The urban poor is a unique population facing constraints in access to water as the world fights COVID-19.
Data from the United Nations suggest that people living in urban informal settlements face water access challenges. In Kenya, 41 per cent of the population rely on unimproved water sources such as ponds, shallow wells and rivers. The water access challenge is more prevalent amongst slum residents and people living in informal settlements in Nairobi and other urban areas across the country.
Slum-dwellers mostly depend on informal water vendors whose sources cannot be trusted. Despite the existence of piped water, a significant proportion of the urban poor is occasionally disconnected due to accumulation of unpaid water bills. The COVID-19 crisis presents a unique challenge for the urban poor. The World Health Organization recommends frequent handwashing as one of the ways to minimize the spread of the virus. However, the urban poor in Nairobi faces a higher risk because of overreliance on unimproved water sources.
The figure below shows that despite an increase in the number of Nairobi residents with access to piped water since 2008, a significant proportion continues to rely on unimproved water sources. Therefore, there is a likelihood of higher spread of diseases such as COVID-19 due to lack of clean water sources.
The World Health Organization guidelines on handwashing may be hard to achieve when a large proportion of the urban population lack access to water.
The Nairobi Water and Sewerage Company, policymakers, businesses and non-profit organizations need to urgently respond to water access challenges in order to win the fight against COVID-19.
Some of the viable interventions include cutting down water distribution to facilities that have been closed such as the airport and government offices and redirecting it to the slums. The water can be distributed through the installation of tanks at community fetching points or ferrying to households through water tankers. Waiving unpaid water bills would go a long way in cushioning those struggling in debts.
Capital intensive options may entail drilling of boreholes in all urban informal settlements and monitoring the water quality to ensure it does not pose an additional danger due to contamination. Water treatment at the household level is a potential solution to curb the spread of COVID-19 as communities wait for the government’s interventions.
Finally, the water access challenge in urban areas should be a wakeup call to decision-makers. Research shows that lack of water poses additional challenges to local economies. It also suppresses the healthcare system due to the incidence of hygiene-related diseases. Therefore, decision-makers should not wait for the next pandemic to implement universal water coverage.