Keeping an informal settlement in Kenya safe from COVID-19

On a hot and humid July afternoon, Jacob Omondi, a 67-year-old grandfather, sat in his one-roomed windowless mud-walled house in Kibera, an informal settlement on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya.
Kevin Mwanza
Kibera informal settlement in Kenya

Omondi suffers from a spinal condition that impacts his mobility and keeps him confined to his house. He relies on his children for food and other daily necessities. “I can’t walk far due to my back ailment, and the coronavirus disease has made it even harder for my children to eke out a living,” Omondi said, sitting pensively on a plastic armchair at the doorway of his house.

“The government said we need to maintain hygiene, and luckily I got this handwashing vessel…which has made it easier for my family and me,” he said, adding that all family members and visitors have to wash their hands every time they come into the house.

Some 10,000 handwashing vessels like Omondi’s have been distributed to vulnerable populations in informal settlements such as Kibera, which are home to about half of Nairobi’s population, according to UN-Habitat.

This project was carried out by the WSSCC-supported WASH Alliance Kenya, or WAK, with funding from UNICEF and in partnership with the Ministry of Health, the Nairobi Metropolitan Services, Nairobi Water and Sewerage Company and local organizations like Umande Trust and Kenya Water for Health Organization (KWAHO).

“This program has been of great support to the government’s efforts in the fight against COVID-19 by addressing the most vulnerable populations of the informal settlements,” said Tobias Omufwoko, Chief Executive Officer at WASH Alliance Kenya and a member of WSSCC. WAK has provided handwashing stations to the elderly, persons living with disability, orphaned and vulnerable children and the chronically ill in Kibera, Mathare, Mukuru and Githogoro slums.

In addition, Kibera received 38 handwashing stations with soap, placed at high-traffic areas, and six water tanks were installed in areas accessible to the most vulnerable populations.

Women and children lining up for water in Kenya's Kibera informal settlement
Women and children lining up for water in Kenya's Kibera informal settlement

As part of the COVID-19 Emergency Response Programme, the goal is to improve access to a safe water supply in selected informal settlements through water connection and repairs, installation of handwashing stations in public spaces and distribution of the handwashing vessels and soap to vulnerable households.

“Gender equality and social inclusion will be taken into account in the intervention strategies, by considering how COVID-19 affects genders differently and designing responses to deal with these differences accordingly,” adds Mr Omufwoko.

The draft 2020 Budget Policy Statement for Kenya estimates that some 10 million people out of the country’s population of 47 million live in slums across the country, leaving them exposed to poor sanitation and hygiene conditions that could lead to diseases such as cholera, typhoid and dysentery. In terms of COVID-19, there were, as of 26 August, 32,803 infections and 560 deaths.

The emergency measures put in place by the government have been difficult to adhere to, especially for those living in informal settlements where people have to choose between buying basic items like food and protecting themselves against the deadly viral disease, according to Kennedy Omolo of Umande Trust, an implementing partner working under the WAK COVID-19 response programme in Kibera.

“We have been receiving the elderly, the physically challenged and other very vulnerable people asking for the [handwashing] vessels. There is a great need for these facilities and if there was a way to get more and reach some of these people we would be touching the most disadvantaged in the community,” Omolo said. “We need to do a mass sensitization of COVID-19 and do one-on-one targeted household conversations,” added Omolo.

While the handwashing vessels were meant for individual homes in the targeted informal settlements, someone like Ruth Adongo, a mother of three, who is also taking care of her sick mother, has had to share hers with neighbours.

“I told my neighbour we could share the vessel since our houses are adjacent,” said Adongo, 28, while cradling her son. She added that there was still a challenge affording water.

Since April, the Kenyan government has directed county governments to provide free water in informal settlements for three months and suspend the disconnection of unpaid water supply in slums. However, residents have to wait and stand in long queues with jerricans to receive the free water.