Johanna Koehler, Gro for GooD researcher (University of Oxford) reports from Kenya’s Third Annual Devolution Conference, April 2016
Devolution is here to last! This message was delivered loud and clear at the Third Annual Devolution Conference in Kenya, organised by the Council of Governors. In three years this conference has become an important gathering of national and county government representatives, academia, private sector and civil society to discuss the benefits and challenges of devolution.
This year’s conference marked the end of the three-year transition period in March 2016, when all functions outlined in the 2010 Constitution became fully devolved. It is also a critical time politically as Kenya’s 2017 national and gubernatorial elections are approaching fast and competition over the Governors’ seats is rising.
The delegates passed 18 resolutions to reinforce devolution and hand over all devolved functions to county governments. Some of the contested functions were the water, health and irrigation sectors.
Water is one of the mandates divided between national and county governments; it remains a national resource, but water service delivery is now a county responsibility. As water crosses county boundaries, it is clear that national-level institutions are needed to navigate conflicts and regulate water service provision. However, counties are asking for more autonomy and there is a need to avoid duplication of efforts between the national and county institutions.
The research I shared at the conference shows that the water service mandate is interpreted differently by Kenya’s 47 counties. Counties do not equally acknowledge their responsibility for the human right to water, which entitles everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water. This suggests a need for county water policies to be streamlined so that regional disparities don’t grow and transformative development is sustained.
These findings come from the unique opportunity I had to survey all 47 county water ministries in Kenya at a summit organised by the Water Services Trust Fund to develop a prototype County Water Bill. I found that while counties are making major investments in new infrastructure for water services (where the majority spend more than 75% of their water budgets), maintenance provision and institutional coordination are often neglected. This raises a concern about the sustainability of water services and could slow down progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goal for water.
Overall, the conference provided an important platform for the key political actors to share progress made in Kenya’s devolution process, and also to flag new or existing challenges as county governments manifest their power. It is remarkable to see such a transformation in Kenya’s political system within the short timeframe of only three years. It seems the water sector will gain from these changes, but only the future will tell if these benefits are equitably shared.