Kenya: Lack of safe water costs effects finances and health (by Sawa Pius, for Farm Radio Weekly)

| March 17, 2014

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Rusinga Island lies in the Kenyan waters of Lake Victoria. It is not an easy place to live. Although the island is surrounded by water, residents have no access to safe drinking water. They have no option but to use water from the lake, which presents health risks.

There is some agriculture on Rusinga, but the harsh conditions are not favourable for crops. Island women earn a living by selling fish from the lake, and by reselling vegetables and cereals they buy on the mainland. Men spend long periods fishing, but the fish stock has dropped because of climate change and overharvesting.

People wash themselves and their clothes and cars in the lake, and wastes from the fishing industry are often dumped into the water. As a consequence, lake water is not safe to drink and must be treated to avoid diarrhoea and dysentery. Many residents fall ill, and typhoid is particularly common.

Eight years ago, Vincent Ondiek Ochieng migrated to Rusinga from his home on the mainland. The first problem the 35-year-old noticed was the scarcity of water for drinking, household use and irrigation.

Mr. Ondiek says the quality of the water supplied by the government-run Lake Victoria Water Services, or LVWS, is inconsistent. He adds: “Tap water would often be available for only a week before drying up … for up to three weeks at a time.”

Mr. Ondiek decided to set up a water delivery business. He started with a bicycle, which carried four twenty-litre jerry cans. But demand was so high that he found a donkey and cart to carry more water.  He sells one 20-litre jerry can for ten Kenyan shillings [11 US cents].

According to LVWS, the water in this part of the lake is highly contaminated and difficult to treat. Other parts of the lake benefit from river inflow. But the rocky lake bed makes it difficult to lay the underground pipes which could supply water from the mainland to the island.

Off the record, an official from LVWS says the situation will be addressed in the coming months. Efforts are being made to establish a treatment site and lay pipes in areas without hard rock. But the extent of the pollution means that the cost of treating water will be high, and the hard rock makes it difficult to drill boreholes. The official said that, at the moment, water harvesting is the best solution.

One orphanage on the island has started purifying its water by using plastic bottles. The orphanage paints the bottles black on one side and places them in the sun on an iron sheet which is also painted black. The heat of the sun purifies the water by killing micro-organisms. The water is safe to drink within eight hours.

Maureen Achieng is a mother of three who lives on Rusinga Island. Mrs. Achieng used to carry water two kilometres from the lake to her house. Now she buys at least four jerry cans a day from Mr. Ondiek to satisfy her family’s needs.

She is appealing to the government to provide safe tap water so that residents can avoid disease and walking long distances to fetch lake water. She says, “If we have safe water, we can spend our little money on other things instead of buying water and drugs to treat it.”

Dr. Alice Kaudia is the Environment Secretary in the Ministry of Environment, Water and Natural Resources. She says, “The government is rolling out a huge project called Lake Victoria Environment Management Program to reduce pollution of the lake, and protect wetlands and promote community-driven land use.”

FRI produced an Issue pack on water harvesting in Radio Resource Pack #89 (Climate change, December 2009). You can access it at this link: