A woman uses her water credit, which is stored in a small, plastic token, to buy water from a Water ATM in Hadado, Kenya.  Credit Katie G. Nelson/Oxfam

Sustaining universal access to water for all: Reflections from Oxfam WASH interventions in Kenya.

Infrastructural functionality challenges and social inequality!

On average, between 30-45% of rural water supply systems in Africa are non-functional or operating below capacity at any given time[1]. At any time when one visits the Oxfam field offices in Wajir or Lodwar town, you are likely to find long queues of community leaders and elders with various requests for support with spare parts, fuel or repairing a water point that is no longer functional. Several reasons have contributed to this high failure rate. One of these is the capacity limitations of the often- “voluntary” water management committees to effectively carry out the technical operations and maintenance of the water schemes and the fact that they tend to operate in isolation with limited government support-technical and financial in the running of the water schemes. “Why community management does not work?” has become a favorite topic for development workers. Too often, as WASH practitioners, we find reasons that are intrinsic to communities instead of asking ourselves if we have really done our best to make it work. Is it sufficient to provide a three days training on operation and maintenance, register the group as a self-help group then leave them to themselves? No, it’s not! It takes more than a three-day encounter to build capacity.

In addition to these more “managerial and techno-infrastructural factors”, my experience in Kenya points out social-structural inequalities resulting from unequal power dynamics as a significant factor contributing to the poorer segments of the populations not accessing safe water. I have encountered cases where the very water tariff system apparently designed to ensure fair access to water for the most vulnerable is enabling structural unequal bias against the poor. Within these apparently “pro-poor tariff” systems, water kiosk users, often the poorest pay Ksh.5 per 20-liter jerry can. This translates to about Ksh.900 per month for most households. On the other hand, the more well-off members of the community who have individual tap connections at their houses pay a monthly flat rate of Ksh.300 per month for the same water! Clearly, the “pro-poor” tariff is working against the poor and further exacerbates the inequalities in access to water.

When people can’t access safe water, the community suffers

When people can’t access safe water sources at an affordable rate, either because the facility is broken or the water tariffs are too high, the coping strategies are often catastrophic. Most people in rural areas will end-up using unsafe water sources like surface ponds when it rains. In urban contexts, when the government fails to assure delivery of safe water at affordable rates, the poor end up spending way much to access water from unregulated informal vendors and cartels who provide it at very extortionary prices. In Nairobi’s informal settlements like Mukuru, the poor pay a high poverty penalty for lack of access to water. The low-income residents end-up paying 172% more for water compared with the affluent high-income families in the formal areas of the city like Lavington.  The most vulnerable in the community, such as women and children, are adversely affected. As the primary care-givers, women bear the brunt of unreliable water services. They are the ones who walk long-distances to fetch water when nearby water points fail to deliver. Young girls are particularly affected when they cannot access water to maintain personal hygiene and are forced to miss school for days as they accompany their mothers to look for water. Women and girls are further exposed to the risk of being assaulted as they travel to look for water.

Water as a human right

While article 43 of Kenya’s constitution provides that all persons have the right to “clean and safe water in adequate quantities”, the country faces significant fiscal constraints and is unable to provide water for free. In the latest SDG implementation report released by the ministry of water, the government recognizes that to achieve universal access to water and sanitation as a human right by 2030, it will require Ksh.1.764 trillion which translates into annual requirement of Ksh.100 billion of which only about Ksh.40 billion is availed currently[2]. This has led to a policy where users are obliged to pay a user fee for water. We should all agree that access to safe portable water, being a life-saving essential human need cannot be conditioned to the users’ income and ability to pay.  It would also be unwise to insist on free water access that eventually leads to unavailability of funds for regular operations and system maintenance as needed. The challenge is then to ensure there are sufficient safeguards and strong social accountability mechanisms to protect those who are unable to pay due to their income profiles within the context of this user-pay policy. This could include transfers within social protection interventions or subsidizing the costs of operations and maintenance for the segments of the population who are unable to pay.

A new Strategy

Oxfam’s work in Kenya recognizes these challenges and our programming is designed to contribute to sustainable solutions. Our programming advocates for increased budgetary allocation to the WASH sector to provide some form of subsidy for operations and maintenance to augment what users’ pay as well as increased transfers for social protection. In the past, the focus of our WASH programming has been largely oriented towards techno-infrastructural aspects of WASH sometimes at the neglect of the structural social inequalities that are unbiased towards the most vulnerable. Oxfam has learnt from this and we are shifting our program approaches. We are increasingly focusing on inclusive governance of services, social accountability structures to safeguard the most vulnerable as well as exploring sustainable options to sustain services beyond infrastructure.

We are also keen on exploring market-based approaches to sustaining WASH services. Market-based approaches have sometimes been accused of neglecting the “publicness of water”, but to us this does not mean commercialization or privatization of water services. It is about asking ourselves how best we can support communities and local authorities to leverage private sector expertise and efficiency in performance-based delivery of essential public goods. An example of a market-based approach is the innovative use of “water ATMs” for water tariff management where Oxfam brokered a partnership between two local water utilities and a private sector company MajiMilele Ltd. The water tariffs are set by the utilities with a pro-poor bias as per local community arrangements to safeguard those who cannot pay. The private sector actor only provides an efficient system to collect and transparently account for the revenue while monitoring performance and providing regular information to the utilities and the water users. Oxfam is keen on working with communities, national and county governments and local partners in exploring models that will ensure functionality of the water schemes embedded within citizen-led social accountability structure.




[1] Kwena, R., & Moronge, M. (2015). Determinants of sustainability of rural water projects in Kenya: a case study of the Netherlands Development Organization (SNV) supported water schemes in Kajiado County. The Strategic Journal of Business and Change Management. Strategic Journal of Business and Change Management, 2(2), 2025 – 2077.: Lockwood, G., & Smits, U. (2011). Supporting Rural Water Supply. Moving towards a Service Delivery Approach. Hague, Nertherlands: International Water and Sanitation Centre (IRC).: Sutton, S. (2004). Preliminary desk study of potential for self-supply in sub-Saharan Africa. SWL Consultants.;

[2] Government of Kenya. (2017). Report of the implementation of the agenda 2030 for Sustainable development goal 6 in Kenya. Ministry of Water and Irrigation.