……Where does the engineer come in?

‘By out action we either compound disasters or diminish them’ Ban Ki Moon

It’s that season again where local and world press is dominated by emaciated African children, malnourished mothers, dying livestock and other gory images that have come to define post independent Africa. This comes in the heels of a decade of ‘Africa rising’. It could be, but just for a handful, for the masses its ‘Africa reeling’.

Kenya stands at a very interesting position as a country in this moment. There are huge projects going on and well-connected individuals are reaping big from the mega public projects. Most of the projects are under construction by foreign contractors, having been designed and funded by them with a little collusion of the local elite that stands to reap the most benefits from these projects. The brunt of the bill in the long term is picked by the taxpayers who even now only ask for water, food, housing, transport and other basic needs. To right this is the domain of the engineer. 

On one side of this dichotomy exists great opulence while on the other side there is extreme want exposed by the drought and climate changes that currently rocks the country. On both sides the engineer is at the center. While it is most natural for most engineers to be attracted to the Mega projects they are mostly needed by the Kenyans suffering under the weight of extreme poverty, lack of water and other basic amenities. For what is the use of a standard gauge railway or a berth to the two plus million Kenyans facing starvation?

While there exist a plethora of organizations dealing with water as a resource in Kenya, there still exist many instances of extreme lack in water resulting from its mismanagement. Water scarcity involves water shortage, water stress or deficits, and water crisis. The country both urban and rural currently experiences these challenges. The Water and Irrigation Cabinet Secretary, Eugene Wamalwa just announced that Ndakaini Dam that supplies Nairobi currently holds below 40% as its reserves. Nairobi Water and Sewerage Company has already put in place a water rationing regime throughout the county. 

Historically, engineers have been involved in all aspects of clean water production, source selection, protection, dam design, dam construction, drilling wells, water treatment plants and treatment processes, infrastructure design and maintenance, construction, and water delivery to the consumption points.  This involvement starts with geotechnical engineers looking at the hydrogeology of sites and water sources. We then have an array of mechanical, electrical and instrumentation engineers who design facilities and treatment plants. Chemical and process engineers develop the treatment processes, and extend to civil engineers who design and renew water delivery systems the reservoirs, water mains and pipelines that carry water to homes, institutions and businesses. In addition, engineers like those at Water Services Regulatory Board (WASREB) are involved in government approval processes, and in developing water regulations and guidelines. 

Simply, when you’re talking water, you’re talking engineering. 

Access to clean drinking water is a basic water service needed for all forms of life. Our Constitution 2010 guarantees this for all citizens and it’s the engineer to realize this guarantee. Engineers work in and head different water boards across the country and should therefore share a modicum of responsibility where desired outcomes are not realized.

The National Water Services Strategy (NWSS-2007 to 2015) documents had certain aspirations for those operating in the water sector; Kenya’s target for water and sewerage services in the urban setting was 80% and 40% respectively. Only a dismal 15% of utilities operating in Kenya met this target. In 30% of utilities, more than 50% of the water produced is lost through physical and commercial losses with only 10% (8/84) of the utilities meeting the Non-Revenue Water (NRW) country target of 30% by 2015. The data does not speak so well for the sector that is heavily engineering dependent.

The Kenya Vision 2030 National Development Plan is geared toward making water and basic sanitation available to all by 2030. The total cost of investment and rehabilitation needed to achieve this is estimated at KES 1.7 trillion (NWMP 2030). According to the Kenya Water Masterplan, 2030, the available government budget is KES 592.4 billion. This leaves a shortfall of KES 1.2 trillion. From the budgetary constraint, it behooves the engineers to innovate and come up with other cost effective ways to supply clean water.

The image is not rosy with respect to urban sanitation and sewerage management in Kenya either. It can be seen as a rising trajectory of “engineering failure” in the sense that engineers and urban planners have repeatedly failed to plan for, project and prepare for rapid urban growth. Engineering works are deployed retroactively or politically in response to environmental and public outcry. In the rural areas and some slum areas people still defecate in the open, which could be seen as relying solely on ecosystem services for sanitation. Ancient civilizations recognized that ecosystem solutions are inadequate for a civilized life, when the populations increased. Engineering solutions were therefore called to manage human waste. Sewerage coverage in Kenya currently stands at 15%. The trend has been declining from 19% in 2010 due to the rapid increase in population, which is not matched by corresponding investment in sewerage.

In 2017, the water sector has a challenge of providing services to more than 10 million underserved communities living in densely populated low income urban areas. Even the hitherto serviced areas are facing water rationing. The millions of underserved Kenyans pay much higher prices for water than consumers with household connections. In times like these some pay with their lives. Those in rural areas were long forgotten to subsist through streams and other fringe water sources. From 2014 through 2017 those in water scarce regions of Kenya have faced a never relenting drought situation that is yet to peak.

A national drought early warning bulletin for Kenya in January 2017 indicates no county has recorded normal rainfall during the short rainy season. It further says the short rains were too brief to significantly influence improvement in crop and animal production and summarizes the effects on particular counties. Because of the lack of rainfall, crop failure is expected for most parts of Embu County and near-total crop failure in Kitui. The warning also predicts below-average crop production in Makueni, Meru, Nyeri, Tharaka-Nithi, Kilifi, West Pokot, Baringo and Isiolo counties. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said People and animals’ lives are at risk because they are yet to recover from drought in 2014 since rains have been poor from 2015 throughout 2016.

The hi-tech and predictive livestock early warning system, developed by F.A.O and Texas A and M University, shows how much forage will be available in Kenya up to May 2017, using computer modeling of water flows and vegetation growth. It goes further to show that large swathes of Africa are experiencing severe drought, with 39 million people hit by a crisis predicted to peak early 2018.

The drought conditions have showed the soft underbelly of the ‘Africa rising’ narrative, it has not only exposed the water conditions but also the food scarcity. Food production anchored in Agriculture is the first step to every development in a nation. Food security must be handled even before grandiose projects that seek to satisfy other superfluous needs.   The economic growth of any country can be more easily fostered through sustaining sufficient food production.  Engineers deal with the techniques, systems and machines for production of goods and services including food. To improve agricultural production, the use of machinery and farm power must be combined with soil, environmental conservation and management.

The engineer designs, fabricates, and installs agricultural machines, construction of farm structures, agro-processing and storage of product. Abundance of food is a priority to every nation and those like United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, France, have achieved accelerated growth in production through joint effort of farmers and engineers.  Kenyan engineers must have a wealth of knowledge and skills to function effectively in agricultural, agro processing and agribusiness environments. To realize projects like the Galana-Kulalu food security project, the local engineer must rise to the occasion; it cannot end at just floating a tender. The engineer helps to make farming sustainable, safe, and environmentally friendly. The individuals and organizations given these mandates analyze agricultural operations and weigh the use of new technologies and methods to increase yields, improve land use, and conserve resources like seed, water, fertilizers, pesticides and fuel. 

Water, Sanitation and Agriculture engineering have a long history of serving human needs and are essential for civilized life. Only a minority of Kenyans enjoys the full benefits of piped water, decent sanitation, irrigated agriculture supported food security or flood protection, with time one would hope that access to these services will be the norm for a growing number of Kenyans. While ecosystem services might play a role in complementing engineering infrastructures, the dominant means to provide a comfortable living environment for humans, especially in a middle income economy that Kenya claims to be, will rest on continued use of engineering. Engineers are often accused of being driven by the desire “to pour more concrete on the problem”, but in reality, engineering works are in truth a response to ecosystem services’ inability to scale up to meet human needs for a comfortable living space.

During times of adversity and extreme need like we are experiencing, it would serve the nation more if engineers got back to the basics, start by sorting out the basic needs of the society and replacing ecosystem services with engineered services before working of the big money schemes. Engineering priorities for Kenya would be water and food security, supporting infrastructure and sanitation.


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