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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Scarce, costly and uncertain: water access in Kibera, Nairobi


This paper explores three stories in partial answer to the question: why is water scarce, costly and uncertain. First, it describes the ways that households and particularly the women who are the most frequent collectors of water experience scarcity through heavy expenditures of time and money, considerable investments in water storage and routinized sequences of deferred household tasks. Second, the paper describes some of the ‘public private partnerships’ for water supply which have grown up in this stateless location. A history of state antagonism to informal settlements like Kibera and the concomitant absence of property rights, institutions and market regulation have contributed to the growth of these partnerships, which academics call corruption and residents call cartels. Third, the paper describes three experiments in water and social engineering undertaken by sociologists in the Nairobi Water Company. These experiments constitute an attempt to invent municipal institutions and infrastructure in a city the size of San Francisco where mafia-like organizations remain strong.

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