We are hoping for rain, rain, rain and lots of it – but unfortunately it’s not rainy season. Our grass is reduced to yellow tinder and crunches when you walk on it. The Nairobi dam is now dry so the city council has stopped sending us and many others a supply. On enquiry at their offices, they say that they are eking out what water remains and waiting for rain. ‘Mungu atasaidia’ (God will help) It is not the first time that the water supply has dried up and it will not be the last. When there was talk in January of a coming drought later in the year, it felt unreal because the whole country was experiencing post election turmoil, an episode that proved to be one of the worst disasters in the country’s history. ‘Drought?’ I thought at the time; ‘Please, not more bad news.’
Water, or lack of it, is always a critical topic of conversation when living here in Africa, but something I never considered when living in rain soaked England. Managing at home with no water is uncomfortable, unhygienic and makes you miserable. The water supply to our home from the city council is intermittent. The way it works is that we have a large, concrete water storage tank in the ground – most of the time it is just off empty with an inch lying at the bottom. At the top of the tank and just beneath the manhole cover is a pipe the width of a hose that leads from the road outside, across the garden underground and through a water meter. The water is unleashed from some central place once or twice a week and is supposed to gush through the narrow pipe into our tank and fill it, but generally it is a miserable trickle. The water might flow into our tank for a whole day and a night or perhaps for just half an hour, depending on the City Council Water’s discretion. The idea is that the City Council water is clean and has been treated and on balance the quality is not bad (though we don’t drink it before boiling it and putting it through a filter first). My ear is now trained to detect the sound of water trickling into our ground tank as I stand at the kitchen door and when I hear it I rush over, lift the manhole cover and peer into the darkness within, surveying the flow of water from the mains.
Others have a bore hole in their garden which is an expensive thing to construct. The borehole draws its supply from the water table beneath and then pumped straight from the ground into your home. Of course this water is not treated and in many cases is too rich in fluoride, which is a major cause of brown staining on teeth if you drink it for long periods. There are issues over excess fluoride in City Council water too. Many boreholes that service more than one or two houses in our area have now run completely dry.
When the City Council fails us completely and we have no water, we order in a truck or ‘bowser’ to fill our tank and we pay them directly per delivery. As in many cases in Nairobi, solving a problem boils down to hard cash while those without money have to suffer. The same system applied when we lived in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Today I called our friendly water supplier who helps us out in times of shortage. Her deliveries are prompt and she is reliable but this time she said that they would not be able to come today as the water level in their borehole is very low so it takes a long time to extract the water out of the ground and into the truck. They hope to be able to pass by tomorrow.
Many people do their best to harvest rain water but so far our attempts have been pitifully poor. Our house was built in 1930s and to effectively harvest rain water you really need to design the house to do the job. We have lots of little roves that do not funnel to a central point. Plus, water running off the roof can be dirty and infected with monkey poo etc. My friend and neighbour wondered why her whole family were getting repeated upset stomachs for months, until she finally analysed the water that had been collected from the roof and realised it was toxic.
Having perennial problems with water means that you can never truly enjoy a deep bath or a long shower without a nagging feeling of guilt. At the moment, I notice many people on the street carrying yellow plastic containers and filling them where possible from dirty streams or outlets at the side of the road. Yesterday afternoon we had a short lived downpour – the first in six weeks. ‘Sorry for the rain’ I said to a soaked passer by. ‘Mvua ni baraka’ (rain is a blessing) he replied.