Kenya’s new water police can teach east Africa a crucial lesson

The police unit is a game-changer in responding to east Africa’s water insecurity, say experts

By Tony Malesi
Published: Monday 13 February 2023
Water can easily result in a major security threat if not well managed and protected as a shared resource between local communities and nations, said an expert. Photo: iStock

Stakeholders from various sectors have touted Kenya’s newly-launched Water Police Unit (WPU), aimed at protecting water towers and water infrastructure, as a game changer in response to water insecurity in the country and across east Africa.

The stakeholders — experts from various sectors, including agriculture and food security, water and sanitation and public health, among others — have lauded the move.

The experts are calling upon other countries across east Africa to adopt the nascent water security strategy for the common good of the region, considering some of the water towers or catchment areas, especially forests and rivers, spread beyond national borders.

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The move will go a long way in protecting water towers, catchment areas and infrastructure amid a scarcity of the precious commodity, an outbreak of deadly diseases like cholera and the worst drought in 40 years, said experts.

Like land, water is both an emotive and scarce resource that can easily result in a major security threat if not well managed and protected as a shared resource between local communities and nations, according to Rodgers Mbinji, a Nairobi-based food security expert and consultant.

“The initiative will go a long way in increasing the volume of available water, guaranteeing a steady supply of the scarce commodity and ensuring Kenya achieves its development goals in agriculture and food production, health and sanitation targets,” said Mbinji.

East Africa is largely arid and semi-arid and is facing an acute shortage of water courtesy of the ongoing climate crisis. Rural communities feel the heat as rivers and streams dry up, whilst heavily-populated cities and urban areas experience regular water shortage and rationing.

Nairobi, for instance, is the biggest and most populated city in east Africa. It has an estimated 850 million litres per day water demand, compared to the production of 525 million litres per day, according to the city water provider, the Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company (NCWSC).

The difference between production and demand has been widening over time due to population growth, the inadequacy of the carrying capacity of the distribution network and climate shocks, according to NCWSC.

Besides the one-of-a-kind water police unit, Kenya, as a regional anchor state, has taken a leading role in the fight against water insecurity. Among other initiatives, it enacted a law establishing a unique state corporation known as the Kenya Water Towers Agency (KWTA).

KWTA coordinates and oversees the protection, rehabilitation, conservation and sustainable management of water towers, among other responsibilities. It also coordinates and oversees the recovery and restoration of forest lands, wetlands and biodiversity hot spots.

The Kenyan government in January formed the specialised police unit, WPU, to curb rising cases of vandalism and theft of key water sources and sanitation infrastructure, respectively.

Read more: Water, Africa’s Gold: Kenya’s urban slums need water, even as lakes Victoria, Turkana in trouble

The WPU comprises police officers drawn from the Administration Police Service and has now been integrated into the Critical Infrastructure Protection Unit.

“Effective this month, water sources, water infrastructure and water reservoirs/facilities are now part of Critical Infrastructure that falls under the Protected Areas Act (Cap. 204), which provides for procedures of removal of persons who might be found in those places without authorisation,” said Kenya’s Minister for Security, Kithure Kindiki, at the launch of WPU.

The minister disclosed numerous failed attack attempts targeted at crucial water sources, installations and facilities by criminals, including terrorists in northern Kenya.

Kindiki said the move was necessary, especially when the new government plans to rehabilitate ruined water towers, plant over 15 billion trees and construct over 100 dams and boreholes throughout their term in office to increase the country’s overall water volume and safety.

“It is necessary to have a dedicated team to focus on criminal elements, targeting water infrastructure or encroaching on water sources, especially wetlands and riparian lands, for selfish commercial reasons,” the minister said.

Various cases have been reported of scrupulous commercial farmers diverting rivers or streams upstream to their irrigation schemes or doing commercial farming along river beds.

Private developers, too, have been reported to set up commercial buildings on riparian lands. Some criminal elements often maliciously set forests on fire or engage in illegal logging or commercial selling of forest products.

The new police unit has also been tasked to rein in illegal pipeline connections and siphoning off water from pipelines and storage facilities, a trend that has dealt various national water and sanitation agencies a major financial setback, according to a statement from the Ministry of Security.

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According to data from the Ministry of Water, the government has been losing close to $80 million (Ksh 10.6 billion) annually due to non-revenue water. These losses, the ministry noted, are directly related to the destruction of the water infrastructure, non-payment of water bills and wrong metering.

“We’ve been analysing the amount of money the government loses yearly because of non-revenue water. And to address this issue, there is a need to see the associated components, one of which is the destruction of the infrastructure and another related to the commercial issues,” read a statement from the Ministry of Water.

Henry Otieno, a water and irrigation expert who is also a farmer, has embraced the initiative, noting that the unit’s establishment will go a long way in advancing Kenya’s socio-economic transformation and development agenda by delivering more water and irrigation projects across the country.

“With the government’s mega plans to fight climate change and heavily invest in agriculture and food security, there is a need to make sure that water sources and related infrastructure, including irrigation infrastructure, is properly protected,” said Otieno.

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