Kenya

What Does Water for All in Kenya imply for Business?

Commentary, 22 March 2011

By Maina Mutuaruhiu

World Water Day is an occasion to celebrate significant recent developments in the recognition of water and sanitation as a human right.

Kenya, in addition to being a signatory to the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights has a new constitution, which expressly recognizes the right to water. Article 43 (1) (d) provides that every person has a right to clean and safe water in adequate quantities. Making this a reality in Kenya is a daunting task. The current state of the right to water is far from good.

Observance of this year's World Water Day is taking place around the world and is centred in Cape Town, South Africa.

The objective this year is to focus international attention on the impact of rapid urban population growth, industrialization and uncertainties caused by climate change, conflicts and natural disasters on urban water systems.

The day is also be an occasion to celebrate significant recent developments in the recognition of water and sanitation as a human right.

The long and short of this newly recognized human right is that it entitles everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses.

In a sense, this development was long overdue. Water is fundamental for life. An adequate amount of safe water is necessary to prevent death from dehydration, reduce the risk of water-related disease and provide for consumption, cooking, personal and domestic hygienic requirements.

Lack of water impedes the realization of other rights such as the right to life since without water, no life can be sustained. Because water is essential for farming, it has direct bearing on the right to food. Water availability also affects the right to education - in many developing countries such as Kenya, children walk long distances in search of water instead of attending school.

Kenya, in addition to being a signatory to the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights has a new constitution, which expressly recognizes the right to water. Article 43 (1) (d) provides that every person has a right to clean and safe water in adequate quantities.

Making this a reality in Kenya is a daunting task. The current state of the right to water is far from good. While sustainable access to safe water is a respectable 60% in urban areas, in urban informal settlement housing the bulk of the population, it drops to 20%.

The figures are lower in rural areas where only 40% of the population has sustainable access to safe water. The challenge is further complicated by the fact that Kenya is classified as a water scarce country with an annual renewable fresh water supply of only 647 cubic meters per capita against an international benchmark of 1000 cubic metres per capita.

The available water in the country is therefore inadequate to meet various competing demands. Though the highest demand for water is for agricultural uses, water is also vital for industrial, commercial, as well as domestic and wildlife use.

Industry is a major user of water particularly in urban areas. On average, the manufacturing sector consumes 13% of the public water in urban areas. The consumption is much higher in large urban centres - in Nairobi (39%), Nakuru (26%), Kisumu (22%), Thika (23%), and Eldoret (17%). Furthermore industry is also largely responsible for degrading water resources on which the population downstream is dependent.

Estimates from Kenya’s National Water Master Plan show that urban water consumption is expected to rise with growing urbanization. Kenya’s Vision 2030, the country’s long-term plan, aims to transform the country into middle-income status by the year 2030. The implementation of the myriad projects in the plan means that problems of urban water insufficiency will continue to intensify.

Already there is persistent and growing unreliability and /or non-availability of water supply in all the urban areas. Because many businesses operations are urban based, water scarcity has serious implications for business. There already exists heightened competition between domestic and industrial users and there is urgent need to pay attention to prioritizing water resource allocation within the urban areas.

In arid and semi-arid areas, the scarcity has intensified competition among various users and often results in violent conflicts. It is also the cause of a simmering international conflict between Kenya and other countries in the Nile basin and also with Egypt regarding the utilization of river Nile.

The challenges associated with fulfilling the right to water in the face of scarcity, finite nature of the freshwater resources, rapid urbanization, and industrial development, form an emerging risk of strategic importance to businesses.

As Kenya moves towards making water available to all citizens, the issues linked to growing water scarcity including water catchment degradation, droughts, and pollution of waterways by industries, and inefficiency of water use among different users need to be addressed. Because the water resources in Kenya are finite, water use efficiency holds the key to Kenya's long-term water needs. This should raise several concerns for business:

  • How best should business work with governments, and other stakeholders to address the challenge?

  • What changes are required to ensure that businesses exploiting water resources do so in an optimal manner, consistent with the corporate responsibility to respect human rights?

  • How can business minimize and manage adverse impacts on the environment and water resources through adequate due diligence?

  • How can SMEs, who form the bulk of traders in Kenya, get involved, be held accountable for their own performance and contribute towards solutions to the challenges?

How business responds to these sorts of issues will significantly impact on the realization of the right to water in Kenya and in other countries throughout the world.

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