The need to better manage the water resources in Kenya has never been greater!
My name is Francis Otieno. I am from Kenya. I studied civil engineering for my undergraduate at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, Kenya, where I graduated in 2018.
While doing my undergraduate degree in civil engineering, I completed various modules targeting water and sanitation. The concepts surrounding water, including the hydrological cycle, water use and its significant role in society and the environment, were particularly intriguing. This prompted me to undertake two student placements in a water and sanitation planning, design, and supervision consultancy, where my interest was further aroused. As a result, I decided to further my professional experience in the water sector. After my undergraduate studies, I joined a water construction company specialising in water and sanitation infrastructure for three years and nine months. My experience working in that organisation enabled me to interact with several professionals in the field of water. These interactions reinforced my dedication to working in the sector and significantly changed my perspective on water issues in my country and globally. I also understood the need for better water management as a resource, especially regarding changing climate and demographics. I, therefore, decided to further my education by studying an MSc in Water to better my understanding of these concepts.
The Kenyan population has grown exponentially over the last two decades. This growth has been more significant in urban areas like Nairobi, and the pressure on water resources has increased tremendously. This, coupled with climate variability in the Kenyan water towers, has made it very difficult to meet the domestic water demand in such big cities and rural areas in Kenya. These water towers have faced significant degradation over the last few years, with the effects already being felt. Droughts are much more common in Kenya than before. Further, increasing populations in cities and towns is presenting a rising concern on the pollution of our surface waters.
The declining water situation has further contributed to the deterioration in sanitation standards, especially in the many informal settlements cropping up close to major towns as people move seeking opportunities. Many informal areas still lack connectivity to piped water, and those that have are at risk of contamination. Boreholes and direct domestic abstraction are common in informal settlements, but poor disposal of human waste has increasingly contaminated these water sources. These congested urban areas have become hubs for waterborne diseases. Much needs to be done to provide safe disposal of human waste and curb pollution of water sources. Water availability in sufficient quantities and quality to meet the increasing water demand is a major challenge in urban areas.
Indeed, this is also being experienced in rural areas but with much more severity. With a changing climate, and as mentioned before, droughts have become more common. People in rural areas are much more vulnerable to these effects due to marginalisation and a lack of resources to build their resilience to the effects of droughts. In addition, wells and boreholes in these regions are increasingly going dry, impacting the socioeconomic systems. The resultant effects are on sanitation, with waterborne diseases more common.
ND-GAIN Global Climate Adaptation Index, 2023, ranks Kenya 149 out of 182 countries in climate change resilience. As climate change advances, the frequency and intensity of extreme events such as floods and droughts are increasing. Such events are caused by changes in the hydrological cycle and negatively impact environmental, ecological, and social systems. Droughts, in particular, are a massive threat to water availability. Many regions in Kenya have had to endure three severe droughts in the last decade (2010-2011, 2016-2017 and 2020-2022) with huge impacts on water availability in rural and urban areas. With no resilience measures in place, vulnerability to these drought events has increased considerably. As a result, the availability of water is increasingly declining.
Kenya’s annual population growth rate currently stands at approximately 2%, with an urban population growth rate of roughly 4% in the last five years. A high population growth rate and a declining availability of water in quantity and quality mean that more people may face water scarcity if resilience measures are not effected as soon as possible. Our water towers need to be restored and protected to ensure water availability in the future and combat desertification. Our water sources also need to be protected from contamination and ensure they are reliable for water supply even in periods of low rainfall.
There has been considerable action in Kenya to address the water infrastructure gap to ensure the population’s connectivity to piped water. Emphasis has also been placed on the sanitation systems, with informal settlements and rural areas being targeted. Funding from World Bank, African Development Bank, and French Development Bank, among other funding organisations, have enabled this improvement in the last decade. Although not fully addressed, it’s a step in the right direction.
However, this large infrastructure deployment will not make sense if the country continues degrading the only available water sources. For example, the main water tower in Kenya, Mau Forest, has lost approximately 40% of forest cover to human activity since 1990, and the trend seems to increase. Low flows in major rivers supplied by this catchment are already evident.
Further, our surface water resources are also at threat of pollution. The Nairobi River, for example, has become a hotspot for industrial and domestic effluent discharge. Although interventions are underway to improve the status of this river, much more should be done for this river which would have ideally supported water supply to the growing urban population in Nairobi. In addition, the pollution level does not allow any abstraction for domestic water use. This is the case for most surface water bodies in Kenya which face various pollution-related pressures.
The need to better manage the water resources in Kenya has never been greater. Ensuring the sustainability of current and future water resources requires we protect and restore the water towers, stop the degradation and protect our surface waters from pollution.
The Advanced Water Management MSc has been tailored to provide an in-depth understanding of catchment processes, surface water bodies and groundwater aquifers and relevant policy interventions and instruments currently being used in the UK and the EU to manage water resources. The MSc is also embedded in the context of a changing climate and increasing demand for water due to pressures like population growth.
In 2014, Kenya rolled out a National Water Master Plan in line with the Kenya Vision 2030. This Masterplan sought to protect Kenya’s vulnerable water resources’ availability, reliability, and quality up to 2050. I hope to contribute to the realisation of these goals with my skills from Cranfield University by working for the Kenyan Government, specifically in parastatals and ministries steering this Masterplan. The pillars on which the Masterplan is designed align with the taught modules for the Advanced Water Management MSc. I hope to have gained skills in integrated management of catchments, water quality monitoring, river restoration, flood and drought risk management and catchment modelling which will be useful in the realisation of the Masterplan. I, therefore, believe my contribution will make a real difference.
I am very optimistic because more and more people are becoming aware that if we do nothing now to protect our water resources, we might be exacerbating the already significant global water crisis. For instance, political goodwill to environmental conservation and water tower protection in Kenya has greatly improved. We are looking at a future where farmlands will be restored to original forest land. Measures such as mixed farming and agroforestry are already being explored to ensure this restoration is acceptable to farmers and landowners.
The same applies to the case of surface and groundwater pollution. Much more is now being done to restore rivers like the Nairobi River. My optimism is pegged on a scenario of people understanding why this needs to be done and how important it is for themselves and future generations.
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