Water resources are stressed and unevenly distributed throughout Kenya, with approximately 85% of the country classified as arid or semi-arid . Already in 1992, Kenya was categorized as a water scare country, with available water resources calculated at 647 m3 per capita; below the international acceptable threshold of 1,000 m3. With rapid population growth, the country’s water scarcity has worsened, and available water resources are expected to fall to as low as 293 m3 per capita by 2050 . As the total volume of freshwater withdrawn by major economic sectors amounts to 33% of the total resource endowment , this will be detrimental to the country’s tourism, agriculture, industry, and energy sectors, and have serious implications for Kenya’s Vision 2030 . Hence, there is a need for water governance to strengthen the protection, management, and conservation of these resources .
Kenya’s water resources are classified into surface water and groundwater . Five basins account for 90% of Kenya’s total annual renewable supply. An estimated 75% of surface water originates as precipitation runoff from five “water towers” in central and western Kenya. The Lake Victoria Basin is the most productive surface water resource, accounting for 59% of surface water and 54% of total renewable freshwater. It features several important but relatively short rivers that drain into Lake Victoria, which is the largest lake in Africa and spans the borders of Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. Over 80% of Lake Victoria’s renewable water supply is from direct precipitation, while rivers and streams originating in Kenya and Tanzania account for the rest .
Water quality is a concern in Kenya. For instance, inflows of untreated industrial effluent, wastewater, and agricultural runoff have reduced water quality and caused mass fish die-offs in Lake Victoria . Microbiological analysis has showed levels of bacteria that indicate faecal contamination in the Kenyan side of Lake Victoria. Chemical analysis has showed contamination with seven heavy metals (including mercury, lead and arsenic), with levels above the recommendation for drinking water. Additionally, 21-33 types of pesticides were detected in the different samples, some of which have been forbidden for several years .
Groundwater quality in Kenya is affected by natural influences and human activities , though groundwater quality issues are not very well understood. Saline groundwater has been detected in the northwestern Turkana region, coastal aquifers, and the Merti Aquifer. High concentrations of naturally occurring fluoride have also been detected in parts of the Nairobi Aquifer and throughout the Rift Valley. Pathogenic contamination and high nitrate levels caused by the infiltration of agricultural runoff and poor sanitation systems have been detected in shallow aquifers along the coast and near Lake Victoria .
According to Kenya’s Voluntary National Review (2020), the proportion of individuals using safely managed drinking water increased from 68.8% in 2016 to 72.4% in 2019. This increase was attributed to the construction and expansion of water supply schemes in urban and rural areas by both National and County governments. The proportion of individuals with safely managed sanitation services rose from 59.3% in 2016 to 81.5% in 2019 . Water and sanitation challenges in Kenya are especially evident in rural areas and urban slums where people are often unable to connect to piped water infrastructure .
For decades, water scarcity has been a major issue in Kenya, caused mainly by years of recurrent droughts, poor management of water supply, contamination of the available water, and a sharp increase in water demand resulting from high population growth .
Surface water demand for irrigation in the Athi and Tana Basins account for half of national surface water use and may soon exceed renewable supply in the basins. Plans to increase irrigation in Kenya could result in a 10-fold increase in surface water use, threatening water availability. Further, development plans outline additional hydropower dams in the country, which could result in over-abstraction of surface water and impact downstream water users and ecosystems. The five hydropower dams on the Tana River, that also support irrigation, have already decreased wet season flows to downstream wetlands .
Surface water quality in Kenya is affected by both naturally occurring minerals and human activities. Deforestation and soil erosion in the country’s water towers have increased turbidity, sedimentation, and flooding, and are reducing overall storage capacity in Lake Victoria and Lake Naivasha. Solid waste, sewage, and industrial effluent contribute to high levels of biological oxygen demand (BOD), heavy metals, and bacteriological contamination, particularly on the Athi River and its tributaries. Agricultural runoff and untreated industrial effluents have led to eutrophication in the Athi River and its tributaries, as well as Lake Victoria. Gold mining in the Lake Victoria Basin further threatens water quality with heavy metals, especially mercury. Artisanal gold mining, namely in the Lake Victoria Basin, provides livelihoods for over 40,000 people in Kenya .
Overexploitation has increased groundwater quality salinity in some aquifers; high groundwater salinity has been detected throughout northwestern Turkana County, along the coast, and in the eastern Merti Aquifer. Infiltration from agricultural runoff and poor sanitation have also led to high concentrations of nitrate and pathogenic contaminants in shallow aquifers .
Already, cities in Kenya face significant challenges in water availability. For example, the city of Mombasa currently has only half of the water required to meet its needs. Rising temperatures and more variable rainfall will exacerbate these conditions. Projected climate changes will increase water scarcity, particularly in the arid and semi-arid areas of the country. Rising temperatures will also likely exacerbate the drought conditions and may have a significant impact on water availability. Conflict in Kenya’s arid and semi-arid zones over limited water resources, which are already significant, are likely to increase. Rising temperatures are also already accelerating the loss of glaciers on Mount Kenya, further straining water resources and the flows of glacially-fed rivers .
Key policies and governance approach
Kenya’s Vision 2030 stipulates that ‘every Kenyan should have access to clean, safe water and improved sanitation by the year 2030’ . Specific strategies include improving the management of water resources, enhancing the storage and harvesting capacity, constructing multipurpose dams, and building water and sanitation facilities to cater to the growing population.
Kenya’s 2010 Constitution has a wide set of implications for the water sector. Primarily, the Constitution acknowledges access to clean and safe water as a basic human right and assigns the responsibility for water supply and sanitation service provision to 47 newly established counties . In the development of the Environmental Sanitation and Hygiene Policy (2016-2030), the Ministry of Health has taken cognisance of the new governance structure in the country anchored on the devolution of both political and economic power to the 47 newly-created counties. To achieve and sustain universal access to improved sanitation by 2030, the policy focuses on eight key strategies: (i) Scaling up access to improved rural and urban sanitation; (ii) Assuring clean and healthy environment free from public nuisances; (iii) Fostering private sector participation and investment in sanitation; (iv) Building governance and leadership capacity for sanitation; (v) Sustainable financing and investment for sanitation; (vi) Building enabling legal and regulatory environment; (vii) Establishing an effective research and development framework for sanitation; and (viii) Strengthening monitoring and evaluation systems for the sanitation sector .
Following the adoption of the Constitution, Kenya devolved water management responsibilities from the central government to counties and basin-level institutions. The Water Resources Authority (WRA) leads water resources policy implementation through a decentralized management structure  and has adopted the Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) approach . The WRA has developed six Catchment Management Strategies (CMS) areas across five hydrological catchments, which detail plans for data collection methodologies, water allocation plans, and public participation .
The 2016 Water Act aligns the water sector with the Constitution’s primary objective of devolution , and establishes the regulatory structure for water resources management, defines stakeholders’ responsibilities at the national, basin, and county level, and establishes Basin Water Resource Committees (BWRC). The Water Resources Authority Strategic Plan (2018-2022) is the key operational planning document for the Water Resources Authority (WRA) detailing organizational objectives, activities, resource needs, and monitoring and evaluation approaches during the 2018-2022 timeline. The National Water Master Plan (NWMP) creates detailed national level plan for development and use of water resources through the 2030 timeframe .
The Ministry of Water has also signed an InterGovernmental Water Sector Coordination Framework with the Council of Governors. The goal of the Water Sector Framework is to steer the attainment of a robust and sustainable sector through the attainment of policy and standards including monitoring and reporting on the implementation of SDG 6. It is also a liaison between the Ministry and County governments through the provision of a platform for dialogue and engagement of key stakeholders in the Sector .
Successes and remaining challenges
Unfortunately, implementation of water policy in Kenya is inhibited by low organizational and technical capacity, monitoring and enforcement capabilities, and funding. For instance, the WRA often lacks resources, monitoring capacity and enforcement mechanisms needed to oversee the implementation of its Catchment Management plans .
The Water Act provides for the establishment of Water Resource User Associations (WRUAs), which are community based associations for collective management of water resources and resolution of conflicts concerning the use of water resources . WRUAs are meant to play an important role in local management of water resources through implementation of Sub-catchment Management Plans (SCMPs). However, only 670 out of 1,237 proposed WRUAs have been established due to resource and capacity constraints within BRWCs, impeding implementation of CMSs at the sub-catchment level. Additionally, WRUAs rely on membership dues, income-generating activities designed to increase participation and ownership, and the national Water Services Trust Fund (WSTF). However, only 150 WRUAs have secured funds from the WSTF .
In addition, overlapping mandates and non-uniform basin management standards for regulators, service providers, and government ministries and agencies impede sector coordination. The WRA regulates the use of surface and groundwater whereas the National Water Harvesting and Storage Authority (NWHSA), which was established by the 2016 Water Act, develops public water projects for water harvesting, infrastructure, storage, and flood and drought control. The NWHSA, which is a statutory institution of Ministry of Water, Sanitation and Irrigation (MWSI), does not always coordinate water permits with the WRA. The WRA's 2018-2022 Strategic Plan notes that the water sector's legal and regulatory frameworks and enforcement mechanisms need to be strengthened to address these challenges and implement the Water Act .
The effectiveness of policy implementation has also been impacted by a political divide between areas that have been privatized. Water privatization is seen as a negative issue in Kenya because of the high costs that are passed along to the poor. Lack of development means a lack of piping, sanitation, or tanker service. Rural areas of Kenya are left without water and urban areas are not much better, as there are insufficient funds to run pumping stations .
Initiatives and Development Plans
In 2018, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in collaboration with the Ministry of Water and Irrigation, launched three water and sanitation (WASH) projects in Kenya. The project will expand the water distribution system to bring clean, affordable water to over 12,000 residents of Funyula sub-County. In Turkana County, they launched the Lorengelup Community Water Project with Turkana County Governor Josphat Nanok .
In addition, the Government of Kenya, together with development partners, developed campaigns to raise awareness on the importance of washing hands with soap. The High 5 for Handwashing Campaign supported by Unilever East Africa committed to change the handwashing behaviour of 12 million Kenyans by 2020 by educating and empowering underprivileged communities .
The Ministry of Water, Sanitation and Irrigation through the Water Sector Trust Fund was awarded the prestigious 2019 United Nations Public Service Awards (UNPSA), after its Up-scaling Basic Sanitation for the Urban Poor (UBSUP) programme. It was selected as one of the winners of the award under the “Delivering Inclusive and Equitable Services to Leave No one Behind” category being the only institution from Africa. UBSUP’s unique features that led to the winning of the award include: its great impact on sanitation services offered in an inclusive and equitable manner without leaving anyone behind, the nation-wide approach of the programme, cost efficiency and the pro-poor component of offering a post-construction incentive for the projects. The programme provides a post-construction incentive or subsidy for the toilets at a cost of Kshs.20, 000 (USD 200) for a new toilet and Kshs.15, 000 (USD150) for a rehabilitated toilet. The subsidy can only be paid after landlords and house owners have completed toilets which meet specified standards. So far, the implementation of the programme is being undertaken in 19 counties benefitting 500,000 people. Given its merits, the Ministry will scale up the implementation of the programme in all the 47 counties. This is in a bid to achieve access to sanitation for all by the year 2030 and complement the Big Four Agenda of the Government .
Goals and Ambitions
The national priorities for the Kenyan Government concerning sanitation are :
- To eradicate open defecation by the year 2030.
- To improve access to sewerage in urban areas to 40% by the year 2022 and 80% by the year 2030.
- Thorough implementation of existing water policies and laws.
- Enhance monitoring capacity as resources become available.
- Explore innovative funding mechanisms for water resources infrastructure.
- Proactively engage and tap resources from Development Partners and Corporate bodies.
- Adopt Public Private Partnerships (PPPs).
- Advocate for adequate disbursement of funds from the key institutions.
- Monitor compliance by water users with the conditions of permits and the requirements of relevant statutes.
- Development of a permanent legal and institutional framework for joint water resources management in the country basins.
- Attract donor support for implementation of transboundary operation and cooperation.
- Strengthen linkages between planning, budgeting and monitoring to enhance service delivery of and mainstream cross cutting issues.
- Engage all relevant stakeholders in implementation of the water plans.
- Regular training for implementation of IWRM to relevant stakeholders.
- Strengthen capacity building for transboundary water resources management.
- Support and enhance negotiations and peace initiatives on shared waters, ratifying transboundary agreements as necessary.
- Increase awareness creation among the citizenry on IWRM.
- Improve coordination between provincial and county-level authorities.
- Develop effective, efficient and reliable water resources information acquisition, management and sharing systems.
- Enhance the capacity of relevant institutions on compliance and enforcement with water resources management regulations, rules and standards, including to address pollution of water resources.
 University of Gothenburg (2021). [Online]. Available: https://www.gu.se/en/news/how-serious-is-water-pollution-from-chemicals-in-kenya-and-what-can-be-done-about-it.
 water.org (2021). [Online]. Available: https://water.org/our-impact/where-we-work/kenya/.
 The Water Project (2021). [Online]. Available: https://thewaterproject.org/water-crisis/water-in-crisis-kenya.
 USAID (2018). [Online]. Available: https://www.usaid.gov/kenya/newsroom/press-releases/02-12-2018-usaid-launches-new-water-sector-financing.
 Ministry of Water, Sanitation and Irrigation (2020). Stakeholder Consultation Report
SDG 6.5.1, degree of implementation of IWRM: Kenya.