Kibera is an informal settlement located on the outskirts of Kenya’s capital city Nairobi. From above, the settlement resembles an endless sea of houses made of mud bricks and corrugated metal roofs. It is home to anywhere between 500,000 and 1 million people. The majority of its residents have moved from rural areas to find work in the city and are casual labourers, therefore low-income earners.
Houses in Kibera lack toilets and a direct connection to clean water. Access to sewage, drainage and garbage collection is non-existent. Hundreds of people usually share communal latrines. When the latrines fill up, they drain directly into the Ngong river that cuts through the settlement or empties it.
Once a bubbling ecosystem in which plants and fish thrived, the Ngong river has been transformed into a depository for human waste, garbage and other pollutants and can easily be mistaken today for an open sewerage system.
The settlement is also bordered on the western edge by the Nairobi Dam, built in the early 1950s to create a backup water supply reservoir for the city. It once provided clean water to the settlement and was a popular destination for fishing, swimming and sailing. Today, its level of pollutants is equivalent to raw sewage, and concentrations of heavy metals are high. Few organisms can survive in the reservoir, and the dam is considered a severe threat to human health in Kibera and the city in general.
The brunt of water scarcity is felt in Kibera every day. Kibera’s residents pay more for water than wealthy surrounding neighbourhoods, as they are forced to buy tap water at exorbitant prices from vendors and water cartels who operate without any regulatory mechanisms. Furthermore, the majority of Kibera’s water pipes are plastic and run above the ground. They easily crack, giving way to sewage and waste to seep in, making the water supply contaminated and leading to poor health outcomes.
An adequate supply of safe drinking water is universally recognized as a basic human need. Yet, millions of people in the developing world do not have ready access to a safe water supply. The number of people without access to clean water, especially in urban areas, is rising sharply due to rapid urbanization. Projections of population growth are likely to worsen the access to clean and safe water in periurban and slum areas around the globe unless there is a dramatic change in policies and individual consciousness.
Even though policy changes and infrastructure improvements are significant, studies have shown that improving the water quality has no impact if the sanitation is not improved. Improving both water and sanitation together is synergistic in producing a more meaningful impact. Poor sanitation practices are standard in many urban slum settlements worldwide; thus, intensive behaviour change on sanitary practices is also paramount.