Last night, in Taifa Hall at the University of Nairobi, the Nation Media Group sponsored their tenth Nation Leadership Forum. The forum, entitled “Sanitation for All”, ran from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. and in attendance were many students from the University and around the world as well as a number of sanitation experts. At the beginning of the evening, a representative from the university took the stage and welcomed all the attendants and gave a few opening remarks about the forum itself and the topic at hand.
Afterwards, the CEO of the Nation Media Group, Stephen Gitagama, gave a short speech to the audience. During his time, he highlighted some key issues that would go onto be discussed later in the night such as the country’s goal to achieve universal sanitation by the year 2030, the continuing issue of open defecation, and a statistic from The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) which found that Kenya has the third largest population in Sub-Saharan Africa that drink from contaminated sources. Next, the research director of the African Population and Health Research Center, Chimaraoke Izugbara, provided more information to the audience. He discussed the idea that poor sanitation drastically limits human potential. Izugbara also talked about the contaminated water that is used every day for crops that pollutes the food and endangers the health and the people of Nairobi, he followed this up by citing the fact that still more than 60% of fecal matter is not properly managed in Nairobi.
After the opening remarks, the panel began. The panelists were led on stage and then introduced. On the stage from left to right sat Thomas Odongo, Managing Director of Kisumu Water and Sanitation Company; Paul Nzengu, member of the National Assembly who sits on the Environment and Natural Resources Committee; Simon Chelugui, the Cabinet Secretary of water, sanitation, and irrigation; Dr. Farida Hussein Were, a lecturer and researcher in chemistry at the University of Nairobi; and Paul Wafula, an investigative reporter for the Nation Media Group. Once all of the individuals introduced themselves, the moderator welcomed them and offered a brief opening before beginning the discussion. In her opening she pointed out that only 59% of Kenyans have access to clean water and only 29% have access to sanitation services. It was then time for the panel to begin.
Because there was a very quick back and forth between the panelists it will be simpler to breakdown what was said by the points each candidate made. First, a look at what Thomas Odongo said throughout the panel. He began by pointing out the challenge of the institutional framework of water and sanitation which he said often makes progress difficult. Additionally, he pointed out that there are many sources to blame for pollution of water which complicates the issue. Odongo wants to pivot the focus of sanitation and instead of it being its own concern it should rather be a pinpointed issue as a subset of sewer. To make sanitation a part of sewer, he committed himself and his company to ensure sewage pits are emptied with structure and accuracy and to work harder to develop low cost sewer systems to make them more accessible to low income and rural areas of the country. He continued to say that impacts on sanitation are positive though slow and that the Kisumu Water and Sanitation Company has achieved 82% water coverage in Kisumu county. One of the biggest issues he brought up was that the county budget allocated by the government was not nearly large enough to effectively address sanitation issues.
Next on the panel was PaulNzengu, the member of the National Assembly. Paul put the blame on the executive for the sanitation crisis and said that it is the job of the legislative to create policy but that the executive was failing to enforce the current mitigations. The blame game that is so common in the pollution and sanitation battle also came up where companies and government agencies reject taking any responsibility for the issues and instead blame other entities for the widespread issues. Nzengu said that this makes it difficult for the legislative to pinpoint one target to regulate which leads to a lack of effective policy making. In addition, many companies are unwilling to comply, he pointed out, which further complicates the issue. Later in the evening he took a hard stance against the massive government spending on healthcare. This may sound strange at first but, he reasoned that the priorities of the government are not where they should be and that, “government must up its game and get its priorities right.” These two ideas were met with a loud applause from the audience who showed their support for these arguments. When asked how he believes corruption played into sanitation issues, Nzengu said he did partially blame corruption, yet he felt there were much more contributing factors than simply politics.
Simon Chelugui, the Cabinet Secretary of water, sanitation, and irrigation, proved to be the least favorite of the panelists that night as many of the other experts sitting on the panel directed their remarks directly towards the CS when talking about issues in government that are worsening the sanitation situation. But because he was such a point of contention during the panel, he also had the greatest amount of time to speak. He began by shooting down the initial goal of universal sanitation that was proposed at the beginning of the forum, he rejected the possibility of universal sanitation by the year 2030 and instead put for the a different timeline stating that by 2030 about 40% of the population would have access to sufficient sanitation and by 2050, universal sanitation could be achieved. He defended the government’s lack of attention to sanitation by reminding the audience that the government had not officially recognized sanitation as an important issue until last year and the government had already achieved some milestones, specifically declaring three counties open defecation free. Interventions that Chelugui said were most important were developing onsite treatment centers which can cut costs of transporting waste many kilometers to treatment plants and improve individual household’s access to clean water. There was also a meeting that was held last month to begin a conversation between important stakeholders in sanitation throughout the country. A big part of this meeting was identifying additional stakeholders that need to be included in the conversation to better improve the state of sanitation in Kenya. Further, the ministry hopes to map out crucial polluting points to clean up key water sources, like the Nairobi river, and punish polluters. Although he dodged a question about the lack of his organization’s policies and programs on irrigation, he did offer plans the ministry was working on to increase the size and quality of the sewage systems and increase the amount of the budget that is allocated to sanitation. He closed his remarks by defending the speed of reforms saying, “projects take time” and responded to one of Paul Nzengu’s comments with, “I don’t agree that government acts rash” and reassured priorities are being restructured.
Dr. Farida Hussein Were was the only woman to appear on the panel. She talked a great deal on here research on the water quality in the country and on her partnership with fellow panelist Paul Wafula.