Key recommendations

Government: National and Local

  • Actively engage with the AMCOW Pan-African Groundwater Program
  • In coastal areas of Kenya shallow large-diameter wells are better protected from saltwater intrusion than deep boreholes. Promoting the use of large numbers of shallow wells requires coherent management of the resource at local and national scales and the engagement of local communities.
  • Drought resilience in Kwale can be improved by inter-agency collaboration on data collection and sharing to improve drought early warning, deepening hand-dug wells which are at risk of going dry during drought periods, and ensuring emergency water supplies are available to reduce communities’ reliance on expensive vended water during droughts.
  • Welfare in Kwale can be improved through increasing household energy access, promoting higher education attainment, improving rural drinking water services, and ending open defecation.
  • Government leadership is needed to manage the groundwater aquifers as a system for all water uses, including industry, communities, and environmental services.
  • Monitoring and mapping of welfare should be conducted more frequently to evaluate impacts of different poverty reduction strategies.  

Context: highlights from the Africa Groundwater Atlas

Visit the Kenya country page

Groundwater quantity

  • The total potential groundwater resource (storage) in Kenya is estimated to be 619 million m³.
  • The total groundwater abstraction rate in in 2012 was estimated at 7.21 million m³/year, and the total safe abstraction rate (annually recharged) in Kenya is estimated to be 193 million m³/year.
  • Some aquifers are identified as being over-abstracted with associated problems of water level decline and sometimes water quality deterioration, in particular the Nairobi volcanic aquifer.

Groundwater quality

  • Some aquifers, mostly with recharge from fresh water rivers, are excellent groundwater sources e.g. the Lodwar Aquifer recharged by the River Turkwel; the Merti Aquifer recharged by the River Ewaso; the Gongoni Aquifer recharged by the Mkurumudzi River and the Baricho Aquifer recharged by the River Galena.
  • Many aquifers have groundwater quality issues. For example, the Nairobi aquifer has high fluoride concentrations, which mostly exceed WHO standards, especially towards the Embakasi area.
  • The Lotikipi Aquifer is very saline with conductivity exceeding 8000 µS/cm.
  • The Mombasa Island Pleistocene sands and limestones and related aquifers are impacted by pollution and saline intrusion. The Mumias granites are impacted by pollution and salinisation.

Various contamination problems arise due to the hydraulic continuity between surface water and shallow groundwater systems in Kenya, e.g.:

  • Poor sewerage and drainage systems are major contributors to groundwater contamination. This is an increasing problem in Nairobi and its environs.
  • Open cast mining of stones pose a threat to groundwater because of contaminated water infiltrating into the ground.
  • The Kiserian reservoir has suffered contamination problems due to inadequate sewage systems in nearby towns; this contaminated water may find its way into groundwater. Equally, groundwater may be becoming directly contaminated because of reliance on pit latrines and soakaway pits.

River pollution by industrial wastes and sewage pose a great risk for groundwater protection.

Groundwater use

  • Many parts of Kenya rely on groundwater, either directly from privately owned or communal boreholes, or via piped supplies from groundwater wellfields. Groundwater from communal boreholes or hand-dug wells supplies most of the rural population.
  • Groundwater is used locally for mining, e.g. the Gongoni well field used by the Base Titanium mining company.
  • The Daadab refugee camp depends on groundwater abstracted from the Merti aquifer.
  • Most irrigation in Kenya is supplied by surface water, but groundwater supplies a small proportion of irrigation water.
  • It is reported that although groundwater exploitation has considerable potential for boosting water supplies in Kenya, its use is limited by poor water quality, overexploitation, saline intrusion along the coastal areas, and inadequate knowledge of the occurrence of the resource.
  • Nevertheless, many areas of Kenya are reliant on groundwater sources for domestic, commercial and industrial needs, including the coastal zone which is almost entirely dependent on groundwater. Other areas include Mombasa and Malindi (which depend on the Baricho wellfield); Kwale (dependent on the Tiwi wellfield); and Wajir (dependent on the Merti aquifer); as well as Naivasha, Nakuru, Mandera, and Lodwar.

Transboundary Aquifers

Kenya shares several transboundary aquifers with neighbouring countries, defined by IWMI (2014) as:

  • AFS31 Coastal sedimentary basin 1 (Kenya/Tanzania) – Quaternary and consolidated sedimentary rocks
  • AFS32 Kilimanjero aquifer (Kenya/Tanzania) – Volcanic alluvium
  • AFNE1 Rift aquifer (Kenya/Tanzania/Uganda) – Volcanic
  • AFNE2 Merti aquifer (Kenya/Somalia) – Semi-consolidated sedimentary
  • AFNE3 Mount Elgon (Kenya/Uganda) – Volcanic
  • AFNE4 Dawa (Ethiopia/Kenya/Somalia) – Volcanic rocks, alluvials and Precambrian basement
  • AFNE5 Juba aquifer (Ethiopia/Kenya/Somalia) – Aquifers in Precambrian and intrusive rocks
  • AFNE7 Sudd basin (Ethiopia/Kenya/South Sudan/Sudan) – Precambrian and volcanic rocks with patches of alluvials/sedimentary

Key activities and findings from UPGro research in Kenya

General UPGro findings with relevance to Kenya

Climate Resilience & Groundwater ResourcesClimate change may enhance groundwater recharge in arid and semi-arid areas, presenting opportunities for long-term management as part of national climate adaptation strategies.

Local hydrogeological understanding is required to define the sustainable yield of water points, particularly in weathered basement aquifers.

Numerical groundwater models can be used to assess the sustainability of different groundwater scenarios to inform groundwater management and planning.

Bacteriological contamination of groundwater is likely to be a significant barrier to achieving safely managed water services under SDG6, but this can be tackled by improved construction practices.  
Groundwater and PovertyCommunities are routinely under high water stress due to social pressures (e.g. funerals, cultural events) and environmental pressures (e.g. dry periods). These pressures cascade with routine sharing of water points.

Women are more at risk of water scarcity due to gender roles and gender task allocation.  
Sustainable Rural Water ServicesNew methods for defining and measuring water point functionality are required to adequately monitor progress towards SDG6 for safely managed water services.

Affordable maintenance and repair are one of the main predictors of borehole functionality. This highlights the need for effective management models to address poor functionality.
Urban Water SecurityIn urban areas experiencing rapid population growth, increased demand for water is likely to have a much more significant impact on groundwater than climate change.

Groundwater can only gain a role as a strategic urban resource where an integrated approach to urban water management and governance acknowledges the importance of all available resources.

Conjunctive use, managed aquifer recharge, and suitable treatment measures are vital to make groundwater a strategic resource on the urban agenda.

Participatory, community-led approaches, such as Transition Management, can provide new and collaborative ways of using and managing urban groundwater.  
Agriculture and livelihoodsAccess to groundwater is associated with improved agricultural production, reduced agricultural risk, and improved livelihoods.

Knowledge sharing approaches, such as Rainwatch and Farmer Radio, can be used to increase resilience by communicating farming practices that align with sustainable intensification, climate and groundwater forecasts with farmers.

Kenya-specific activities and findings

Climate Resilience & Groundwater ResourcesInvestigations of the coastal aquifer in Kwale agreed with other UPGro studies that groundwater recharge happens more readily with more intense rainfall events.

In coastal areas of Kenya (Kilifi County) saltwater intrusion impacts water quality from wells and boreholes. Shallow large-diameter wells show less saltwater intrusion than deeper small-diameter boreholes.

Significant groundwater resources have been identified for the first time in Msambweni sub-County, with the potential to make a significant contribution to local water supplies.

Current industrial groundwater use does not conflict with local community use, as industry uses deep boreholes and communities use shallow ones.

Community water supply is affected by long drought periods when shallow wells dry up, such as the period 2016-2017.
Groundwater and PovertyThe relationship between groundwater access and poverty is not clear-cut because welfare of households in Kwale is also strongly linked to education, energy access and ending open defecation.

Schools clubs are a way to improving understanding of water issues among girls and boys and can strengthen links and trust between community, government and local industry.
Sustainable Rural Water ServicesCommunity waterpoint use reduces substantially for 1-2 days after rainfall events.

Collecting sufficient revenue from water users is a key stumbling block to effective and sustainable operation and maintenance of rural water supplies.

Revenue collection systems become unstable and are prone to collapse if user contributions drop below a 60% threshold in the wet season or 40% in the dry season.

A survey of 337 water points in Kwale found the average pump was 24 years old and only 64% were currently functional.

Risk of handpump failure was associated with salinity, static water level, geology and distance to spare parts.

There are tensions between financial sustainability and universal access to rural water supply services.

Pay-as-you-fetch payment models are associated with higher levels of revenue and faster repair times, compared to monthly payment models, but also with an increased likelihood of households choosing an unimproved drinking water source.

“Smart Handpump” technology has unlocked insights into water user behaviour and allows Fundifix (a local social enterprise) to drastically increase service uptime.

Financial sustainability of the Fundifix service is improved, but not completely covered, by means of a blended finance water services trust fund at the District level.
Urban Water SecurityIn informal settlements of Kisumu, faecal contamination is affecting urban groundwater safety. Future pressures from urban population expansion and climate change are likely to have important consequences for shallow groundwater use in informal urban settlements.

Hydrological, social and financial risks of groundwater investments should be considered prior to development of infrastructure. In Wazir, Kenya, a risk assessment for a proposed pipeline revealed high risks of salinisation, socio-political risks and lack of knowledge as barriers to investment

Case Studies


UPGro Gro for GooD film for 7th RWSN Forum 2016

Part of the Gro for GooD UPGro project has been trailing the deployment of performance-based payment models for rural water services, using the FundiFix model. The FundiFix model focuses on the maintenance of existing water infrastructure for communities, schools, clinics and other rural facilities. Led by local entrepreneurs and powered by Africa’s mobile network, the FundiFix model offers a performance-based approach working with government, communities and investors to keep water flowing.

The business rationale is ‘scale reduces risk’. If all rural waterpoints are networked in one system economies of scale can improve service delivery and lower costs. Essentially, it’s insurance logic applied to rural water infrastructure.

The FundiFix model has four connected dimensions:

  • Professional Services – user payments and investor finance are contingent on service delivery. The FundiFix model guarantees a rapid service with offices staffed by local entrepreneurs and qualified technicians, with contracts contingent on high quality service delivery.
  • Sustainable Finance – stable and adequate flows of finance from government, users and investors are required to maintain water infrastructure across a diverse portfolio of waterpoints serving everyone, every day.
  • Smart Monitoring – regular data flows from mobile technologies with data analytics support a rapid repair service and inform sector monitoring, regulation and resource management.
  • Institutional Coordination – government leadership in separation of policy, regulation and delivery is critical to ensure sector partners have clear roles and responsibilities.

What’s new is mobile technologies now allow operational and financial data to flow quickly and cost-effectively. Better information permits improved institutional design. Rather than each community tackling often similar but infrequent repairs, local companies guarantee a high-quality team to fix repairs fast. Regular servicing also reduces the risk of breakdown in the first place.

Communities subscribe to a service contract which protects their rights but makes them responsible for regular payments. Local entrepreneurs have established companies in Kenya working in partnership with government, investors, communities and UNICEF.

More information

Water for Wajir

UPGro-RWSN webinar presentation by Jan de Leeuw, ICRAF (2014)

Groundwater investments are often pursued without adequately considering the associated risks. These investments then frequently fail to meet their development objectives. The ARIGA project applied risk assessment tools from the field of business to groundwater investments.

In the proposed Habaswein-Wajir Water Supply Project in Northern Kenya, water is to be extracted from a major aquifer near Habaswein and piped to the city of Wajir. A team of eight experts developed an Applied Information Economics model including all costs, benefits, and risks considered important for project success and expressed their uncertainty for about 100 variables in the model with probability distributions. Critical uncertainties were identified using Monte Carlo simulation to project decision outcomes, and Partial Least Squares (PLS) regression.

The project was found to be risky for most stakeholders, mainly due to the risk of political interference caused by water supply concerns in Habaswein and due to unclear profitability of the water supply business. Uncertainties about how to value decreasing infant mortality and reduction in water-borne disease incidence were also critical. The greatest hydrological risk was saltwater intrusion into the aquifer.

Careful well design, inclusive project planning and benefit sharing could raise the chance of project success. The analysis improved understanding of the decision by all stakeholders, some of which changed their opinions on the pipeline, requested more measurements, or proposed alternative water supply options. Decision analysis can help clarify decision uncertainties and outcome expectations and thereby improve decision-making processes, especially in data-scarce areas.

Evolution of informal groundwater use in Kisumu       

UPGro-RWSN webinar presentation by Dr Jim Wright, Southampton University (2014)

The Sustaining groundwater safety in peri-urban areas project was focused on Kisumu, the third largest city in Kenya, on the shores of Lake Victoria. Informal settlements without urban planning surround the city, which often lack basic services like a piped water supply, or the piped water supplies are intermittent and unreliable. Inhabitants commonly rely on other sources of water to meet their needs, such as shallow hand dug wells.

Testing of water quality in two informal settlements (Manyatta A and Migosi) showed that the risk of water contamination had increased over time due to an increasing number of hazards such as nearby pit latrines and waste dumps. 44 of the 46 wells tested were found to be unsuitable for drinking. However, 87% of people using well water were not using it for drinking, but for other tasks such as washing clothes and personal hygiene. When choosing the type of water for drinking, water quality and safety were top on their list of priorities, and residents were more likely to use other sources like piped or rain water.

Groundwater from shallow wells contributes a vital quantity of water to residents of these informal settlements. Generally, there is an awareness that water from different sources differs in quality, and is used accordingly. However, this awareness was not universal, and future pressures from urban population expansion and climate change are likely to have important consequences for shallow groundwater use in these settlements in the future.

UPGro published work relating to Kenya

UPGro Projects in Kenya

Briefing Notes


More information

Ministries and authorities

Ministry of Water and Sanitation
Water Resources Authority (WRA)
Water Services Regulation Board (WASREB)

Similar research programmes in Kenya


Further research recommendations

Further studies are needed to better understand the causal pathways that underlie risk factors for poor functionality of handpumps. Survival analysis and longitudinal study designs could be applied more widely to increase the rigour of water point sustainability assessments.


This Country Profile was prepared by Heather Plumpton (Walker Institute) and Sean Furey (Skat Foundation)

UPGro researchers in Kenya who have led this work

  • Prof Daniel Olago, Julius Odida (Gro for GooD), University of Nairobi
  • Prof Bancy Mati, Prof John Gathenya (Gro for GooD), Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology
  • Michael Thomas, Mike Lane (Gro for GooD), Rural Focus Ltd.
  • Lorna G. Okotto (groundwater safety project), Jaramogi Oginga University of Science and Technology
  • Joseph Okotto-Okotto (groundwater safety project), Victoria Institute for Research on Environment and International Development
  • Prof. Joy Obando, Mary Makokha (coastal groundwater project), Kenyatta University
  • Eike Luedeling, Maimbo Malesu, Alex Oduor (ARIGA), World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF)

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