“The Rise of SkyWater” – Challenges of an Aerial Water Distribution System
In Africa, it is estimated that over half of the urban population lives in informal settlements, sometimes referred to as “slums.” Most informal settlements do not have access to basic city services such as piped water, sewer systems, or waste collection. Kibera, a large informal settlement in Nairobi, Kenya, is not connected to the municipal water system. Residents in Kibera purchase water at kiosks often supplied by unregulated networks of rubber hoses and tubing that run along the ground and in open gutters. This tubing often breaks, exposing the water to contamination with fecal microbes, which likely contributes to the large amount of diarrheal infections in Kibera.
In 2016, a Kenyan NGO called Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO) designed an innovative system that provides water from a borehole (deep well) to kiosks using a network of elevated pipes. The elevated system reduces breakage, vandalism, and contamination. SHOFCO treats the water to make it safer and employs local residents to sell it at an affordable price. This approach has the potential to provide Kibera residents with safe water through a sustainable system that reduces health risks and price fluctuations in the existing water market.
In 2019, the CDC, the Kenyan Medical Research Institute, and Safe Water and AIDS Project began a project to evaluate the use, acceptability, and quality of water provided by the SHOFCO system. The evaluation included water testing at SHOFCO and non-SHOFCO kiosks and qualitative interviews. To test water quality, staff mapped the distribution network and collected water at both types of kiosks to assess levels of chemicals, indicators of fecal contamination, and chlorine (which kills bacteria and certain other microbes). In the qualitative interviews, research staff asked residents about their experience with SHOFCO and non-SHOFCO water and how they decide what water sources to use. They also asked SHOFCO and non-SHOFCO vendors how they operate their kiosks.
Findings from the evaluation have helped improve the quality and acceptability of SHOFCO water. The qualitative interviews and water testing revealed that the water had high levels of nitrates and tasted salty, which SHOFCO is working to correct. Testing also found that the water did not have enough chlorine when it reached the kiosks, which SHOFCO is addressing by adding chlorine at the point of sale. These interviews revealed qualities that influence people to select one kiosk over another, including regular cleaning, longer operating hours, and areas to wash clothes on-site. SHOFCO can use this information to improve how its kiosks meet public preferences and encourage the use of safe water.
The innovative SHOFCO aerial water distribution system has the potential to provide residents of Kibera and other informal settlements with clean water and improve the health of underserved populations. CDC’s ongoing evaluation of the SHOFCO system is identifying ways to continue improving water supply, treatment, and quality monitoring, and helping ensure that the kiosks provide services that meet residents’ demands. Findings from this evaluation can increase use of treated water systems in underserved areas, expanding potential health benefits.