World Water Day 2010: A Trip Through One of the Worst Slums in the World

I've seen some of the poorest parts of the world, but even for me, what I saw today was a shocking reminder of the wretched conditions that literally billions of people face.

Happy World Water Day, readers. March 22 is always reserved for this event, and this year, I’m in Nairobi, Kenya where the Pacific Institute is working with the United Nations Environment Programme to help raise awareness about this year’s special focus: Water quality.

I spent part of today walking through Kibera’s Soweto East Village in Nairobi — considered to be the world’s second largest urban slum. There are no official population figures, but Kibera is thought to be home to as many as a million people: 25 percent of Nairobi’s population, on one percent of the land. [Wikipedia has a pretty good entry on Kibera, for those wanting more.]

And like urban slums throughout the developing world, there is almost a complete lack of piped safe water and no formal sanitation. As the pictures below show, raw sewage and garbage flow through the streets and drainage ditches. I’ve traveled a lot. I’ve seen some of the poorest parts of the world, but even for me, what I saw today was a shocking reminder of the wretched conditions that literally billions of people face. It was perhaps no coincidence that the first commercial business you see on the way into Kibera is a coffin maker, nor that many of his coffins are for children.

While there, I visited one of seven facilities that have been built in East Soweto Village to provide safe sanitation services. Managed by the local community, and built with the help of UN agencies like UN-Habitat, it has perhaps 8 pit toilets and a couple of shower stalls. People must pay to use them — 3 Kenya shillings (around 4 cents US). And despite the fact that these people have practically no money, as many as 1500 people a day line up to use this toilet block. The money goes to pay people to work there, to pay for the piped water (purchased from the local Council), and to buy toilet paper.

There are solutions to our water problems — these kinds of community-managed facilities are one. But these seven toilet blocks serve, minimally, perhaps 1 percent of the entire population of Kibera. The level of effort and resources being spent on water and sanitation solutions is woefully inadequate to the task.

Water Number: 2.6 billion people. In a new report released this week by WHO/UNICEF’s Joint Monitoring Programme, it is estimated that 2.6 billion people still lack access to adequate sanitation services and 1.1 billion must still practice “open defecation” (a polite term for a demeaning practice), like those in Kibera. This number is virtually unchanged from past assessments as population growth continues to overwhelm efforts to provide services.

On this World Water Day, be thankful for what most of us have: safe, reliable, and affordable clean water and sanitation. And consider doing something for those who don’t. Support any number of groups that work on these issues with time or money (the UN, Rotary, Water for People, World Vision, water.org, WaterAid, Global Water Challenge, and many, many more). Urge USAID to expand, dramatically, its African aid efforts for water and sanitation. Perhaps readers have other suggestions for positive actions that can be taken: add them as comments.

Dr. Peter Gleick is president of the Pacific Institute, an internationally recognized water expert and a MacArthur Fellow. This post originally appeared in Gleick's City Brights blog at SFGate.
Sign Up!
Get AlterNet's Daily Newsletter in Your Inbox
+ sign up for additional lists
Select additional lists by selecting the checkboxes below before clicking Subscribe:
Election 2018