Responding to COVID-19 While Reinforcing Development Gains in Kenya

Community members fetch water from Boya Community Water Project that has increased water supply through improved management practices. Photo credit: Chris Muturi/KIWASH

Kenya reported its first coronavirus disease case in March. The virus has since spread from the capital Nairobi to all 47 counties, with more than 92,055  people infected, according to the Ministry of Health’s data dated December 14, 2020. Besides the disease burden, the pandemic has caused immense economic impacts, such as volatility of the Kenyan currency, the poor performance of financial markets, and general job losses affecting many livelihoods. As the Government of Kenya (GOK) mobilized its response to the pandemic, USAID was able to support its efforts through the extension and realignment of its Kenya Integrated Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (KIWASH) project. KIWASH had been successfully accelerating access to clean water and improved sanitation in nine Kenyan Counties since 2015—now, it has been retailored to bolster its development gains in the face of crisis and mitigate the impacts of COVID-19 on vulnerable populations.

Protecting Development Gains and Building Resilience

The GOK has dedicated years to deep reforms in the water and sanitation sector, including a push for devolved service delivery and an emphasis on the financial viability of service providers. KIWASH assistance in these efforts includes promoting efficiency and professional management of WASH services, advocating for the adoption of robust, inclusive policies and laws for the sector, and helping water service providers access commercial finance to expand and improve services. COVID-19 threatens the progress made by the GOK and its partners as consumers face a declining ability to pay for services just when they most need access to water and proper hygiene. The Water Service Providers Association of Kenya estimates that revenue collection dropped from 93 percent to 50 percent since March. In April, a presidential directive prioritized access to water, prohibiting disconnections and mandating a free supply of water to the most vulnerable populations to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

Despite these challenges, the foundational work to build sustainable and professional WASH services has been accomplished by the counties with USAID support, and is paying off during the crisis. In Kakamega County, KIWASH has been working with the main water service provider, Kakamega County Urban Water and Sanitation Company (KACUWASCO), to transition to automated metering and billing systems, improving efficiency and revenues. Little did it know the transition would be perfectly timed for a global pandemic. 

“We are currently reaping the fruits of proper planning. Since automating our systems, we have reduced physical interaction with customers, especially during this time of the pandemic,” said Michael Ogola, the technical manager at KACUWASCO.  “The company's ability to provide reliable water services at this critical time is made possible by the adoption and implementation of a forward-thinking approach.”

Expanding Services Amidst a Crisis in Busia County

In Busia, a bustling city along the Kenya-Uganda border, the water service provider, Busia Water and Sewerage Company (BUWASCO) has increased its daily water production during the COVID-19 pandemic by nearly 150 percent to just under 3 million liters to meet increased demand from its customers. 

“We are not taking any chances on availability of clean water at the height of coronavirus in Kenya,” said Collins Omondi, the technical manager at BUWASCO. The company has increased the hours it pumps water each day to deal with the increase in demand. The improvements mean water consumers now have an additional three hours of daily water supply.

BUWASCO is one of 13 water service providers and 231 water enterprises (privately and community-managed schemes) that have worked with KIWASH to increase access to sustainable water and adequate sanitation and hygiene services. Over the past five years, the service providers have increased investment in water infrastructure, and more critically, increased local capacity to provide reliable and uninterrupted water services. 

During this pandemic, WASH behaviors like handwashing and the use of latrines are more important than ever. To help spread this message, the Kenya Ministry of Health, USAID, and other partners have designed a comprehensive communications and community engagement strategy that focuses on unreached populations, critical hot spots such as border crossings, points of population density, and health care facilities. USAID’S contribution to the strategy will focus on WASH behavioral campaigns to improve personal hygiene habits and promote access to water services in health facilities and public spaces. To ensure the progress made by the service providers is sustained during the pandemic crisis, USAID–through KIWASH–will continue to partner with water service providers to help minimize water losses, maintain revenues, and sustain services to communities. 

By Emily Mutai, KIWASH Communications Manager