Water in Kibera is literally a matter of life and death.
Most of the houses do not have piped water and the residents have to buy water from vendors and NGOs connected to the Nairobi Water Company’s (NWC) network of pipes that snake their way into the slum both above and below the ground.
While this may sound like any other Nairobi slum, here, cartels rule the water world.
Five cartels have subdivided the slum into five regions. The cartels are identified by the area they control: Saran’gombe, Silanga, Kibera, Makina and Laini Saba. They determine who can sell water and for how much.
The Saran’gombe cartel is said to be the most powerful, controlling four out of the 13 villages of Kibera-Gatwikira, Kisumu Ndogo, Soweto and Kianda.
It is alleged to be part of the Siafu gang, which has been named by the police as one of the most dangerous gangs in the city.
“Not everyone who has some money can start this business; or just because you hear water connections in Kibera are illegal, you can buy a tank and start selling water,” says Bernard Mogusu a vendor in Mashimoni.
“You won’t sell water even for a day if you don’t have connections with the cartels. Your pipes will be disconnected even before you serve your first customer,” he explains.
The cartels can also shut down any vendor whom they see as being uncooperative or a threat to their customer base.
They can cause an artificial water shortage to cause an increase in the prices of water to their advantage.
“Water flows into Kibera twice a week, on Tuesday and Thursday, and we store it in our tanks then sell it for the rest of the week. If for any reasons your connection is shut down on either of the days it means you will be out of business for the rest of the week,” says George Owino, who has been ‘disciplined’ a number of times for selling water for a price lower than the price set by the Makina cartel, which controls his area.
To outsell their competitors some vendors create an artificial shortage by closing down their competitors.
“It is not unusual to find dirty water coming from your tap or missing water when a stones throw away, there is a long queue of women buying clean water,” says Owino.
Because of the fear of having their pipes stolen, water vendors do not use metal pipes, which are durable but expensive, they opt for plastic ones.
These pipes run side by side with open sewers and trenches, creating a big health risk.
Owino says on one occasion he spent three days trying to locate the point where the pipe to his water kiosk was broken and in the process lost money and customers — a good day earns him Sh5,000.
“I hired two young men to follow my pipe and determine where it was broken but it appeared alright but no water was flowing into my tank prompting me to dismantle the whole connection,” he says.
“On further scrutiny, we found out that it had been stuffed with mattresses and rubber,” he adds.
As the vendors continue engaging in this dirty water business, it is the residents who suffer.
Families spend more on water than rent in a month as a 20-litre jerry can, which normally costs Sh5 in Kibera on can rise to Sh10 as prices change per the hour every day.