Meet Dr Johanna Koehler, a scientist working to revolutionise rural water services in Kenya

Interview by Oxford University School of Geography

The vast majority of the rural population in Kenya rely on pumps and pipes for their water supply. However, when they break, they are often not repaired for a long time, as they fall outside of formal water service provision areas. Dr Johanna Koehler explains how her research on water risks and institutional change in Kenya contributed to the consultation for Kenya’s national Water Act 2016, which seeks to address these issues.

Over the last few decades, over $1bn has been invested in water infrastructure in rural Africa. However, with one in four handpumps out of action and in need of repair at any one time, poor people living in rural regions frequently use distant and dirty water sources.

In Kenya 70% of the population live within rural communities, where water service provision is often deemed “not commercially viable”. Instead, water companies tend to focus on urban and peri-urban areas. This leaves much of the Kenyan population to manage water risks on their own.

Dr Johanna Koehler has been working to address this problem with colleagues in the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment’s Water Programme, led by Professor Rob Hope. Specifically, Koehler’s research investigates how water risks are governed in rural Kenya in the wake of the country’s decentralisation reform, and she explores which institutional models best support the maintenance of rural water infrastructure to provide sustainable and reliable water services for all.

Focus group discussions with over 600 water users in Kitui County and surveys with 3,500 households in Kwale County over three years helped to provide a deep understanding of the different ways of managing rural water risks. This research contributed to the design of the award-winning smart handpumps project and ‘FundiFix’ model with Rob Hope, Patrick Thomson and others. FundiFix links smart monitoring of pump failures and professional repair services with sustainable finance from users, government, and private actors.

“Communities subscribe to an affordable service contract which protects their rights and makes them responsible for regular payments,” Koehler explains. This can unlock further public and private funding. She terms this sharing of risks and responsibilities across the state, market, and communities ‘institutional pluralism’.

Through continuous engagement with national and county governments as well as other key stakeholders, Koehler was successful in lobbying for this “new sector thinking”, and the idea of sharing water management responsibilities across communities, government, and the private sector was included in Kenya’s Water Act 2016. The change was facilitated by the recent government structural reform in Kenya, when 47 county governments were mandated with water and health service delivery, among other things.

Article 94 of Kenya’s Water Act 2016 highlights those rural areas not considered commercially viable. It is important, she says, because this provides for more dynamic approaches to rural water maintenance, emphasising the important role of all three – public, private and voluntary sectors. “It puts into words the aspiration of the Sustainable Development Agenda as well as of Kenya’s Constitution of reliable water for all.”

“By transferring responsibility for rural water services to county governments and acknowledging the importance of maintenance, the hope is that local solutions such as FundiFix are more likely to be integrated into a wider system of governance and regulation and, as a result, rural Kenyans would have more reliable water services.”

– Dr Johanna Koehler, Researcher and Programme Manager
Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, University of Oxford.

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