Improving urban water management - lessons learnt from Covid

An aerial view of a flooded village in Gaarsen, Tana River district, southwest of Nairobi, Kenya (Source: Keystone)

Snaking across 1000km, Kenya’s longest river, the Tana, provides 95 per cent of Nairobi’s freshwater supplies. But expansion of smallholder farms in the highlands, which also use the river for irrigation, have gradually reduced the river’s flow and increased sedimentation. 

The effects have been severe for Nairobi residents downstream, who have seen their  water supplies dwindle and the quality of the water diminish. Efforts to tackle this in 2015, saw the creation of Africa’s first watershed preservation project, the Upper Tana Nairobi Water fund (UTNWF). 

The project, which provides farmers living upstream with training and support for more  sustainable farming practices in the Tana River watershed, has led to millions more litres of water flowing through Nairobi every day.

UTNWF was featured this week in the first-ever Geneva Cities Hub event that sought to draw the links between water supplies, water safety, and the longstanding battle against killer infectious diseases including, but not limited to, Covid-19. 

The event, co-sponsored by UN Habitat and the Geneva Water Hub explored how improvements in the often weak urban water and sanitation systems of fast developing cities can improve health and urban resilience to both traditional waterborne diseases and Covid-19, as well as become an engine for economic growth.

Covid has been an ‘opportunity’. “Covid in some ways has given us a huge opportunity in the water sector because it has acted as an x-ray,” said Graham Alabaster, chief of the Geneva office of UN Habitat.

One of the key infection prevention measures promoted by WHO since the beginning of the pandemic was effective handwashing, and other good hygiene measures.

And in cities where water access and hygiene were improved to combat the spread of the SARS-CoV2 virus, the incidence of other waterborne diseases has dropped significantly, Alabaster noted. “So we know that the ideas around hygiene and providing people with water and sanitation work.” 

Even so, low-income households and neighbourhoods in many developing cities are often left without reliable access to clean public water supplies. Those who can afford to do so, buy water from private vendors, paying up to five times as much as residents in cities or neighborhoods with good water access. 

According to the most recent projections, over half the world’s population will be living in water stressed areas by 2025. And some 68 per cent of the global population is projected to live in cities by 2050, making urban challenges around the universal provision of safe water and sanitation all the more daunting.  

It is, however, not all doom and gloom; cities in countries ranging from Mauritania and Tanzania, to Kenya and Nepal are finding innovative ways to meet growing demands for water supplies. 

Nairobi’s watershed solution. In the case of Kenya, the UTNWF, shows promising signs of addressing a range of water quality and water security issues faced by Nairobi’s bustling industrial and business complex, where over 60 per cent of the city’s residents experience frequent water shortages.

Since its inception in 2015, the UTNWF has trained some 28,000 of the more than 300,000 smallholder farmers living in the highlands around the Tana watershed in soil-conserving  and water-saving methods of crop production. These methods have boosted farmers’ yields, whilst preventing silt runoff into the Tana river, thus ensuring a healthier and cleaner flow of river water to thirsty Nairobi. 


Speaking at the Geneva Cities Hub event, Anthony Kariuki, UTNWF general manager, said that highlands farmers have increased their yields by more than $3 million per year since the project began, whilst increasing the river’s flow into Nairobi by more than 27 million litres of water each day.

Sami Kanaan, mayor of Geneva and president of the Geneva Cities Hub said water is a critical “engine for economic growth” and a precondition for development. 

“Increasing access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation is a crucial step in eradicating growing poverty and reducing inequality in cities,” said Kanaan.

As a public-private partnership led by The Nature Conservancy (TNC), the UTNWF brings together private water companies and consumers with government agencies and NGOS - in a win-win agenda for high quality and reliable water supplies.  The initiative also helps Kenya advance it’s broader ‘Vision 2030’  for sustainable development.

Health impacts of poor access to clean water and sanitation. Even before Covid-19, a lack of access to sufficient, safe water supplies, good sanitation and hygiene was estimated to kill some 827,000 people a year, largely as a result of diarrhoeal diseases, according to the WHO. Most of the deaths occur among children under the age of five.  

While a lack of access to clean water – due to water scarcity and the encroachment of sewage or industrial pollutants into drinking water resources – is one side of the coin, the other is poor sanitation - including a lack of improved latrines and safe sewage disposal. 

This is another problem faced in developing cities like Nairobi, where sprawling informal settlements develop and expand rapidly - without any adequate sanitation systems, including sewerage lines. 

In Nairobi, for example, the biggest informal settlement, Kibera, also raises sanitation alarm bells. According to UNICEF, the city's sewer infrastructure was originally designed to support 800,000 people; the population now exceeds four million. A further 80 per cent of households in the city do not have access to sewer lines.

In Dar es- Salaam, the city is testing “simplified sewerage” hookups for such informal settlements, which involve laying small diameter pipes at a fairly flat gradient/slope to sewer ponds. The municipal water and sewerage utility provide technical support and finance, while households in the community provide space and labour to lay the pipes. Another pilot has connected households to a community-based waste water treatment plant (DEWAT) that produces biogas in the form of methane extracted from the sewage. The biogas then provides a clean and climate friendly fuel source for household cooking.

All in all, improved water, sanitation and hygiene has the potential to prevent at least 9.1 per cent of the global disease burden and 6.3 per cent of all deaths, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We need an effective multi stakeholder framework, it must be an institutional will and institutional intention at the city level, with the support of the upper institutional levels,” said Kanaan. “Water management needs cooperation of all levels.”