Government vs community action: what’s the solution to Kenyan water scarcity?

Kenya is classified as a water scarce country, with only 443 cubic metres of renewable freshwater per capita1. This is largely the result of environmental factors such as low rainfall and high temperatures. However, countries with similarly dry conditions, such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, do not endure the same levels of poor sanitation, even though their freshwater sources are more depleted. This suggests that effective water management has more of an impact on sanitation than the environmental factors causing water scarcity in the first place.

So, if effective management is the key, what balance should be struck between state involvement and community participation?

This question has troubled policy makers since Kenya’s first water management initiatives were developed in the mid-20th century. But more recent reports have recommended that
effective solutions lie in community action, as opposed to centralised planning 2 3.

A closer look at Kenya’s ever-changing water policies and their impacts will unveil the poor choices legislators have made, and are still making, when managing this precious resource. This is why non-profit organisations, such as African Development Choices, have taken the important step in focusing on community participation. A goal which has previously been absent from many government sanitation initiatives. Through their focus on community projects and bottom-up development, NGOs are best placed to identify and resolve water management crises.

But what did the early water policies look like? What did they get wrong? And what is the role now for grassroots organisations?


During the 1950s and early 60s, water management responsibility was split between three institutional bodies. The first being the Ministry of Works, which was responsible for urban
centres. The second was the Water Development Department, which was in charge of developing new water supplies for urban and rural areas. And finally, several local authorities were given water management responsibilities if they were deemed capable enough.

When Kenya gained independence in 1963, government officials attempted to simplify water management processes. This resulted in all organisations responsible for water being taken over by the Ministry of Agriculture, a move which caused administrative inefficiency and confusion. Overall, early water management strategies did little to improve the average Kenyan’s access to clean water. Instead, the focus was on developing water management infrastructure to cover more of the newly independent nation, as previous management schemes only adequately served colonial settlements.

“Water for all by the year 2000”

A WHO study published in 1973 revealed several factors contributing to poor water management in Kenya, such as a major lack of senior and technical staff, lack of money, and insufficient long term planning. In response, the Ministry of Water Resources Management and Development was created in 1974. The ministry took over government operated water schemes as well as those operated by county councils.

In the same year, the National Water Master Plan Initiative was launched. Its primary aim was to develop new water supply schemes and secure access to potable water within a reasonable distance to all Kenyans. The initiative bore the slogan, “Water for all by the year 2000”, but chronic financial difficulties drastically hampered this ambitious goal.

“Handing Over” to communities

The government soon realised that, on its own, it could never deliver clean water to all Kenyans by 2000 as promised. Attention then turned to finding ways of involving non-government players in a process which became known as “handing over”. The need to “hand over” responsibility and decentralise water management was widely agreed upon by NGOs and government ministers. However, there was still no consensus as to which specific resources and powers were to be “handed over” to non-government players.

A 1997 manual published by the government stated “at the moment the Ministry is only transferring the management (not the assets) of the water supply schemes.” Retroactively, it was suggested that the handing over should have included all associated assets 4 in order to encourage better community management. This sentiment was expanded upon in the 2002 Water Act, which signalled a more radical reorganisation of responsibility.

The 2002 Water Act

The new institutional framework laid out in the 2002 Act was pyramidal – i.e. it saw fewer government bodies at the top and more community players dispersed at the bottom. At the apex were the Water Appeals Board and the Ministry of Water and Irrigation, whose functions were reduced to policy making – an amendment meant to cede power to more non-government players. Water Sector Reforms Director, Patrick L. Ombogo, outlines some successes5 of the 2002 Water Act, including improvements in sectoral organisation, increased investment in poorer communities and improved corruption management within the water sector.

However, the reform was criticised for maintaining the government’s power 6 as a regulatory body, without doing sufficient groundwork to incorporate the voices of citizens, particularly
rural dwellers, in the decision-making process. Professor Albert Mumma of the University of Nairobi also draws attention to this oversight, referring to the ways in which water policies interact with land tenure rights7 , resulting in a two-fold exclusion of rural Kenyans from decision-making processes. He argues that this is one of many factors which stop rural dwellers from being fully integrated into national processes.

In 2016, this Act underwent reforms to further decentralise water management. This involved the devolution of the country’s 8 water boards into 47 separate Boards to represent each county in Kenya. However, these changes were still criticised for maintaining decision-making power at government level8.

A Pluralistic Framework

So far, policy criticism and the resulting reforms have highlighted the importance of more authentically enforcing a ‘pluralistic framework’ for water management – i.e. a framework
which incorporates the voices, demands and participation of more people. Recommendations to achieve this have included a call to establish Water Users Associations9, more local research projects10 to inform regional policy decisions, and the recognition of communal tenure rights in rural wetland areas. In summary, suggestions for enabling this pluralistic framework push for heightened engagement with marginalised communities, and push against frameworks which see Kenyan society as “state-centric” and “monolithic”11.

For decades, policy makers have tried and failed to develop water management legislation which adequately serves all Kenyans, but a pluralistic framework which transfers government power to NGOs and other institutions working on a local level appears to be the most promising way forward. It is on these guidelines that African Development Choices’ innovative approach was established, setting a precedent for community voices being heard, raising expectations for their needs being met, and promoting participation in the effective management of public resources like water.


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