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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Clean Water for Kenya

Air Date: Week of

Plastic bottles filled with water and placed on corrugated metal in the sun are a common site in the Makina area of Kibera. (Photo: Alex Stonehill)

In Kibera, a slum of Nairobi, Kenya, clean water is too scarce. But a new technology that takes just a plastic bottle and six hours in the sun is helping reduce sickness and diarrhea in the community, and in other developing countries around the world. Jessica Partnow reports.


GELLERMAN: Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya, is one of the world’s largest slums. It’s home to about a million people, and a host of problems - violence, poverty, unemployment. But perhaps the biggest threat to Kibera’s residents is the lack of sanitation and clean water. Shortages, and contamination of the drinking water supply led to high rates of disease. But now, Kibera is also home to a campaign to provide a simple, low-cost solution to the slum’s water problem. Jessica Partnow has our story.


Kibera residents stand in line to buy water from a vendor. Because of interruption in the water supply, lines can sometimes be hours long.(Photo: Alex Stonehill)

PARTNOW: At the Stara Primary School in Kibera, students play in the shadow of a towering water tank. Their footsteps kick up clouds of red dust, which hang in the humid air. Mary Muthini, who’s better known as Teacher Mary, runs the school.

MUTHINI: This school was started in the year 1999 with around six children, who were orphans. Initially we started a feeding program, but then the vision of educating them came into our mind and we thought that, as much as we feed them, we should also be educating them.

PARTNOW: Teacher Mary’s school gets support from a donor in the Netherlands and scrapes by with occasional government help, like the 100 textbooks they recently received – for a population of 500 students. Education, like most public services here, is unofficial. Even the supply of water comes from a patchwork system, outside the city grid.

Nariobi’s water reaches the outer edge of the Kibera settlement. From there, water flows through a network of low quality PVC pipes into the 25 hundred gallon water tanks that dot the streets.

Much of the water supply is controlled by private vendors, who charge Kibera residents over ten times more than high-income residents of Nairobi, and sometimes create artificial water shortages.

And that’s for water that isn’t always clean. The pipes break frequently, exposing the water to sewage.

Again, Teacher Mary.

MUTHINI: We had so many cases of waterborne diseases. Such like typhoid, cholera, dysentery, just to mention but a few.

PARTNOW: In 2007 the UN Development Programme reported that six in ten infants in Kibera die of waterborne diseases before the age of 18 months.

For residents surviving on less than a dollar a day, paying for fuel for boiling or for chlorine tablets, on top of the price for the water itself, is out of reach.

Kibera resident with empty cup and jerry-can for collecting water. A 20 liter jerry-can costs about five cents to fill. The average family uses between five and seven of these per day.(Photo: Alex Stonehill)


PARTNOW: At a riverbank behind the school sit piles of garbage alongside tin houses and tangled barbed wire. The river here doubles as an open sewer.


MOHAMED: Swahili…laughs…inshallah!

PARTNOW: Thirty year old Habiba Mohamed grew up in Kibera. A black headscarf frames her face. And a flash of gold sparkles from a front tooth as she speaks.

MOHAMED: You see, a toilet facility like this one can be used by over a thousand people.

PARTNOW: She points to an outhouse shared by a thousand people and says rather than stand in line, many residents prefer to use a Flying Toilet. Also known as a plastic bag.

MOHAMED: Like here you can find most of the garbage here – if you had the guts to look – most of it is feces.

PARTNOW: Mohamed works for the internationally funded Kenya Water for Health Organization. She goes door to door trying to convince her neighbors to treat their drinking water using Solar Water Disinfection, also known as SODIS. It’s a low tech approach to cleaning water.

OTIENO: So, this is one way of treating water - drinking water - at the household level, using UV light.

PARTNOW: That’s Joseph Otieno, Kenya Water for Health’s SODIS project officer. He says all you need is a clear soft plastic bottle.

A Masai man washes his sandals in puddles from the previous night's rainstorm. It's estimated that 60% of Nairobi's residents live in slums like Kibera on the city's outskirts.(Photo: Alex Stonehill)

OTIENO: So you, the first time you get this bottle you clean it. Then you fill it with water, then you close it tightly. You expose the bottle to the sun for a minimum of six hours.

PARTNOW: The sun’s ultraviolet rays interfere with the metabolism and cell structure of bacteria. And they interact with oxygen in the water, creating highly reactive particles like oxygen free radicals and hydrogen peroxides, which further damage pathogens. Six hours in the sun, and the water is safe for drinking.

SODIS was developed in Switzerland and is now used by two million people in Latin America, Africa and Asia. Test after test has shown SODIS produces sanitized water that easily meets World Health Organization guidelines.

OTIENO: We always test our water so that we can assure the community that the water is clean, it is safe, for drinking.

PARTNOW: Some find it hard to believe that SODIS actually works. Habiba Mohamed says she’s even had doors slammed in her face.

MOHAMED: Yeah it happens! You come they say “Ah, they are coming!” whoof! They bang the door. They refuse if from the first day and that remains. And I wish they would refuse it and have an alternative. But they refuse it arrogantly: “I’ve been taking this water for the past 50 years. Who are you to change me now?”

PARTNOW: But Kenya Water for Health reports that 250,000 Kibera residents are now using SODIS. There has been a 20% decrease in diarrhea cases since the programs inception in 2004, and a shrinking need for costly hospital visits.

Plastic bottles filled with water and placed on corrugated metal in the sun are a common site in the Makina area of Kibera. (Photo: Alex Stonehill)

Teacher Mary saw an immediate change in the health of her students.

MUTHINI: When SODIS came in, we actually observed a high reduction of the waterborne diseases. That is we had no more complaints, no more pupils coming to complain about waterborne diseases any more.

STUDENTS: SODIS, OH SODIS. Safe water. It is easy to make. Just get a bottle, plus the sun! And your water will be treated. SODIS! How wonderful it is!

PARTNOW: Teacher Mary’s students know all about SODIS. The idea is that children will encourage their parents to use the solar bottles, as well as use them themselves.

But while it’s clear SODIS is making a difference, Habiba Mohamed is quick to point out it’s not a perfect solution.

SODIS doesn’t work on chemical contamination, and can’t be used to treat large volumes of water. During the rainy season, there is often not enough sunlight for SODIS to work. Mohamed encourages her clients to adopt another method of sanitization during that time. Her main goal, she says, is to keep her neighbors healthy.

MOHAMED: Just as long as they don’t take the water like it is. Because we now understand that we’ve a bit tried to take people from taking raw water, to make sure they take a step of improving their water. Because water is life, at the same time water is death.

STUDENTS: Water is important in our life. We need water to drink, cook and so on. Remember: good health depends on clean water. And that is SODIS. How wonderful it is!

For Living on Earth, I’m Jessica Partnow in Kibera, Kenya.

GELLERMAN: Our report on Kibera’s drinking water was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Our website - loe.org - will link you to a multimedia feature about the project.



Multimedia feature on clean water in Kibera

Solar Water Disinfection (SODIS)


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