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Improving Access to Safe Drinking Water in Kenya


Water that is easily accessible and safe is essential for maintaining public health. The main personal uses of water include drinking, household chores, cooking, among other uses. Better management of water resources, sanitation, and delivery can therefore significantly contribute to improved livelihoods. It enables better sanitation and hence improved quality of life. Safe drinking water is defined as having no short-term or long-term health risks when consumed over an individual’s lifetime (WHO, 2022).

One of the fundamental human rights is the availability of safe drinking water (Constitution of Kenya, 2010), yet 32 per cent of the Kenyan population still struggles to get their hands on dependable sources of safe drinking water. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) target 6.1 addresses the achievement of universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all by 2030.This goal underscores the need for and importance of prioritizing efforts that aim at promoting universal access to safe drinking water.

The main source of drinking water in the country includes piped water, borehole with pump, protected spring, protected well, rainwater and bottled water. The national government and the 47 county governments share the responsibility of facilitating access to safe drinking water. Specifically, the national government is responsible for water resource management, whereas county governments are responsible for delivering water and sanitation services.

Government efforts have resulted in the creation of frameworks and policies to guarantee access to safe drinking water in terms of availability and quality. However, population increase, existence of informal settlements due to rural urban migration, and inadequate resources for maintaining water infrastructure pause a challenge in ensuring access to safe drink water by all Kenyans (USAID, 2020).  

This blog provides insight into Kenya’s current situation regarding access to safe drinking water by examining the existing policies, gaps, and proposing possible interventions towards improving access to safe drinking water.

Status of Access to Safe Drinking Water

Access to safe water in Kenya

Seven (7) in every ten (10) citizens (68%) have access to safe drinking water (KDHS, 2022). However, approximately 31.6 per cent of the population uses unimproved drinking water sources. These comprise of 7.3 per cent of the population using unprotected dug wells, 4.4 per cent using unprotected springs, 1.5 per cent using tanker trucks or carts with drum, and 18.4 per cent using surface water. A higher number (91%) of the urban population have access to improved drinking water sources, while (56%) of the rural population has access to improved drinking water sources. In the efforts to make drinking water safer, households engage in different practices. Nationally, approximately 22 percent of the households’ boil water to make it safer for drinking while 19.6 per cent add chlorine. Households mainly depend on surface water sources such as lakes, and rivers and on groundwater as the main supply systems. The water is further stored in small water systems such as water tanks awaiting further use. Despite the infrastructural progress in improving water access, only 33 per cent households have access to piped water (KNBS, 2022 Kenya Demographic and Health Survey). A comprehensive strategy that incorporates targeted water investments, community involvement, and policy refinement is needed to improve access to safe drinking water. Figure 1 below illustrates the percentage distribution of households’ access to improved drinking water sources by county.

Figure 1: Percentage of households with access to improved drinking water sources by county, 2022

Source: Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (2022) Kenya Demographic and Health Survey

Nairobi City County has the highest percentage access to improved drinking water sources while Kitui has the least.

Policies, Gaps and Emerging Issues

Policies and gaps

The national policy landscape includes the Kenya Environmental Management and Coordination Act (EMCA) No. 8 of 1999, which contains guidelines for preserving quality standards and safeguarding water sources. The Act provides some regulations, such as all citizens refraining from acts that could cause water pollution, avoiding any development activity within full width of water bodies, and compliance of all operators and suppliers of treated water with relevant quality standards. However, water quality fluctuates despite these regulations, because it is challenging to continuously monitor and enforce them, particularly in rural and underserved urban areas.

The Water Act (2016) provides the legal basis for regulation, management, and development of water resources, and water and sewerage services. The Act recognizes that water-related functions are a shared responsibility between the county and national governments, and that water-related functions are a shared responsibility between the county and national governments.  The Act established two regulatory organizations, the Water Resources Authority (WRA) and Water Services Regulatory Board (WASREB). It also established the Water Works Development Agencies (WWDA), which is not regulated by either WASREB or WRA. The Act does not clearly outline how WWDA should be regulated to ensure quality of water services.  

The Sessional Paper No. 1 of 2021 on National Water Policy aims to address the country’s water management challenges and guides water resources development towards sustainability and affordability. It provides a framework for sustainable management and financing of water resources, water storage and universal access to water supply. Although the framework could help improve access to safe drinking water, continued government commitment, collaboration with relevant water stakeholders and securing necessary funding would be essential.

Kenya’s National Water Master Plan 2030 outlines the strategies for managing water resources sustainably. The plan emphasizes obtaining accurate data on water availability, quality, and vulnerability, factoring in climate change. It also outlines the strategies that include promoting water-saving technologies, public awareness campaigns, and efficient water pricing mechanisms. Effectively integrating these strategies within the larger framework of Kenya’s economic development, population growth, and the effects of climate change presents a challenge in efforts to improve access to safe drinking water. Table 1 provides an overview of the relevant policy frameworks on access to safe drinking water.

Table 1: An overview of policy framework on access to water

Salient features of safe waterInternational and regional commitmentsKenya’s legal and policy framework
InfrastructureSDG 6; African Ministers’ Council on Water (AMCOW) PolicyKenyan Water Act of 2016
Water qualityWorld Health Organization (WHO) Guidelines; African Union’s Agenda 2063Kenyan Environmental Management and Coordination Act (EMCA) of 1999; Water Quality Regulations (2006)
AccessibilityThe human right to water and sanitation (UN 2010 Protocol on Water and Health) Water Act 2016
AffordabilitySDGs Goal 6.1; African Water Vision 2025Sessional Paper No. 1 of 2021 on National Water Policy
SustainabilityUnited Nations World Water Development Report; New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD)National Water Master Plan 2030 and Vision 2030

Emerging Issues

Water scarcity

Kenya is a water-scarce country because it has one of the lowest freshwater replenishment rates in the world at 647m3 per capita, which is below the global benchmark of 1,000m3 per capita (USAID, 2022).  This has led to reduction in the amount of water available for domestic and productive uses, along with the frequency of severe weather cycles and the depletion of natural resources. Inadequate infrastructure, including wells, boreholes, and water treatment facilities results in difficulties in accessing clean and safe drinking water, especially in rural areas.

Climate change and water pollution

Climate change is a threat to availability of safe drinking water, especially in arid and semi-arid land counties. This is because droughts dry up the wells and other sources of safe drinking water in the arid areas, bringing about water shortages. Water sources in Kenya are often contaminated due to pollution from agricultural runoff, industrial discharge, and inadequate sanitation facilities. Change in climate and water pollution together with weak management of water resources have led to aggravation of unsafe drinking water, which has health effects and consequently negative implications on economic activities. These challenges are more prevalent in rural areas and urban informal settlements, where there is less piped water connection infrastructure.

Increased water demand

As the Kenyan population grows, there is increased pressure on water resources. In 2019, the Kenyan population was estimated at 47.6 million with an annual growth rate of 2.2 per cent. Population growth is associated with over-extraction of groundwater, which has a potential of lowering the groundwater table and causing wells to no longer be able to reach the ground water (Groundwater Foundation, 2023). In addition, population growth especially in informal settlements has led to water contamination due to inadequate sanitation facilities, and therefore affecting the accessibility of safe drinking water.

Rapid urbanization

By 2030, it is estimated that Kenyans living in urban areas will account for 48 per cent of the total population. This increases the demand for safe drinking water. As more people migrate to urban areas, the strain on water resources and infrastructure will increase. As population increases in urban areas, more water infrastructure will be needed to cope with the new demand for safe drinking water. Urbanizations may be accompanied by expansion of informal settlements where access to safe drinking water maybe inadequate.

Conclusion and Recommendations

Almost half of Kenyans struggle to get access to safe drinking water. The growing population and the worldwide effort to attain improved access to water have implication of increasing demand for a sufficient and seamless supply of safe drinking water. The country can get closer to guaranteeing access to safe drinking water to all citizens and enhancing their well-being through: construction of large and medium dams to store water and investing in groundwater storage through managed aquifer recharge by using water generated during the rainy seasons; coming up with a subsidized water storage tanks programme through the National Water Harvesting and Storage Authority to encourage the storage of rainwater; and mounting campaigns by the government towards public awareness and educational initiatives to encourage community involvement in safe drinking water management and conservation.

The government with support from relevant stakeholders could support adequate urban planning to reduce the emergence of informal settlements, which in most cases are characterized by inadequate clean water infrastructure. The government through the Water Sector Trust Fund could consider increasing financial resources to supply of safe drinking water and ensure that there is adequate financing of all programmes geared towards provision of safe drinking water to all Kenyans. Adequate financing will also avail funds for ensuring adequate provision of personnel required to enforce the water regulations. The government in collaboration with relevant stakeholders could consider reviewing and updating water policies to address emerging challenges such as water scarcity, incorporating climate change adaptation and mitigation measures. This ensure that all households both in rural and urban settlements have access to safe drinking water.

Authors: Martin KabayaKIPPRA Young Professional

Morris K. MbalukaKIPPRA Young Professional

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