KAJIADO, Kenya (AlertNet) – Water scarcity, drought and famine linked to climate change have worsened the lives of Kenyan women in recent years but reforms to national water systems are now giving women a bigger say in its management.
Women in Kenya overwhelmingly bare the brunt of an inadequate water supply, often carrying heavy containers for long distances in adverse conditions to bring home water for their families. Until recently, though, their opinions were not heard on male-dominated water committees.
Kenya’s water reform act - passed in 2002 and brought into effect under Kenya’s new constitution in August this year - has started to change the status quo, at least for some.
Women now have better access to seats on committees, have a bigger say in decision-making and can campaign more effectively for changes in water provision at the local and national level to try to ensure women get a constant supply of clean water.
“For a long time, Kenyan women have looked on helplessly and have had to live with inadequate water services. Now, since the start of the country’s water reform project, we are beginning to campaign for change,” said Hubbie Hussein Al-Haji, a water activist from Garissa, a town in an arid region of northern Kenya, speaking at a recent water forum.
“The daily ... trek in search for 20 litres of water for a family of eight will soon be history,” added Hussein, who was voted unanimously onto Garissa’s local water board in September on the back of the reforms.
Increasing water scarcity and pressure from women’s groups, non-governmental organisations and other campaigners prompted the government to focus on reforming Kenya’s water systems.
The reforms aim to decentralise decision-making, giving more control to women, NGOs, community-based groups and the private sector. They also seek to empower women by equipping them with technologies, skills and networks to improve water management in their communities.
Nevertheless, the reforms could take time to change the lives of some women in Kenya’s remote and arid areas, who still have to trek for hours to fetch water for washing, bathing, and drinking.
RURAL WOMEN STILL SUFFER
As the population of Kenya’s urban centres has swelled, logging to clear land for homes and agriculture and the overuse of water supplies have made the country increasingly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, which is bringing more erratic rainfall and longer periods of drought.
For Ruth Kirui, a 25-year-old mother of three from Kajiado district, in Kenya’s Rift Valley Province south of Nairobi, the prospect of a nearby water supply remains a distant dream. Her nearest water source is kilometres away.
“Water reform in Kenya is for the educated women. In the village, we have to walk all this way to bring 20 litres of water home so the family can bathe and drink,” she said as she struggled home with a 20-litre jerry can of water on her back, hurrying to finish before sunset.
Kirui dropped out of school before completing her secondary education. She was forced to abandon school after her parents could no longer afford to pay her fees. In addition, the culture of the Maasai community she is from does not value girls’ education, expert say.
In a country where women already struggle against malaria, HIV/AIDS, poverty and hunger, climate change and water scarcity add to the burden of daily life.
“We draw this water from the well. Sometimes it takes us the whole day to queue for this dirty untreated water. We consume it since there is no other option,” said Kirui, showing the marks on her arms and palms caused by carrying heavy water cans.
IMPROVEMENTS ON THEIR WAY
Local authorities in Kajiado district, however, are optimistic water supplies will soon improve as the government takes steps to address the shortages.
“This (water shortage) is soon coming to an end and water scarcity will be a thing of the past for Kajiado,” promised Paul Mpoyop, an officer at the water ministry in Kajiado.
He said the area is being mapped for construction of bore holes, wells and water pans - dug-out areas that preserve rain water.
“We are going to prioritise the most marginalised areas and dry spell villages. Distance to water is also going to be considered and women will be given priority in the management of water resources,” Mpoyop said.
Kajiado’s population has grown in recent years, worsening the problems of water shortages and poor sanitation. But most women who battle water scarcity are unaware the country’s lakes, streams, rivers, and water catchment areas have been altered by deforestation or pollution.
These activities worsen Kenya’s exposure to the effects of climate change, heightening the need for industrialised nations to reduce their carbon emissions to stem global warming.
Irrespective of global agreements on carbon emissions, however, ongoing reform is essential in Kenya at the national and local level, expert said.
“Reforms of the water sector in developing countries must be implemented to ensure there is a constant supply of clean water to women, schools and hospitals,” said Kang Won, a water expert working with a Korean non-governmental organisation on water management in Kajiado.
“Without this approach, there will be no economic development, since water is essential for the development of infrastructure,” he added.
Fred Obera is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi.