Kenyan delegates making a strong case for vulnerable slum dwellers in WASH response to COVID-19

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A learning webinar took place last week to better understand how policies, plans and budgets can include those left behind and least able to respond across the world, drawing hundreds of online participants.
By
Kevin Mwanza

NAIROBI, Kenya  - The needs of the most vulnerable slum dwellers draws a spotlight in a webinar convened last week to identify ways to improve the WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) response to the COVID-19 pandemic.


Kenya’s delegation to the virtual roundtable discussion shed light on the challenges facing vulnerable people living in informal settlements around the world, including the poorest women and girls, the elderly, people with disabilities, sex workers, transgender and the homeless, among others.

“We need to listen and learn how policies, plans and budgets can best integrate the concerns of slum-dwellers in order to respond to the pandemic more effectively,” said Enrico Muratore Aprosio, a WSSCC technical expert on LNOB, EQND and gender.

The two-hour webinar was convened on 23 July by WaterAid, the Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC) and brought together hundreds of delegates including members of vulnerable groups living in slums and workers in the WASH sector in Ethiopia, India, Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Switzerland, Uganda, United Kingdom and the United States.

Of Kenya’s population of 47 million people, some 10 million live in slums across the country, exposed to poor sanitation and hygiene conditions that could lead to diseases such as cholera, typhoid and dysentery, according to the Kenyan government’s draft 2020 Budget Policy Statement .

Li Fung, an OHCHR Senior Human Rights Adviser with the UN Country Team in Kenya (UNCT-Kenya), presented the findings of a household survey on water access that had been conducted in informal settlements within Kenyan cities like Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu.

“While urban areas generally have better access to water than rural areas, inequalities are particularly acute in informal urban settlements,” said Ms Fung. The survey showed that most slum dwellers relied on expensive private water supplies, which meant that poor households in these areas spent as much as a third of their income on water.

“Households indicated that water availability had worsened after the advent of COVID-19 outbreak. The cost of water per 20-litre jerry-can almost doubled,” she added.

A few months ago, Kenya’s Ministry of Water and Sanitation asked county governments to provide free water in informal settlements for three months, beginning in April, and to suspend the disconnection of unpaid water supply in these areas.

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“The government started bringing trucks of water, but that did not last long. In the last two months, there has been a shortage of water,” said Gacheke Gachihi, Coordinator with the Mathare Social Justice Centre. 

“We must increase the demand for government to provide clean water to informal settlements. If we don’t do this, COVID-19 is going to affect very many poor people very fast.”

Meryer Maina, an LGBTQI rights advocate and singer from Nairobi’s Dandora slums, said there was an increase in sexual and gender-based violence against LGBTQI members living in the slums, while they were also being victimized and stigmatized, making it difficult for them to use communal water points.

Kenya has been on the forefront in developing policies to address reproductive health among women and girls and recently launched a National Menstrual Health Management Policy, according to Benjamin Murkomen, Chief Public Health Officer with the Ministry of Health.

“We are currently in the process of mapping all the vulnerable in Kenya. This will inform the government in terms of a targeted approach to serving vulnerable groups,” said Alex Manyasi, WSSCC’s National Coordinator for Kenya.

“We could have policies that are general, but if they are not targeted, they will not produce the outcomes we expect,” he said.

Balakrishnan Rajagopal, Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, emphasized the need to ensure that governments, as they pursue the right to water and sanitation for all, “do good” by ensuring that the right to shelter for the people living in informal settlements is respected.

“Even in the height of the pandemic, many governments are continuing to evict people in informal settlements,” Rajagopal said.

“It’s happening in countries like Kenya, for example, where I have communicated my concern. Unfortunately, in the Kenyan case , the eviction happened in the name of a water and sanitation project.”