October 27, 2008

A SODIS Bottle of Potable Water: Half Full or Half Empty?

While the majority of United States citizens are engrossed with the presidential question that will be answered next Tuesday, the local residents of the Kibera slums in Kenya are consumed by a much more fundamental incertitude. Amidst the unbridled crime, disease and pollution in Kibera, home to approximately one third of Nairobi’s total population, the greatest daily challenge remains finding sufficient potable water. However, in a recent article entitled “Kenya: UV Rays to the Rescue," a small-scale initiative for a water purification system was recognized as a hopeful long-term sustainable solution to this critical issue of clean water. The most surprising detail of this report highlighting the SODIS initiative (shown below) and its success, was the absent role the Kenyan government played in its development. With a resource as vital as potable water, whose abundance in the United States goes widely unappreciated, one wonders why the Kenyan government has not put this concern on top priority. Should an unbiased reader assume a positive reaction to small-scale solutions such as SODIS as exemplary of local African empowerment and achievement, seeing the glass half full of freshly potable water? Or, should one consider these grassroots initiatives to be a giant red flag, pointing to the larger problem of an apathetic and inefficient Kenyan government that is incapable of deciphering the elementary needs of its citizens? While it would be unethical to answer on behalf of hypothetical readers, I deduce that it is the absence of governmental action in local development projects that lies at the causal root, sadly indicative of the inefficient and flawed institutions of Kenyan governance.

Although the Kenyan government has extended some assistance to improve the water situation in Kibera, the structures erected have been weak and only offer a temporary resolution. With the introduction of legislation in 2002, under which local entities gained control, the Nairobi Water and Sewerage Company has been responsible for providing its services to the city, including Kibera. However, there are only 25 kilometers worth of pipes in all of Kibera. The huge deficit in supply means the vast majority of residents are forced to buy water from private vendors, who allegedly pilfer it from the NWSC.  In addition, per an IRIN news article, “Kenya: Kibera, the Forgotten City," the few taps in the slum are “made of plastic, ridden with holes and cracks, and are consequently rather inefficient in keeping unsoiled water separate from sewage and waste.”  These local institutions, we can see, have proven just as unreliable as the Kenyan government in establishing long-term structural adjustments. Furthermore, in the recent presidential elections this past December, the two major candidates, Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga, campaigned primarily on the issues of free secondary school education and constitutional reform as their respective high-priority commissions. Rather than working to alleviate poverty, improve sanitation and health care, or work to create jobs in both the private and public sector, the two front-runners preferred to focus on issues that, while undeniably imperative, do not solve the life-threatening crises of sufficient nourishment, hygienic conditions and employment. How can citizens be expected to attend secondary schooling or find a job when they cannot even obtain drinkable water? Additionally, these basic issues have been plaguing the country since its independence in 1963, and remain unresolved today. Thus, for over forty years, the government has established its inability to enact solutions with longevity to relieve with permanence the most fundamental of concerns.

Despite the failure of the Kenyan government in finding national solutions to poverty and sanitation, its localized apathy to the water situation in Kibera is based largely on the tribal divisions deeply embedded in Kenyan political culture. In Kibera, the majority of people are Luo, a tribe historically marginalized under colonial rule as well as national leadership since Kenyan independence. Unfortunately for the Luos, every president since 1963 has been from the Kikuyu tribe, a tradition that continues to day with head of state Mwai Kibaki. While in power, each leader has demonstrated tribal preference, particularly visible with the government’s allocation of land, jobs, and resources, which always end up in Kikuyu hands. This tribal conflict was exacerbated to the point of bloodshed after the presidential elections, when controversy over the tallied results erupted into ethnic clashes and violence. These violent attacks unfortunately led to the destruction of one of main water pipes to Kibera (pictured below), heightening the importance of the SODIS program in the daily struggle for clean water. The government’s inaction over sanitary water concerns localized in Kibera is clearly linked to the time-honored discrimination against non-Kikuyus, which has in turn created a general sentiment of distrust of and discontent with national authority among its residents. In spite of the hopeful message of SODIS concerning grassroots development and action, it is hard not to condemn the government’s passivity and lack of concern for meeting basic needs as the culprit of rampant societal disparity.

Furthermore, while the SODIS project is by no means of seamless composition, its inconsequential setbacks are hardly deterrents for its continued practice. It is true that it cannot be performed on days without sunshine, and the solar energy only works effectively on amounts of water less than three liters. Additionally, SODIS makes no impression on water that has been tainted by fecal matter or chemicals. However, since its initiation in 2004 with the help of the Kenya Water for Health Organization, clinical cases of diarrhea are down by 41% in Kibera, and the deaths of young children from water-born related diseases have decreased in certain neighborhoods by 80%. The water project has grown from three staff members to twenty-four, reaching 65,000 households and fifteen schools in Kibera. Its indisputable success and achievements, especially in an impoverished area with few alternatives, overshadows these negligible drawbacks. The expansion and continued success of SODIS also stems from the responsibility and commitment of the local residents to the initiative, reflecting positively on the potential of the Kibera inhabitants to work outside of the government to improve their own standard of living.

Although I find stories of local action and empowerment hopeful in terms of Kenya’s future, I am also concerned about the revolutionary implications they have on society. As more systems similar to SODIS are introduced to marginalized communities, its citizens will become increasingly self-sufficient, finding solutions to rudimentary issues without governmental assistance or support. I worry that it will be only a matter of time before the lack of discourse between leadership and said communities erupts into a larger problem, where the administration’s inactivity, particularly in crucial areas, becomes increasingly indicative of its illegitimate governing abilities, which could potentially lead to a revolution of the masses and a sweeping regime change. Before the Kenyan government can reform the educational system or the constitution, the enduring misery of widespread poverty, lack of sanitation, and ongoing ethnic clashes needs to be countered with a viable and impartial answer. In order to achieve the prosperity desired by those who appreciate Kenya as a country with so much to offer, the government must prioritize problems, rid the government of corrupt institutions, and instigate a nonpartisan approach to provide all citizens with an evenhanded opportunity of survival and success. Projects such as SODIS, while not a panacea, reinforce both the country’s ability and willingness to work towards a more sustainable and equitable Kenya.

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