“I am able to do this [water] business because the government has removed harsh regulation on the informal sector,” said Chege. “There is less harassment from tax officials.” But he called for better access to government support such as the youth enterprise development fund, which is hard to tap for young people without political connections.

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