The River Njoro snakes southwest from its mouth at Lake Nakuru, from a wetlands and protected park and game reserve where flamingos and pelicans exploit the fresh waters to filter feed on brine shrimp and algae, and across through Industrial Nakuru where the smoke of burning tires shadows the river banks. Just outside of Nakuru to the west the farms begin. Here the high river banks enjoy a bit of riparian shade, but are largely oppressed by the trod of livestock and donkey carts, which trample down the banks and free soil to choke the river water in a rural mimicry of concrete mixing. Water is scarce here. On the western side of Lake Nakuru, only a natural spring and the River Njoro still flow. Dead rivers, their fossils deep scars in the landscape are remembered only at road crossings, then mentioned sadly and offhand, as if recalling a dead relative.
Water is survival here, and where the river and ephemeral streams run dry, boreholes are sunk and revived with little consultation or central planning. Some lay within a kilometer of one another, their users pumping out groundwater in what appears to be a deadly competition: mining liquid for life, for irrigation, for thirst. Some boreholes are better than others. There are those sunk into volcanic deposits, the water rich in fluoride, occasionally approaching 7mg/ml, extremely toxic. The toxicity is etched into the skulls of the drinkers, their teeth discolored and erupting from tectonic jaws, their mouths like a fault line. Some walk over 3 km for toxic water, some for salty water. Others enjoy sweet water from a deep aquifer, fruits of colonial settler boreholes sunk before independence. Still others wait at the water kiosks, concrete sheds with a tap, for the electricity to come on, sometimes up to days, so that the pump is revived, water moved, and bodies resurrected. You pay 3 Kenyan Shillings per 20 L to come back to life in most places, unless the pump is diesel, then it’s 5.
Njokerio is one of these places, but admittedly not like the rest. If water is survival, Njokerio is Survivor Man. Njokerio began as small farms and pasture, then like most communities in the Rift, became a consolidated settler farm under the British. The settlers sunk the borehole into the deep aquifer here in 1942, using diesel to pump water into aboveground reservoirs for household use and irrigation. Maize and wheat were the primary crops, along with a dairy herd. Dairies are water suckers. The settlers sold off the land following independence, and in 1985 the land was subdivided into 1,130 small plots of around 1-2 hectares. Today there are approximately 800 households here, some owners lucky enough to occupy multiple plots. The landscape is a quilt of maize, eucalyptus and pine trees, pasture, and cabbage. Homes are cinderblock and tin roofed, or mud walled and wood framed shacks. Copper dirt roads wind through and about, always down towards the river. There is an obstruction there, a dam where donkey carts hauling 210L drums are filled for water for livestock, construction, and washing. The turbid water reminds one of instant hot chocolate, or of an un-flushed latrine.
The borehole in Njokerio was revived in 1985 by the community, tired of walking 3km to the river for dirty water, and in 1996-97, the Mwihoti Water Project was established. The Project involves 3 phases: 1) Rehabilitation of the borehole and installation of electric pumps; 2) Construction of distribution kiosks and installation of another 100 cubic meter tank at the community’s highest point; and 3) Reticulation: gravity distribution of water through a piped network to community households. The Project is currently in Phase 2.
What’s striking about Mwihoti is not the phased planning, nor the fact that the borehole serves around 10,000 individuals per day and waterborne disease is down 60%. Mwihoti is a network, a hive, an organization that has resolved to meet the water challenge not by increasing supply through the sinking of additional boreholes, but by painstakingly planning an appropriate distribution network to meet community demands. And the demands are numerous.
With funding provided by LifeWater Kenya and CWS, Mwihoti Njokerio has laid an impressive community water infrastructure outdone only by the social organization of project members. The borehole pumps out 5 cubic meters of water per hour, and through the booster pump, moves the water over 2 kilometers uphill to the main storage reservoir. Here, the water flows by gravity to a series of 4 kiosks: one at the borehole atop the hill, one centrally located in the center market, and the others roadside at the northern and southern edges of town. At these community taps, residents are provided water during business hours, generally from 7am to 9 am, and again from 2pm to 5pm. The queue is a commonality, the price 3 KSh per 20L. The fee allows the community to maintain the pumps and pay the electrical bill, as well as provide payment for the kiosk attendants, who earn 20% commission and are rotated weekly to ensure equal distribution of pay (the market kiosk can earn members over 1,000 KSh per week).
I had the opportunity to meet with the Mwihoti Project committee members as I visited Kiosk #4, a roadside pasture distribution point on the north end of town. The committee was engaged in a meeting, the members, mostly old wazee dressed in jackets, slacks, and well worn shoes, perched on plankboard benches under an Acacia tree. Mzungu was greeted and warmly welcomed, and the committee agreed to chat about the organization of the project. Mwihoti is considered a model for community water organization in the area, and is very proud of their network. After describing the project’s history, I was presented with the books. Accounting at Mwihoti is intense. Checks and cross checks are frequent, and accountability the highest priority. Each kiosk attendant checks in each morning by listing the date and meter reading of their site. Following a day’s sales, the cash is placed in a lockbox for delivery to the treasurer, and the meter reading again recorded. In this manner, the true volume sold can be referenced against the balance. Each week, the books are taken to the chairman, who diligently cross checks the balance, and calculates the commission. The books are then presented to the auditor, an independent consultant who traces the purchases, and advises the chairman and co-chair on fees due and savings recommended. Mwihito has set aside 260,000 KSH thus far, impressive given the infrastructural challenges of power supply and equipment failure. The Project plans to invest the savings into another pump, to increase capacity from 5 to 8 cubic meters per hour in order to keep pace with water demand caused by population increases and the strain of the internally displaced following the election violence. If this pump upgrade is achieved, the project will then move towards Phase 3: metered water provision to households, and in essence, a modernized water system.
Elsewhere in the watershed, more boreholes are sunk and existing ones vandalized, their pumps castrated by wire cutters, their water an underground dream as mothers haul 40 L of water in plastic cans by a old bicycle inner tube wrapped around their heads. Just another 3 kilometers, down winding mud soaked roads. “It’s not a problem of supply but of distribution,” lectured the Colonel. That, and organization. But in an area where pipes were recently dug up and shaped into quivers for arrows, where pump houses and elementary schools were set ablaze just for being there, and where news of a scandal turns neighbor on neighbor, organization too is a dream. And Mwihito is the prophet, the north star, the hope.