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The water business in Kenya’s elections

Ahead of Kenya’s general elections, political contenders have laid out elaborate plans to make clean water accessible to all. The problem? Similar promises have been made before.

An estimated 40 percent of Kenya’s population does not have access to safe drinking water. The situation is also dire in schools, one in three of which lack access to safe water.

This partly results from strain on resources occasioned by the introduction of compulsory free primary education in 2003. Prior to that, enrollment rate hovered below 50 percent. Within one year, 1.3 million children registered in schools across the country.

In Kenya today, over 11 million children attend school. This rise in enrollment without concurrent investment in key resources, among them water, has exacerbated the crisis.

Yet, access to water and sanitation services is a right enshrined in the Kenyan constitution – the supreme legislation of the land. The document also spells out crucial duties that the autonomous devolved governments, dubbed the county governments, should carry out to ensure as many people as possible gain access to clean water.

Water as an election issue

As Kenyan elections draw near, top contenders for various electoral positions have pledged to make clean water easily accessible to all. The top leading coalitions have sketched elaborate plans for how to carry it out.

The Azimio Coalition, for example, commits to progressively increase clean water access to every household and school, and raise the provision of water for manufacturing, agriculture, livestock development and other productive sectors of the economy.

Their competitors, The Kenya Kwanza Alliance, says it is convinced that universal access to safe water can be achieved by 2027, and has committed to prioritise utilisation of grants and concessional loans to water.

Yet such promises have already constituted a political campaign issue over the years, with previous administrations failing to live up to their promises.

“The water and sanitation issues in school is a huge problem across the country, despite the gains that have been made in making water accessible to all through devolution,” said Tim Kioko, an aspirant in Kitui County.

“There are of course efforts that both national and county governments have made, but that is just scratching the surface,” he added. “A lack of political will, commitment and treating water issues as secondary to operations of the county governments is to blame. There has been a deliberate attempt to ignore water issues in Kenya.”

The problem

In part, the issue appears to stem from a lack of coordination between national and county governments on water implementation tactics and the identification of resources to be tapped to ensure water access, especially in schools.

This is despite national education policies and budgets appreciating the pivotal role that Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) services mean to schools.

The National Education Sector Strategic Plan, for instance, notes that, “availability of clean water, promotion of hand washing and proper sanitation at the pre-primary schools positively impact on the health of a child, deterring waterborne diseases and infections.”

Lack of coordination has therefore left counties to pursue their own agendas, with water issues being relegated to the back seat. School principals then scramble to implement these projects despite having limited resources at their disposal and other competing needs.

“Even with education related resources from the national government, like the Free Education Fund and the Constituency Development Fund, access to water in our schools remains one of the biggest issues we haven’t been able to address,” said Jackline Mhanga, an aspirant in Kwale County.

“We haven’t enacted legislation that prioritizes development matters like water access, so you find that even when schools get funding, priority is given to books, salaries and meals. This has to stop. I will push for prioritization of WASH projects in schools once elected.”

The ongoing lack of access to safe drinking water has had far-reaching implications for Kenya’s education sector.

Numerous studies have indicated that many high school students who have to prioritise searching for water for their families end up dropping out or see their school performance decline. They also identified an increase in water-related diseases and risk to the security of children children attending school.

But as the blame game continues over who should ensure clean water is made available to schools, development partners and NGOs are engaged in a proactive attempt to find solutions, as small-scaled and localised as they may be.

The Interventions

WellBoring is one such organisation. The NGO provides safe, clean drinking water to schools and surrounding communities through the drilling of boreholes, and has managed to sink 199 wells since 2015 in eight different Kenyan counties, including Migori, Homabay, Kisumu, Siaya, Kakamega, Kitui, Kwale and Busia.

“Water is a human right. Sadly, the right of children to access to clean, safe drinking water has not been given the attention it deserves,” said Benjamin Koyo, Director and Head of Operations at WellBoring Ground Water.

“African children walk long distances trying to access safe drinking water, which is not available. Their right to access clean water has not been promoted. We want to ensure that every child across Kenya and Africa has easier access to clean drinking water.”

But the organisation has been overwhelmed by a growing demand for boreholes, and receives 35 boreholes a month on average. But despite having limited resources, the NGO is focused on its mission to provide water to a million people by 2025.

“There were schools where, when we went to drill boreholes, dropouts and absenteeism were the order of the day, and water related diseases were commonplace,” added Benson. “In some schools, up to half of the pupils were sick. It was that bad.

“Our evaluation data that we have reviewed for the last two years has shown us that access to clean drinking water has improved school retention by 80 percent, abseentism is no longer there and academic performance has improved tremendously.”

Having water access has also enabled these schools to establish gardens where they grow farm produce, including maize, kale, cabbage and tomatoes, which they sell to local markets with the proceeds going towards boosting the schools’ income.

They also use the produce to feed pupils and train them on good agricultural practices.

As Kenya readies for another general election and a new political dispensation, citizens are hoping that the incoming government will finally give water issues, particularly in schools, the attention, funding and focus they deserve.

“If elected to the national assembly, I will push for legislation to prioritise water issues and ensure that enough allocation is given to county governments to ensure that as many schools as possible get clean water,” said Kioko of Kitui County.

“This will be followed by constant monitoring over how many schools have received water after a particular period of time.”

Mhanga is calling for increased harmonisation between the two tiers of government.

“There are enough resources to ensure we get water to our schools. What we need is to have clear-cut description of roles between the national and county governments, and accountability measures so that we know where the buck stops, and this is something I am ready to champion,” she said.

“I would also like to create a conducive environment to support partners who are involved in water issues, such as charity organisations, so that we can work together seamlessly in making clean, safe water access a reality to our school going children.”

Considering the nation’s track record when it comes to tackling water access issues, it remains to be seen whether pledges made on the campaign trail will materialise into meaningful action. All the while, millions of Kenyans remain parched for change.

This article was first published at Fairplanet

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