NAIROBI, Kenya — American media recently raised a storm over the city of Detroit’s decision to cut off water to almost 5,000 residences behind on their bills. The story was a sobering reminder of the consequences that come when essential resources are used as competitive commodities, leaving the least fortunate high and dry.
There is no excuse for a developed nation such as the United States to allow its citizens to suffer without water. Fortunately, cases like Detroit are few and far between, and the general national reaction shows that America understands water is a human right. Or do they?
Most Americans are born and raised knowing they will always have access to water, even if their home supply is cut off. Meanwhile, all over the world, developing nations such as Kenya struggle daily to provide consistent and safe water to farmers and families, especially in rural areas. This isn’t to downplay the tragedy in Detroit, or even to say that the situations are comparable. What can be gained by looking at the circumstances side-by-side, however, is a humbled perspective on how water insecurity issues impact communities living in vastly different situations.
In June 2014, the Detroit story took over U.S. headlines as the only significant American water crisis. The articles on the topic were lengthy and abundant, and follow-up pieces were published daily. At the same time, African news outlet allAfrica reported at least six different water crises and controversies in Kenya in the month of June alone.
For instance, there were water shortages in Mwingi and Wundanyi, where residents reportedly walked far distances and waited as long as eleven hours in crowded relief queues for water. Relief water was supplied to drought-stricken Laikipia. 30,000 Turkana herders crossed into Uganda in search for water. Embu, a water supply company, came forth about concerns of water poisoning. And controversy arose over a water pipeline project that would overlook a region in need.
Needless to say, Kenya’s water crisis is an ongoing problem, where the resource has never been secured for much of the population. The Kenyan government continuously works to find long-term solutions, and one likely fix seems to be sitting under the Kenyan soil.
The recent discovery of a large groundwater reserve has been touted by Kenyan officials like Judi Wakhungu, the secretary for the environment and natural resources, as a viable supply of water that would sustain the country’s 41 million people for up to 70 years.
While this massive aquifer project sits as officials prepare and weigh the pros and cons, rural Kenyans have taken a similar approach to solving their communities’ own water problem.
In the West Kenyan village of Makutano, citizens have rallied together with the help of agriculturalist Raphael Masika to access groundwater as a solution to the grueling chore of fetching water.
In 1995, Masika galvanized the creation of the Makutano Community Development Association, or MCDA, a think tank that met for two years discussing common problems in the community.
One issue surfaced time and time again: water.
Before the MCDA began to meet on a regular basis, large gatherings were limited to funeral processions. With Masika’s direction, the MCDA united the people of Makutano.
“From the word go, we started with community and grew with community,” Masika said in a recent interview with Public Radio International.
By 1997, the group gained the attention of the Kenya Community Development Foundation and international aid organizations that helped fund the creation of the dam project that now services over 70,000 people in the area. The members of the dam pay a fee and vote to elect committee members. Their system safeguards from possible contamination, including distinct separation of water for people and water animals, and tests for water poisoning, which is common in groundwater.
The MCDA might sound almost too idealistic, and that is because it is. Unfortunately, cases like the MCDA’s successful water project are infrequent in Kenya where water systems installed by NGOs are difficult to maintain when the organizations leave.
“It is unusual and it’s kind of ideal as well,” said David Clatworthy, a technical adviser for the International Rescue Committee.
There are a few key things to take away from this story and the worldwide water situation in general. The MCDA shows that water projects – when done right – can be successful, sustainable and inclusive. It also illustrates the power communities-in-need possess to help themselves, and the lengths they go to secure something as taken for granted as water.