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Experts Discuss Water Supply to Poor in East Africa

Experts from around East Africa are meeting this week in Kenya's capital to discuss how to supply one of the continent's most basic needs, clean water. In many East African cities large areas have no access to running water and are sometimes forced to turn to private vendors who are often unregulated and offer poor quality water at high prices. Experts are trying to find ways to resolve the problem.

Kenyan government statistics indicate that more than a million people living in the slums of Nairobi depend on a private vendors with small kiosks or tankers as their primary source of water.

A further 1.7 million are estimated to depend on these private vendors as a secondary water source. In a city of around three million, that means only 200,000 people have access to clean, running water all the time.

In the Tanzanian capital Dar es Salaam, 56 percent of households get their water from private vendors, while in the Ugandan capital Kampala, private vendors supply 30 percent of households with their water.

Water experts were presenting these and other grim statistics as they opened their conference in Nairobi.

The vice-chairman of the U.N. Secretary General's Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation, Uschi Eid, told the gathering that the world, and Sub-Saharan Africa in particular, are far from achieving the U.N. Millennium Development Goals concerning water and sanitation.

"We have less than 10 years remaining to reach the Millennium Development Goals to halving the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation," said Eid. "These targets are vital to reducing child mortality, combating malaria, eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, empowering women, and improving the lives of slum dwellers."

The Permanent Secretary in Kenya's Ministry of Water and Irrigation Mahaboub Mohamed Maalim says the poor pay a relatively exorbitant price for their water from private vendors.

He estimates that the average low-income urban family pays approximately $140 a month for their water supply from a private vendor.

"In Kenyan shillings that is about nearly 10,000 shillings or so, as opposed to my bill, which rates between 2,500 and 3,000 Kenyan shillings, and therefore people [on] utility pay much less. This is something that is of concern to us in the ministry," said Maalim.

Conference participants are discussing regulations, programs, and other ways to enable slum dwellers to have more access to water and to improve existing water utilities to ensure, for instance, that there is no illegal diversion of water from pipes.