In deep water: Lacking clean water resources in Nairobi’s informal settlements

Water….for us more or less a taken-for-grantedness, for people in Nairobi’s informal settlements anything but that!

Infrastructural shortcomings, including water and sanitation supply, are amongst the main challenges inhabitants of Nairobi’s informal settlements face. The municipal water supplier estimates that only 22% of the dwellers in Nairobi’s informal settlements have their own water supply and have access to clean drinking water. The vast majority buy their water at so-called water kiosks, illustrated by this picture.

Water kiosk in Nairobi’s informal settlements: Wolfson, 2014

Some of the kiosks are operated legally. They are registered with the city, receive water from municipal pipes and have a meter to calculate their consumption. However, most of the water kiosks in Nairobi’s informal settlements are illegal. They divert water from municipal pipes with plastic hoses. The hoses often leak and are patched inadequately, which easily allows dirt to get into the water.

The water from the municipal pipes is sold overpriced. The price depends on availability. Kibera, for example, the second-largest informal settlements in Africa, only receives water two to three times a week. Due to the illegal diversions and irregular payment of the water bills, Kibera is a loss-making business for the municipal utility company and as a result, is literally turned off. Hence, connected to Kibera’s water supply is a ‘market environmentalism’, as put forward by proponents of neoliberal resource management: Resources are both economic and environmental ends in a commodified market (Bakker, 2005). There is seemingly not a lot of economic ends found amongst Kibera’s urban poor, leading to water shortages. On days when water is scarce, many families in Kibera refrain from doing the laundry or cleaning so that there is enough water left for drinking and cooking.

The introduction of public water supply and sanitation system has been under discussion for a long time. However, this poses a significant challenge for the administration. The Kenyan government tolerates informal settlement but regards the inhabitants of informal settlements as illegal settlers. The lack of land titles complicates the construction of infrastructure, and the informal settlements are financially unattractive for private investors. To find a sustainable solution that ensures adequate hygiene and fair distribution, public water supply in informal settlements is necessary – preferably through house connections. The way forward is undoubtedly initially via interim solutions such as legal water kiosks, communal sanitary facilities and other creative solutions such as water pipers passing on houses roofs with less water contamination, and less involvement of water cartel. You can watch a video about ‘water in the air’ here.

426 words


Bakker, K. (2005). Neoliberalizing nature? Market environmentalism in water supply in England and Wales. Annals of the association of American Geographers95(3), 542-565.


Featured image: Gabrowski, U. (2019). Lack of water in Nairobi’s informal settlements. Retrieved from

Wolfson, E. (2014). Water kiosk in Nairobi’s informal settlements. Retrieved from

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