Water Funds Help Quench Kenya’s Thirst

The following is written by Kari Vigerstol, Senior Hydrologist for The Nature Conservancy’s Global Freshwater Team.

Kenya’s Upper Tana Watershed is feeling the pressure. This watershed is expected to provide drinking water for Nairobi and dozens of other cities along its path, produce 64% of Kenya’s electricity, grow coffee, tea and food for consumption in Kenyan and export abroad, and to sustain the livelihoods of the local communities within the watershed.

It’s no surprise that it’s facing both water quantity and quality challenges.

The Nature Conservancy is working hard in Kenya to develop a water fund to help address some of these problems. My colleagues and I recently traveled to Kenya, hosted by the Conservancy’s water fund lead, Fred Kihara, to check out all the progress the water fund is making.


I arrived a few days early to spend some time camping in the bush with my aunt and uncle (see the below photo we caught with a wildlife camera about 10 yards from our tents!). My family has a long history in Kenya, with my great grandparents on my mum’s side arriving there in the early 1900s. Ironically we spent the weekend fixing water pipes for the local Maasai communities. A friend of my aunt and uncle has been active for the past decade or so with the communities and has helped provide them with a reliable water supply. I wish the challenges facing the Nairobi water supply were as easy to fix!

Leopard on camera trap

My aunt and uncle have always learned to be efficient with water. In recent years their flat in the middle of Nairobi only received water for half a day every week. This is more common than you would imagine in areas around the world where water is scarce. When the water arrives, they fill up a tank and use the water over the next week. When I was in town, however, they hadn’t received water for over two weeks and were getting weary of donkey loads. They were talking about having water delivered by one of the thousands of water trucks around the city and, in the long-term, drilling a borehole on site in collaboration with their neighbors. Neither of these solutions is ideal.

The Upper Tana Nairobi Water Fund aims to sustainably address the major challenges facing the water users of the Upper Tana Watershed.

  • One of those challenges is excess sediment that runs off the land due to unsustainable land management, especially on farms, and point sources such as road construction and quarrying.
  • Another challenge is simply not enough water in the dry season, partially due to inefficient water use and also due to land use that causes water to run off more quickly rather than infiltrating and releasing more slowly back into the system.

The Conservancy is engaging with several major water users of the Upper Tana River, government water management agencies, community groups and other NGOs to help address these challenges through a sustainable governance and financing mechanism. We are taking the lessons we’ve learned from water funds in Latin America and applying them to the unique challenges and setting of Kenya.

Quenching Kenya's Thirst with Water Funds

It’s not going to be easy to solve all the current and future difficulties facing water users of the Upper Tana River Basin, but the water fund provides a place to start. My aunt keeps telling her friends that my colleagues and I are going to solve all of their water problems. I try to tell her that it’s not that easy, that it will take the collaboration of many players.

We plan to launch pilot projects at strategically identified places in the watershed in the next few months and hope to demonstrate early benefits. We will use lessons learned to scale up and work at the scope of the whole river. Because of the size of the river it could take several years to achieve measurable impacts at the watershed-scale. And even then there will be challenges that remain, such as finding and fixing all the water leaks in the city.

But it’s a solid start in the right direction. By bringing together stakeholders and investing in green infrastructure of the watershed, we can start to move the watershed in a positive direction, reducing sediment that threatens the lifespan of hydropower dams and forces shut-downs of the city’s water system, and helping to increase the base flow longer into the dry season.

It’s much more complicated than fixing a few PVC pipes in the bush, but the Conservancy and its partners are up to the challenge. The Water Fund has continued to attract attention from a number of water dependent corporations who just like my aunt have discovered that the solution lies in taking good care of the Upper Tana watershed.

[Top image: The Tana River snakes through the landscape of northern Kenya. Image: Ron Geatz/TNC. Second and third images: Kari Vigerstol/TNC]

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.

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