"We cannot just sit and wait for development support"

Martha Wangari Karua is a cabinet minister for water resource management and development in Kenya. A lawyer by profession, she is among that rare breed of no-nonsense politicians fighting to provide water for all in her water-scarce country. In an exclusive interview with Clifford Polycarp, she talks about some solutions, and the challenges Kenya faces domestically and internationally to live up to its commitments

 
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

-- What are some challenges in delivering safe water to the people of Kenya?
The main challenge before the government in Kenya is to improve a dilapidated infrastructure inherited from the previous government and a lack of resources to undertake rehabilitation and the extension of water infrastructure to a large unserved population, both in rural and urban areas. Our priority as a ministry is rehabilitation of existing infrastructure, making sure that what we have works and then to plan on serving those who are unserved in rural and urban regions.
Is your task the same in urban and rural areas?
In urban areas, the big challenges are to serve those who live in informal settlements and to regularise the supply of water. This will in turn also enhance the collection of revenues from water. In rural regions, the challenge is to shorten the distances women have to walk to find water and to provide these areas with enough water for domestic use and for agriculture, livestock and other uses.

What are some day-to-day problems your people face?
People in urban areas get low quality water from vendors, and they are charged sometimes 20 times the rate that the economically better off pay for water. It is a real challenge to ensure that the poor access water at least at the same price. We are also thinking of having differentiated tariffs where you can have the well to do cross-subsidise the poor. But the idea of everybody paying for water is a must.

In rural areas, people often have to walk long distances, in some cases even for a day or two, in search of water. And when they get clean water, they can only carry a limited quantity back. This means that they do not have enough to even sustain their livelihoods or meet their sanitary needs. Living in unsanitary conditions, their health deteriorates and economic productivity declines. They also lack adequate water for agriculture. We have enough land to enable us to attain food security if we have the water infrastructure to match it.

Is Kenya water scarce or is it just management problem?
We are now classified as water scarce. Previously, we were not. The per capita availability of water is 647 cu m, which is now below the recommended 1000 cu m. We believe that with the efficient use of water both for domestic and agricultural purposes, and also with the harnessing of rainwater and proper management of water resources, we can have adequate water for everybody.

Kenya also suffers from very high climate and seasonal variability. So we experience floods on the one hand, and drought for the remainder of the year. We are thinking of expanding and extending storage facilities to be able to harness rainwater and also to adequately deal with the vagaries of the weather. So for instance, we could harness floodwater and use that during droughts.

What priority do you accord to rainwater harvesting as a solution?
This is a priority, especially in the arid and semi-arid areas. In fact, these areas receive more rain as compared to other areas. If we prepare adequately and store that rainwater, then we will have enough water for domestic, agriculture and livestock uses during even the drier months.

Is this a solution that you are exploring for cities like Nairobi as well?
For Nairobi, we have adequate water from surrounding areas. It is a question of distribution. The water available for Nairobi city for now is enough up to 2007, even taking into account the added population. So the immediate problem for Nairobi is distribution and management of water.

What other solutions, apart from rainwater harvesting, are you exploring to meet the water needs of the country?
Recycling of wastewater and increasing the efficiency in the use of water. Once everybody is served and everybody pays for water, people out of necessity will use water economically. In terms of agriculture, we will explore innovative methods of irrigation, which do not take up much water. And we have countries to learn from, countries that are water scarce but are doing very well. I have been to Israel and to Egypt and seen how they use water. Countries like Dubai are achieving the same objectives even without the amount of water available to us in Kenya. So efficiency is an area we will really emphasise upon.

How is Kenya meeting the financial needs of ensuring people receive water?
We are far from meeting them. But one of the small ways of doing this is again efficiency in use of resources; by plugging all the leakages so that the money is not lost; ensuring good governance in planning and implementation; and also increasing sensitivity within governments so that when we do budgetary allocations, we look at areas that will help us in the long run. For instance, in the budget for health, when you take into account that about over 50 per cent of hospital bed occupancies would be related to water-borne diseases, it does make sense to see where the budget can be adjusted to have a little more for the water programme to overcome the health problem in the near future.

Likewise, in our emergency relief budget for famine, if you allocate a percentage to water, you will come out of that cycle. In flood control, we have money allocated for disaster relief every year to rescue people from floods. What if we budgeted for long-term solutions to flood control, like for the building of reservoirs to store excess water? That water will not only be used for agriculture, which contributes to food security, but will also help people whose households are destroyed on a daily basis and help alleviate them from abject poverty because they will not have to build and look for households each year.

So you can offload a certain percentage of all these heads, and we are toying with that. I think we should be able to do so even without looking at our development partners to increase our own budgetary allocation to water.

How dependent are you on official development assistance or aid from developed countries to meet these needs?
For the time being we are dependent. But we are also putting our foot forward, even where we have no resources to show our commitment, and are making some budgetary allocations. We are implementing the programmes, with or without support. What will be undermined by the lack of adequate resources is the extent of our success. So we are saying to ourselves that we cannot just sit and wait for development support. We will have to plan with what we have. And when extra comes, we go ahead and implement it.

One of the points you have made when you talk about leakages in development assistance is that it is found on both sides and not just in developing countries. What do you mean by that?
Lets take for example, the conditions of consultancies, which must come from donor countries. Now there may be a project for which we used the consultancy services of a different donor, and if for some reason the project was not implemented, we have to use the consultancy services of another donor afresh. Our shelves are now bursting with consultancy reports and sometimes those consultancies are more expensively priced than local consultants of equal learning and training. So, to whose benefit is this? We need to measure this. When it is said that US $5 billion has gone to a developing country, how much of it has found its way back to developed world? I want efficiency in money use, not just the money from my taxpayers, but also the money from the donors, and especially when it is a loan, because unnecessary heads are being loaded on my loan.

The Commission on Sustainable Development will be meeting soon in April and water and sanitation is a focus this year. What message are you taking to your colleagues in the developed world at this meeting?
I will say to them, as an individual coming from the developing world, as a minister in water and sanitation, we are committed. I will also enumerate the steps that we have taken to meet the Millennium development goals. I will say, "Can we see commitment in enhancing ODA from the developed countries? And can we also see commitment in bringing in a fairer trade regime?" A fair trading system helps me secure the resources for my country's natural endowments, without necessarily having to come to go to them with a begging bowl.

So, in essence, I will ask them to provide value for money for what I produce and a little more commitment on their part. I hope they agree and even if it is not instant, there has to be a beginning. We cannot fear the task because it is enormous. We have no option.

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