By Paul Sobiech

Welcome to Kibera, the most densely populated, informal urban settlement in Africa. Located in Kenya’s capital city—Nairobi—between 500,000 and 750,000 people live in an area the size of a large city park, perhaps a mile or so in all directions. Walking the dirt paths of Kibera (it’s unfair to call them “streets”), you feel swept up in the mass of humanity.

Life on the streets
Individuals and families live on less than a dollar a day here. Innocent-looking plastic bags are strewn everywhere, the remnants of the infamous “flying toilets.” At night, people are too worried about being mugged to venture out to use a proper latrine, if one even exists, so a plastic bag has to suffice.

Drinking water comes from water kiosks—some run by families, some by self-help groups. Or, water comes in carts pushed by vendors who emerge out of nowhere to sell water of questionable quality at five to 50 times the price you might pay just outside the settlement.

Property rights are unclear, skewed and complicated. There are no sanitation services. Sewage and solid waste flows where gravity decides is best.

The world of Kibera is not unique to Africa. You’ll find these settlement conditions in the city centers throughout the developing world.

The water and sanitation needs of the world’s poor are staggering. The World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF (the United Nations Children’s Fund) estimate that the African urban population will more than double over the next 25 years, while that in Asia will almost double. In Latin America and the Caribbean, an increase of almost 50 percent is expected over the same time frame. This is according to the WHO/UNICEF Global Water Supply and Sanitation Assessment 2000 Report.

The World Bank’s water and sanitation program (see advocates the following as a shared response to urban water needs:

  • Established authorities need to plan new approaches and engage a wider array of players, in particular local communities themselves.
  • Increased participation of the private sector creates opportunities for efficiency and innovation, but this process needs to be managed to retain a focus on poverty alleviation.
  • Information about technical and institutional innovations should be shared within international professional circles and with field operators so that innovations can be improved and implemented.
  • At the household and community levels, there is a need to understand processes of decision making, the potential of different approaches to decentralized management of services, the type of intermediary services that can be effective both in driving reform, and securing sustained services.
  • At the level of the utility and local government, there is a need to find ways to stimulate and interact with community level initiatives and the informal sector.
  • At the level of state or national government, there is still a need to seek ways of setting incentives so that serving the poor is not only a priority but is also achievable, supported by adequate financial and human resources.
  • At the international level, there is an urgent need to put water and especially sanitation services for the poor at the top of what is already a very full developmental and political agenda.

Water For People
Water For People (WFP) is a U.S.-based international development organization that responds to the conditions associated with unsafe drinking water, inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene resulting in 6,000 deaths (mostly children) every day. The American Water Works Association (AWWA), the largest and oldest water-related professional association in the world, established WFP in 1991.

In October 2000, WFP launched its “Water For Africa” initiative with a $600,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA). In light of many historic water programs, the Water For Africa initiative focuses on building local competencies, not building “bricks and mortar” projects. The approach is aimed at filling the knowledge gap that exists with urban drinking water and the urban poor.

Work includes supporting innovative approaches to assist the unserved and working with local nonprofit organizations and self-help groups to provide advocacy, training and community coordination on water-related issues. Work is also under way to foster water sector reform and strengthen local water associations as agents of change and resource centers for the respective water sector.

Initial efforts are focused in eastern and southern Africa. The following work in Zambia and Tanzania is provided to give a flavor for the Water For Africa effort.

A stronger water sector—Zambia
The water sector in Zambia has increasingly been unable to meet its customer expectations. For a number of years, the sector has been locked in a downward spiral of under-investment, declining service and increasing unwillingness to pay.

Nine commercial utilities have now been created from what were once municipal water departments. New managing directors have been recruited, all with sound business experience but some from outside the water sector.

A lack of financial resources is a major obstacle; at a minimum, there’s a need for an enabling institutional structure, well-trained staff and effective management. These must be in place before investors, public or private, can be confident in the viability of the utilities.

Water For Africa work in Zambia is focused on building capacity within the water sector through a unique partnership with the Water and Sanitation Association of Zambia (WASAZA), the University of Zambia and the International Water Association Foundation.

Project goals include:

  • Enable the managing directors to identify actions they can take to improve performance of their utilities by sharing experience with each other and with other experienced practitioners
  • Strengthen the Zambian water professional association, WASAZA, and the University of Zambia Civil Engineering Department
  • Create a more favorable climate for investment by developing a cadre of trained and effective staff

The planned workshops include topics such as reducing non-revenue water, developing billing systems, improving customer relations, identifying appropriate private-public partnerships, and learning the essentials of regulation in the water/sanitation sector.

Capacity building in Tanzania
Dar es Salaam is a city of 3.5 million residents, with a daytime population estimated at 5 million. Most people in Dar es Salaam obtain water through informal supplies, often of questionable quality and always at a price well above that paid to the utility. Sewer coverage is mostly in the city center, leaving people in the settlement areas to use pit latrines or simply a spot along a road or footpath.

Under the Water For Africa effort, WFP is partnering on two projects in seven city communities (known as “streets”) with WaterAid/Tanzania (see and the People’s Voice for Development (PEVODE). PEVODE is a fledgling umbrella organization that the seven communities have established to better manage and expand their water systems, and to speak with a common voice on water issues for the urban poor.

The first project focuses on helping WaterAid enhance its system of community-based management systems. These are the day-to-day “tool kits” that enable communities like the seven mentioned above to undertake integrated water projects and to carry out research activities to support their advocacy work and decision-making processes.

The second project complements the first by focusing on the institutional development of PEVODE. The project will help the group become a formal non-governmental organization (NGO) with an established office, a trained board of trustee members and, ultimately, positioning PEVODE to fill a void in Dar es Salaam as a fully functioning, indigenous NGO focusing on urban issues.

One path forward
Because of the high population densities, poor people in urban areas are faced with incredible health risks every day, arguably living a more marginalized lifestyle than their rural, subsistence farmer counterparts. The obstacles facing the urban poor in obtaining safe drinking water are, at their core, educational issues.

The path forward then is one of increased capacity building, collaboration and education. It entails bringing all the stakeholders to the table to find collaborative solutions to their drinking water problems. There is a dire need to share lessons and successes with other agencies and practitioners.

Water-related organizations need to find better ways to connect local people with global resources. New and sustained networks are necessary and, in the information age, can provide the access local groups need to leverage the immense human and financial resources they need to change the world, one settlement at a time.

About the author
Paul A. Sobiech is executive director for both Water For People, a Denver-based international non-profit non-governmental organization helping impoverished people worldwide to obtain safe drinking water, as well as its Canadian affiliate, Water For People-Canada. He’s been with WFP since a year after its inception. A former U.S. Peace Corps volunteer and a registered professional engineer, he holds a civil engineering degree from Purdue University and a master’s degree in public affairs from Indiana University. He can be contacted at (303) 734-3491, (303) 734-3499 (fax), email: [email protected] or website:

Kenya: An overview

Area: 349,590 square miles (slightly more than twice the size of Nevada)
Climate: varies from tropical along coast to arid in interior
Environment-current issues: water pollution from urban and industrial wastes; degradation of water quality from increased use of pesticides and fertilizers, water hyacinth infestation in Lake Victoria; deforestation; soil erosion; desertification; poaching
Population: 30,765,916
Religions: Protestant 38 percent, Roman Catholic 28 percent, indigenous beliefs 26 percent, Muslim 7 percent, other 1 percent
Languages: English (official), Kiswahili (official), numerous indigenous languages
Government type: republic
Capital: Nairobi
Exports: $1.7 billion (2000 est.); tea, coffee, horticultural products, petroleum products, fish, cement
Imports: $3 billion (2000 est.); machinery and transportation equipment, petroleum products, iron and steel


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