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Tale of dry Nairobi taps: Water has no enemy but it has owners

By Oyunga Pala | Monday, Jan 9th 2017 at 08:45
Nairobi houses are not designed to handle water shortages very well

My favourite Fela Kuti song is, “Water, No Get Enemy”. There is a hypnotic saxophone that awakens dead nerves carrying through the number. It is from the album “Expensive shit”. In Nairobi, water has enemies and owners. I was thinking about expensive water bottles littering the road sides as I rolled back into the city from the December manenos, to be confronted by the disturbing news of an imminent water shortage.

I only get the city supply once a week, so this was not good news. News reports warned; Nairobi to face dry months ahead. Panic!

I located the water rationing schedule from Nairobi Water and Sewerage Company. My area was scheduled for water supply over a duration of 24 hours on the weekend. The day had changed but the rations held steady. I could not complain. They are several places in Nairobi that do not get running water in weeks.

I live in a decent section of town with a personal storage tank that holds over a 1000 litres. I enjoy good water pressure. The only little discomfort I can report is a screeching electric water pump that causes a racket whenever the overhead tank is running on empty. I do not react as harshly to water rationing as I do to power rationing, unscheduled black outs and slow internet speeds. Those are scarce resources.

Water can be bought in hard cash from a vendor a phone call away. Every sensible Nairobi family man is now forced to be present when the water starts trickling from the direct city line at 2 in the night.

Present enough to rouse the brood into action filling up any container that holds water. Water scarcity is a normal feature in Nairobi as potholes and thieving politicians. When the rains fail and the Ndaikini dam water levels drop, I try not to be a sitting duck.

Like most Nairobians, I have begrudgingly embraced my reality and become astute at water sourcing. My back up systems can hold ground for a single week. Some days, the water supply in storage runs out and I am forced to make a call to the “Maji safi’ people.

They arrive promptly with a water browser and a take-it-or-leave-it offer before a drop can touch my empty storage tank. I have no way of testing the source of their water. But, it is not a pressing concern, when you have not had water for two days.

Glass of water

Nairobi houses are not designed to handle water shortages very well. Sometimes, the caretaker cum groundsman and security detail, tries to pair me up with a seedy neighbour I hardly ever talk to, because the water vendor refuses to burn fuel just to fill a single storage tank with a limited capacity.

I have talked to my landlord about building a larger storage tank and he would not give me a straight answer. He claims that the money that I paid him is barely enough to get his family through the month and here I am whinging on about the size of the storage tank.

I have morphed into a domestic water conservationist. I do not flush after a single short call. That is the kind of wastage that only a swimming pool attendant can afford. Most people do not realize that a quarter of all the clean water that enters our homes is washed down the drain whilst innocently flushing toilets. Old toilets use about 13 litres of water per single flush. The wasted water could be irrigating a farm.

I take efficient showers. I am thinking of buying a shower timer that calculates the time spent under the showerhead. I constantly monitor the water levels in my tank.

Outdoors, I get easily irritated when I get asked “still or sparkling”. I am not one of those uppity types who no longer drink tap water, if it does come wrapped in plastic and flaunting its mineral qualities. I think bottled water is overrated and overpriced.

A glass of water was a basic courtesy before the introduction of bottled water and the commercialization and privatisation of water services. Bottled water is a billion shilling industry. Kenya is in desperate need of a water conservation culture and lot of common sense.

Clean water is the world’s most precious resource and what do we do with it? We horde and waste it. Nairobi’s city water supply, and public services such as healthcare, education, and security have progressively deteriorated and become heavily privatized. Access to clean drinking water and sanitation are basic human rights but for most people in this city, the right to clean water is a privilege that is about to cost more.

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