Amidst the tragedy of flood and disease, one water utility continues on

As the dark rain clouds gathered in early March 2020, Ann, a resident of the lakeshore village of Osieko Nambo in Siaya County, Kenya – saw nothing unusual. This marked the onset of the long-awaited rainy season, which traditionally starts in March each year. She had her small field plowed ready for planting while her fisherman husband knew that heavy rainfall spelled luck on the nets.

 “Once the skies opened, the water levels on Lake Victoria started swelling rapidly and we knew it was a ticking time bomb,” Ann said. It did not take long before the lake overflowed, forcing Ann and her neighbors to flee their homes. The floods did not only displace people but also destroyed toilets, water pipelines and disrupted businesses in the village’s shopping center famous for fish.

Swiftly, the government launched a flood response operation in the area that oversaw the relocation of three thousand people to Osieko Nambo Primary School. The institution sits on elevated ground and has a reliable supply of water from Osieko Nambo Water Enterprise.

"Our main role in the flood response entailed ensuring uninterrupted water supply to the displaced person camp,” said Vincent Omore, secretary of the Osieko Nambo Water Enterprise, the only water utility serving the village. “Due to the high number of people at and around the school, we also had to utilize our nearby water kiosks to reinforce the water supply.”

That same month, the COVID-19 global pandemic spread to Kenya, making the need for clean water essential to help prevent the spread of the virus and other illnesses.

Thankfully, Osieko Nambo Water Enterprise had the expertise and infrastructure in place to handle the influx in demand. In 2017, long before the floods and the outbreak of COVID-19, USAID's Kenya Integrated Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (KIWASH) Project supported the enterprise to strengthen its ability to provide clean, reliable water to its community. With an investment of more than US $188,000, KIWASH installed a water treatment unit and solar panels to reduce its reliance on an erratic power supply. It also constructed four water kiosks to enable access to water to underserved areas. Taken together, KIWASH support enabled more than 8,000 people to gain access to clean water. In addition, KIWASH trained the enterprise’s management team to improve their systems, business approach, and customer service capabilities. 

“KIWASH’s support had set us on an upward trajectory. We had approximately US $3,400 in savings, had expanded our water system by one kilometer, and hired five staff as line patrollers, plumbers, and an electrician,” said Vincent.

Three months later, the rains continued to fall relentlessly while the COVID-19 virus turned from a threat to a dangerous reality. The government of Kenya issued a national advisory to ensure that WSPs did not disconnect water due to unpaid water bills.

“The long, cloudy, rainy periods meant that we over-relied on grid-tied electricity as opposed to solar power. Also, the directive on non-disconnection of water services saw some consumers reluctant to pay for water bills,” said Vincent. As such, the enterprise had unsettled bills amounting to US $6,800, including the free water supplied to Ann and her neighbors at the school camp which remained operational for six months. “All these factors taken together led to our electricity supply being disconnected due to debt amounting to US $1,480,” he said.

But Vincent has hope that the enterprise will recover. KIWASH is working with Osieko Nambo Water Enterprise to develop a response to the crisis. The business is set to benefit from a one-and-a-half-kilometer water pipeline extension funded by KIWASH. This will promote sustainable operations and enable water access to an additional 2,000 people. Two schools will also be connected in the projected expansion.

“All is not lost since we have a recovery plan in place,” said Vincent. “We have used our savings to repair over one kilometer of pipeline destroyed by floods and have approached the county government to help offset the unpaid water bills. We also plan to run sensitization exercises that will increase the consumers’ willingness to pay for water services,” he added. 

As for Ann, the rains eventually stopped, and the water receded. She and her neighbors were able to return to their homes. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, she is grateful to have continual access to clean water that helps her keep her and her family healthy. The water kiosk nearby is one of the four constructed by KIWASH in 2018. “The existence of the clean water during the period of displacement made life bearable despite other challenges,” Ann concluded. 

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