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Bottles on the Roof: Kibera's Bright Solution for Clean Water

March 22, 2023
topic:Health and Sanitation
by:Ama Lorenz, Bob Koigi
SODIS, a water disinfection method, is improving drinking water quality in Kenya and has become a magic bullet in the fight against lack of clean water and sanitation in Kibera.

Just a few minutes' drive southwest of the vibrant city centre of Kenya's capital, Nairobi, it's impossible to ignore the acrid smell of poverty, a mixture of burnt waste and open sewage gutters, spreading over an area of about 2.5 square kilometres called Kibera.

This oldest tin-roof settlement in the capital is, as some Kenyans say behind closed doors, an "intentional slum." But that is only one of many stories that could be told about Kibera.

Like many slums, Kibera is divided into several sub-settlements whose boundaries are often impossible for non-residents to discern. But for its more than 500,000 residents, it is vital to know which area they are in. Gang crimes, cartels and the dangers that trains of the Nairobi-Kisumu railroad line bring when they rush through the settlement are a part of daily life in Kibera.

But nothing is as biting as the lack of access to clean water and sanitation, which leads to constant outbreaks of waterborne diseases such as cholera, typhoid and amoebiasis.

Nevertheless, the population in the shanty has more than doubled in recent years due to rural-urban migration and a growing number of people seeking the affordable life Kibera offers.

“Life is relatively cheaper in the slums compared to other areas in Nairobi and upcountry,” says Naimo Abdullahi, who was born in Kibera in the second generation of the Nubian minority.  “When we get menial jobs, we are paid on average $2 a day and with that I can afford a decent meal for my family. Living in Kibera is also convenient because it is near the Central Business District and industrial areas where jobs are.”

“We also don’t struggle with paying rent because the rates are manageable,” she added.

The founder of the SAVO Foundation and single mother of four is something of a local heroine, and an important hint in answering the question of where the bottles on the roof have gone, as Naimo, like tens of thousands of the residents in the slum, knows all too well the devastating effects of lack of clean water.

The STRUGGLE of water access

Kibera has no access to the public water and sewage network in Nairobi. For this reason, a bulk of the slum dwellers rely on water vendors and brokers who are in control and take advantage of the water shortage.

At times, the vendors stage artificial water shortages to hike prices. Their power is so vast that they charge Kibera residents more than ten times the rate that residents of middle and income estates pay elsewhere in Kenya’s capital.

Furthermore, residents, mostly women and children, have to walk long distances to get to a collection point, and at times have to queue up for hours to access water. The government, through the Nairobi water company, tries to ameliorate the residents’ hardship by distributing water on select days, but that only serves a small percentage of the community.

Not only does the lack of clean water have an immense impact on the health of Kibera's inhabitants, but the absence of toilet facilities and the open sewers have exacerbated their plight. As an array of pipes snake their way into the slum, some burst and others are vandalised.

Water in the pipes mixes with waste water, garbage and raw sewage, further contaminating the water that the local community depends on for household use, including consumption.

"We simply have too many of these burst pipes," reports Naimo. "We absolutely must disinfect our water."

Water treatment methods like boiling are out of reach for the majority of the slum dwellers due to the prohibitive cost of fuel and wood required to boil water for a community that survives on less than a dollar a day.

For example, it would require approximately $2.5 to boil 10 litres of water that can be consumed for a maximum of five days by a family of three. Other purification methods like chlorination are treated with scepticism due to their high cost and are viewed as a preserve of big companies.

But a low-cost solution is reversing the sorry state of affairs and offers communities year-round free water treatment - and hope.

Plastic bottles and the power of the sun

SODIS (Solar Water Disinfection) was first developed and tested by Swiss researchers in the 1980s. It is a simple and inexpensive method of water disinfection based on the use of the sun’s ultraviolet rays and high temperatures.

PET bottles are placed on rooftops or somewhere directly facing the sun for at least six hours to kill germs and disease-causing organisms in the water such as bacteria, viruses and parasites. The water is then adequate for consumption.

Since its development, SODIS has spread to many parts of the world, and is used to improve drinking water quality. This is also the case in Kenya. There, SODIS was first piloted in Kibera in 2004 and was chaperoned by the Kenya Water and Health Organisation (KWAHO), a local NGO focusing on Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) interventions.

Its pilot targeted 20,000 families.

“One of the reasons the project became an instant hit among communities was its simplicity in promoting access to safe drinking quality water at household level,” shared Petronilla Musonya, the WASH programme officer at KWAHO.

“At a time when communities were struggling with water scarcity, outbreak of diseases and expensive water treatment methods, SODIS became the magic bullet. Everyone would do it which made its impact and adoption faster. With SODIS households did not have to rely on traditional and high intensity energy sources like firewood or gas which reduced deforestation and protected the environment from air pollution.”

A field study conducted in Kibera between 2005 and 2006, and whose findings were presented at an European Union conference in 2006, indicated that 84 percent of households that used the SODIS technology reported no incidences of diarrhoea, whereas two out of three households that did not use the solution reporting cases of diarrhoea.

Solution ownership by SODIS ambassadors

Naimo Abdullahi is the SODIS poster girl in Kibera. Having been recruited by KWAHO during the pilot phase to educate communities and schools, she still wears the enthusiasm, missionary zeal and drive that won her over to the project close to twenty years ago.

But her passion to reach more people with the low-cost water treatment gospel was emboldened in 2008, when an outbreak of cholera in the slums claimed the life of her best friend.

“That was one of the lowest moments of my life,” Naimo pensively recalled. “I asked officials from the government and community leaders how, in this time and age, we were losing people to avoidable water borne diseases. I knew even as I expected the government to do something, the initiative had to start from me.” 

Aware that sanitation and water access were the twin problems affecting the bulk of households in the slum, Naimo recruited local youths to start cleaning up rivers and carry out door-to-door garbage collection initiatives in the slum. She then started inviting women, youths and schools and trained them on SODIS.

Through her community-based organisation SAVO Foundation, she has worked with 21 schools, offering them training and building iron sheet racks for them that are used to place the PET bottles. Kibera has 12 expansive villages, which makes it hard to reach all households. But training the children has proven effective in reaching out to families that haven’t been trained.

Children act as SODIS ambassadors and train their family members about the technology after being trained in school.

In an open compound at one of the villages located at the heart of the slum, a group of women engage in animated conversation, occasionally breaking into song as they clean a pile of plastic bottles and place them in a blue gunny bag. The bottles have been collected from neighbouring eateries and hotels that Naimo and the women will then distribute to schools as part of the SODIS project.

Naimo has documented it all. A narrow, dusty corridor leads to her small, dark office with walls of sheet metal and air that can be cut through. She proudly shows photos that range from a youth group removing waste from a river and smiling children in school uniform heartedly drinking water.

At the centre of the photo collage a quote by Nelson Mandela in black and white stands out from far: “If we change our thinking, we can change the world,” it reads, a testament to the passion and philosophy that has guided Naimo’s mission over the years.

“Kibera is home,” she said “I have called this place home since I was born. Over the years we have been grappling with the problems of sanitation and water access and the situation has been exacerbated by population explosion.

“I have my children and those who I train. I don’t want them to grow affected by avoidable diseases and death like we had to. They have a whole future ahead of them. My duty is to ensure they live to see their future. That is why I do what I do.”

It is a herculean task to access the bottles to give schools or run the sanitation projects she operates on a shoestring budget. But she soldiers on.

The drawbacks of a good solution

After SODIS was introduced by NGOs in Kibera, there were repeated setbacks. Ownership, for instance, is one of the problems when trying to establish solutions from "outside."

As people migrate out of the slums and cities in search of better livelihoods, it becomes difficult for Naimo to keep on training new people with limited resources.

Moreover, COVID has also prevented a sustainable forthcoming. The proponents of SODIS, like Naimo, were traditionally relying on hotels and eateries to access PET bottles, but when COVID struck and there was suspension of gatherings, the availability of bottles has gone down, which in turn affected the number of people and schools they reach.

Furthermore, the SODIS method cannot treat large volumes of water, meaning it is confined to household application. It also cannot purify water contaminated by chemicals and becomes ineffective during rainy seasons.

Nevertheless, Naimo and other SODIS promoters are not giving up, also because the children of Kibera are at stake.

Aseptic water for schools

Anwa Academy, one of the schools that Naimo has trained, hosts over 300 children between the ages of 3 and 16.

Sandwiched between mud and iron sheet shacks with narrow alleys where waste water meanders, the academy stands out for its creativity, with children-inspired decorations and drawings donning the walls. At the centre of the school, an iron sheet rack with a wooden compartment at the bottom catches one's attention.

A group of children fetch water from an adjacent tank, filling it in 1 litre plastic bottles before placing them horizontally in the rack with careful precision. The rack can accommodate up to 80 bottles. After six hours, the bottles are placed in the wooden compartment to cool before being consumed.

Ann Wambui, the academy’s headteacher, says the simple solution has impacted school enrollment and performance. “We initially had numerous cases of children falling sick due to frequent cases of Cholera outbreak. Absenteeism was the order of the day and we were recording cases of children quitting school. The SODIS solution has been a game changer”, she says enthusiastically.

“We rarely record cases of school dropouts, we haven’t had any cases of disease outbreaks and students’ productivity has greatly improved. Children love the water treated by the sun because it does not change its taste. They have become great ambassadors and they train their families when they go home which has helped in taming the outbreak of waterborne diseases.”

A sun ray and a water drop at a time

The story would not be finished if it stopped here, because simple methods like SODIS seem to be the solution to a problem that is only the consequence of a much bigger challenge. Access to clean water.

Water scarcity affects 40 percent of the global population. In low-income countries, 3 out of 10 people lack access to safely managed drinking water services, with water-related issues causing 485,000 deaths by diarrhoea every year. Unsafe drinking-water, coupled with poor sanitation, is blamed for the over one million deaths worldwide every year.

And with the situation projected to exacerbate, low-cost innovations such as SODIS are offering sustainable solutions, especially in the Global South and underserved communities.

The success of the project in Kibera has seen it replicated in other areas, among them Mukuru kwa Njenga, another large slum in Nairobi, and in the Kisumu area of Western Kenya, where KWAHO is working with 148 households in low-income areas that have been experiencing an ongoing cholera outbreak due to the use of dirty water from rivers.

Petronilla attributes the success of SODIS in Kibera to community involvement.

“From the onset of the project, we involved the community and mobilised them to own it by giving them roles,” she said. “Community groups also made financial commitments to ensure sustainability. We have also extensively worked with local leaders and once our part in the project was done, we handed it to the local administration and water company groups so that they could monitor progress and ensure it maintained the momentum.”

SODIS has also attracted interest in other East African countries, including Tanzania and Uganda. Representatives from these countries have been visiting KWAHO to learn about the technology through an exchange programme that has involved field visits to Kibera. The project has been replicated in both countries.

However, one of the biggest problems for Naimo and her supporters at the moment is access to PET bottles. "Not only schools but many other residents and initiatives would like to use SODIS," confirms Naimo. "We are often asked about the bottles on the roof. But we don't have any. It would be a pity if such a good solution were to fail due to this simple circumstance."

Reporting for this article was funded by the European Journalism Centre, through the Global Health Security Call, a programme supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Images by Ama Lorenz and Bob Koigi. 

Article written by:
WhatsApp Image 2022-10-25 at 20.38.38
Ama Lorenz
Co-founder, Editor-in-Chief, Author
Bob Koigi
Bob Koigi
Author, Contributing Editor
Kibera in March 2023
© Photo by authors
Kibera in March 2023
Waste and open sewage in Kibera’s residential area
© Photo by authors
Waste and open sewage in Kibera’s residential area
Cleaning of PET bottles in Kibera
© Photo by authors
Cleaning of PET bottles in Kibera
Vendor’s street in Kibera
© Photo by authors
Vendor’s street in Kibera
Students of the Anwa Academy
© Photo by authors
Students of the Anwa Academy
Ann Wambui, the academy’s headteacher
© Photo by authors
Ann Wambui, the academy’s headteacher