The paradox of water development in Kenya's drylands

  • By Claire Bedelian
  • 27/02/2019
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In Kenya's dryland counties, the national and county governments are investing in water infrastructure to improve access to clean water for their citizens. In Wajir county in northern Kenya, the number of boreholes increased three-fold from 98 to 272 between 2013 and 2018. These investments are the result of large funding increases to the water sector through county-level development budgets.

Nevertheless, citizens of Wajir continue to face acute and prolonged water shortages, particularly during the dry season. Many water investments are not functional a couple of years after establishment due to the poor planning, design and management of water supply systems.

In line with the Constitution of Kenya 2010, the responsibility of water service delivery is now devolved to county governments. In 2014, the Wajir County Water and Sewerage Company (WAJWASCO) was set up to provide water supply and sewerage services in Wajir’s main towns. Their first four years of operation have not gone without problems related to management, technical or financial issues, and some communities have been resistant to hand over their water supply systems to WAJWASCO.

Outside of the main towns, community-level water operators or Water User Associations (WUAs) manage rural water supplies. Commonly, WUAs face issues of poor social accountability, weak financial transparency, limited community representation, and technical and management capacity gaps.

These are some of the issues found in a recent study led by the Wajir County Water Department, and supported by WAJWASCO, Mercy Corps, and the International Institute for Environment and Development, under the Building Resilience and Adaptation to Climate Extremes and Disasters (BRACED) programme. The study is well-timed and comes when Wajir, and neighbouring counties are developing their county water policies and legislation.

A major issue identified in the study is the lack of citizen engagement in the design of water projects. Communities are only informed later during the implementation of a project. This is particularly the case for women, who have a very weak voice in water development; a recognised failure since it is women who are responsible for domestic water provision.

Livestock herders said they are not consulted on water development because they are out herding their livestock, thus their needs for livestock water use are not being taken into account.

Instead, the establishment of water points is initiated by politicians seeking to gain influence and votes, and is then driven by contractors with links to government. The result is a water point that is not demand driven nor reflects the priorities of its users.

The emphasis on water development is happening at the expense of good water governance. It is also happening at the expense of environmental and social considerations, as it does not take account of sustainable rangeland management practices.  

New water points are being placed without consideration for livestock wet and dry season grazing areas or pastoral mobility patterns, leading to the over use and degradation of pastures. This occurs despite over 70 percent of Wajir’s population being dependent on livestock.

This poor planning is the result of a lack of coordination between the institutions involved in water governance, such as between the county departments of water, livestock, energy and irrigation, as well as between the national and county government.

In Wajir county, water points are known to be conflict hotspots. Conflict arises in the absence of clear governance rules over access to water and pasture resources, as well as due to the absence of appropriate policies for managing competing land uses. 

Water development in Wajir county needs to be underpinned by a strong community engagement process that prioritises citizens’ needs and incorporates them into policy-making - a principle enshrined in the Constitution of Kenya. Furthermore, policy and practice in the drylands should take a differentiated approach to water development that considers both domestic and livestock water needs. Strengthening water governance and improving the coordination between different institutions is vital for a more sustainable and inclusive water sector.

Claire Bedelian is a consultant with the International Institute for Environment and Development's Dryland team.

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