This account is based on the findings of ethnographic research conducted in Kayole Soweto, Nairobi, in 2022  by Adrian Wilson, Irene Nduta and Somo Abdi and written by Adrian and Irene with Faith Karina and Jethron Ayumbah Akallah. The image is courtesy of Mathare Social Justice Centre. The sign in the foreground reads “water is life.”

Access to water in Nairobi is horribly unequal. The World Bank, Nairobi Water Company, and development economists exploited this unjust context to treat poor Kenyans like guinea pigs.

In August 2020, people all over the developed world started talking about water in Nairobi. There was a lot of anger, and some calls for sending people to the guillotine. The reason: the publication in 2018  of results from a development randomised controlled trial (RCT) run by American development economists, Paul Gertler and Sebastian Galiani working together with the World Bank. To compel property owners in Kayole-Soweto— a relatively poor neighbourhood in eastern Nairobi — to pay their water bills, the economists disconnected the water supplies at randomly selected low-income rental properties.

There’s no doubt that water is a problem in Nairobi. As Dr Elizabeth Wamuchiru of Nairobi University tells us, the water system in the city has a built-in spatial inequality inherited from the British colonial era. Visitors to the city can readily see the differences between the cool, leafy, green neighbourhoods of Kilimani and Lavington — segregated white neighbourhoods under colonialism, now home to rich Kenyans, foreigners, and non-government organisations (NGOs) — and the grey and dusty tin-roof neighbourhoods of Mathare, Kibera, Mukuru, and Kayole, home to the lower-income Kenyans excluded from Nairobi’s prosperity.

Piped water systems, provided to upper- and middle-income housing estates, do not exist in the vast bulk of the city’s poorer neighbourhoods, where people must instead buy water from vendors.

Today’s water system reflects this history of inequality. Nairobi’s water is harnessed from a combination of surface and groundwater sources; however, the city’s groundwater is naturally salty and very high in fluoride. Piped water systems, provided to upper- and middle-income housing estates, do not exist in the vast bulk of the city’s poorer neighbourhoods, where people must instead buy water from vendors — often salty water pumped from boreholes, or syphoned off from city pipes through rickety connections that are frequently contaminated with sewage. In the richer neighbourhoods, a public utility, Nairobi Water Company, sells relatively clean piped surface water for a fraction of the price paid by poor Nairobians — a disparity that research has shown to often be the case in other cities in the global South. As the Mathare Social Justice Centre puts it, in poorer neighbourhoods such as Kayole-Soweto, “water provision costs more, is less safe, and is less consistent than in other richer parts of the city.”

Nairobi’s waterscape has remained opaque to its planners and administrators as well as its residents — both the elite that occupy the planned leafy suburbs of the city, and the urban underclass that lives on the fringes in a perennial survival mode. And while the city has witnessed major developments to improve access and quality of water, some approaches have only ended up reinforcing the economic inequalities in Nairobi’s waterscape. Such developments have often entailed technologies that are inappropriate for the context, “cut and paste” approaches to solving global South problems, and, in many cases, financing models that are covertly anti-poor.

The World Bank’s water project in Kayole-Soweto was a great example of these problems. Between 2016 and 2018, the World Bank and Nairobi Water Company implemented a project to build piped water and sewage connections in Kayole-Soweto among several other lower-income neighbourhoods in Nairobi.

One of the World Bank-built water lines running through sewage in Kayole-Soweto.

The project design was driven by the kind of “neoliberalism lite” that characterises the Millenium Development Goals-era World Bank. The project’s water connections would be paid for only in part by World Bank grants. The rest of the cost would be borne by users, who would take out loans of $315 per connection, payable over five years at an interest rate of 19%. Each property would get a single connection, with a water tap and a flushing toilet. Under a programme called Jisomee Mita (“read your own meter”), water meters would be digital, and billing payment can be made digitally via mobile phone. The project was framed as a “magic bullet” that not only embraced the supposed advantages of digitised systems, but also provided a financial model purportedly tailored to the needs of the poor of Kayole-Soweto.

People told us, when trying to pay back their water connection loans, they found Nairobi Water Company’s billing and payment systems to be opaque at best and criminal at worst.

As people in Kayole-Soweto told us, the project was plagued with problems right from the onset (some of these problems are even described in the World Bank’s own 2019 project evaluation). The water supply pipes were supposed to be buried several metres under the streets, but instead were scarcely buried below the surface of Soweto’s dirt roads, often allowing sewage to leak into the pipes. The sewage piping, which World Bank officials told community members would be 20 cms in diameter, was instead 10 cm, thus resulting in constant blockages. No one was sure why implementation was not done to the standard promised, but corruption was widely suspected.

And, people told us, when trying to pay back their water connection loans, they found Nairobi Water Company’s billing and payment systems to be opaque at best and criminal at worst. One man told us: “I went and paid, but after paying it… I followed up on that payment, and… I was told that I haven’t paid this money. And I went back [and] I paid for it again. And that’s how I lost [Ksh] 4,900” (about $42). Receipts are nonexistent; statements are nonexistent; people pay, and their money often simply disappears.

And while continuing to largely meet demand in the wealthier neighbourhoods, Nairobi Water Company has resorted to what it calls “micro-rationing” in Kayole-Soweto. Water is typically only piped in one day a week, for a few hours at a time. People will hurry to fill jerry cans of water for the week during these few hours — and if they are at work when the water comes, then they are out of luck. Often, Nairobi Water Company will pipe in salty borehole water instead of the clean water that residents were promised they’d receive. And, for many customers, water has stopped flowing entirely, for weeks, months, or even years at a time, with no explanation. But even in such cases, Nairobi Water Company still insists that people make payments on their water connection loans — paying down their debt for a connection that provides them with no water. “Unalipia hewa,” one man told us — “you pay for air.”

The RCT: adding insult to injury

Gertler and Galiani, in their randomised controlled trial (RCT), aimed at “improving revenue collection efficiency” on the debt that property owners owed on these water connection loans in Kayole-Soweto. Their argument: the problem with water supply in Kayole-Soweto isn’t any of the problems that we described above. The problem is simply that property owners aren’t paying their water bills, thus undermining Nairobi Water Company’s revenue and preventing them from supplying water. (Our finding was the exact reverse: many people stopped making payments on their connection loans out of frustration at water that flowed only a few hours one day a week, if at all.)

To test a punitive method for fixing this problem, these two economists turned to an RCT–  a popular method in development economics for the last two decades. It is used to test a development intervention by: randomly dividing people into “treatment” and “control” groups; giving some “treatment” to the first group, while withholding it from the second; and measuring the difference in outcomes. While pioneers of the method were rewarded with the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2019, critics are wary of the idea of development economists experimenting on the poor.

They found that disconnecting people’s water had a large positive impact on repayment rates. This is rigorous proof, they argued, that water disconnections can help improve a water utility’s revenue enforcement.

In this case, the economists, working with Nairobi Water Company and the World Bank, identified customers who were behind on their water connection loan payments. They then divided these randomly into treatment and control groups and disconnected the water at treatment properties but not at control properties. They found that disconnecting people’s water had a large positive impact on repayment rates (as one person put it during the Twitter controversy: “uh, duh?”). This is rigorous proof, they argued, that water disconnections can help improve a water utility’s revenue enforcement. The authors of this experiment did not mention the myriad problems with Nairobi Water Company or with Nairobi’s water system more generally.

Now, let’s unpack this a bit. This experiment would have been ethically dubious in a context of a water service that was working perfectly. It is that much more ethically bankrupt in the actual context in which the water system was as woefully dysfunctional as it is in Kayole-Soweto. Examples of the ethical acrobatics in the economists’ publication describing this project include their neglect of research guidelines in the US, where both of these development economists hold professorships. Those guidelines dictate that research subjects are supposed to consent to participation in any research, let alone an experiment. The authors tell us that tenants whose water was disconnected had, in effect, pre-consented to disconnection by having signed a contract to get the water connection loan in which it is written that their water will be disconnected if they failed to pay. This very thin interpretation of consent ignores the question of obtaining consent to participate in the experiment — and it does not apply to the tenants living at these properties, who never signed any such contract, and who also lost their water.

We told several property owners whose water was shut off during the experiment that the economists who ran this experiment said in their publication that the experiment didn’t cause any harm to these research subjects. It is important to note that most of these property owners aren’t rich — most of the property owners we talked to live in a slightly nicer unit alongside their tenants. Matthew, a property owner we interviewed, told us how, when his property’s water was disconnected, several people living at his property — including a disabled woman, as well his own 95-year-old grandmother — were forced into the indignity of defecating into basins, which his wife would emptyinto the Ngong River. Another property owner, Kelvin, told us: “We don’t have water and water is life. So, how can you say it doesn’t harm anyone, how, how?”

What can we learn from this?

Access to water in Nairobi is unequal. Into this unjust context came, first, the World Bank, with a neoliberal project plan emphasising “cost-sharing,” and with a naive and misplaced trust in the ability of Nairobi Water Company to carry out this project fairly.  Next came two development economists, who were willing to treat poor Sowetans like guinea pigs, and who simply took Nairobi Water Company at their word when the company said that the only problem with water in Kayole-Soweto was that people weren’t paying their bills. Were these just scare tactics to squeeze residents into paying for a service they deemed unreliable? Was this a question of the ugly side of a capitalist market model that is insensitive to the plight of the poor and continues to disinherit them of their right to the city?

The World Bank has, since 2000, stepped back from the stringent structural adjustment plans that it imposed on one African nation after another in the 1980s and 1990s. It now tends to focus its energies on projects like the one described here, often implemented together with African governments, and often focused on enhancing state capacity to fill its citizens’ basic needs. But the neoliberal ideology, while toned down, is still there: the bank’s insistence that users pay a large share of the water connection cost, via a private bank loan, is characteristic of this new and more subtle neoliberalism.

There is something scary about the degree of power that Western academics can exercise over poor people in places like Kayole-Soweto.

In relation to experimentation, and development RCTs, there is something scary about the degree of power that Western academics can exercise over poor people in places like Kayole-Soweto. To be clear, we are not saying that this experiment is typical of development RCTs. In our research, we found this water disconnection RCT to be a very extreme example; most RCTs are conducted with fairly, or even very, good ethical practices. What this experiment shows, though, is that if a foreign researcher wants to carry out an unethical RCT in a place like Kenya, they can. Existing ethical safeguards are obviously not working.

In finding a way forward for the World Bank’s water project in Kayole-Soweto, we must defer to the demands of the Sowetans we met and interviewed. Repeatedly, they told us that they were very willing to pay for water — if that water service worked, and worked consistently. They told us that they wanted the World Bank to return to the community, to hold meetings with community members, and, with their input, to rebuild the water and sewage infrastructure in Kayole-Soweto to a proper standard. We believe that the World Bank owes this to the people of Kayole-Soweto.

As for the economists and others running RCTs in Kenya, the existing system of ethical safeguards clearly failed the people of Kayole-Soweto. We will set aside the argument that experiments conducted by global North researchers on poor people in the global South should not happen at all. The fallout from this experiment has led to suggestions for reforms to the research approval, funding, and publication processes, to ensure that ethical principles are actually followed. Echoing these suggestions, we would encourage actors in this research space to introduce mechanisms to ensure that safeguards are not optional but rather mandatory. And we believe that there should be an ethical mandate of genuine equipoise in development RCTs; in the experiment in Kayole-Soweto, that was obviously not the case.

The Nairobi County government is currently debating a bill that could privatise Nairobi Water Company. We believe that privatisation is not the solution for water in Nairobi. In the Kenyan health care system, for example, we have consistently learned that privatisation does not serve the poor. Past examples of water privatisation — in Cochabamba, Bolivia, in the late 1990s and, closer to home, in Dar es Salaam in the 2000s — ended in complete failure. We strongly believe that reform and democratised governance — not privatisation — of the Nairobi Water Company should be part of the way forward. And in the context of the ongoing crisis over the escalating cost of living, a privatised water company will be that much less likely to ensure that water is affordable for even the poorest Nairobians. Water justice, as enshrined in Kenya’s 2010 Constitution, must be made a reality for poor people living in precarious urban neighbourhoods like Kayole-Soweto. We echo the words of Mathare Social Justice Center: maji ni uhai, maji ni haki” — water is life, water is a right.

The original text was published here.

Adrian Wilson

Adrian is a PhD candidate in anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley

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Irene Nduta

Irene Nduta is a community activist with the Kayole Community Justice Centre.

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Jethron Ayumbah Akallah

Jethron is a lecturer in the Department of History and Archaeology at Maseno University.

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Faith Kasina

Faith is a community activist with the Kayole Community Justice Centre.

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