These Kenyan children may have a school to go to, but without clean water and sanitation they will soon have to leave. They are among 700,000 dwellers in Africa’s biggest slum, and they are desperate for the construction industry’s help. Paul Jowitt explains how it can be given

The G8 summit in Gleneagles ends today. Tony Blair has the report of the Commission for Africa in his hands and Gordon Brown has persuaded the world’s leading economies to cancel large slices of debt. Bob Geldof will have strutted his stuff at Live 8 and then joined Hilary Benn, the international development secretary, at the Make Poverty History demonstration in Edinburgh. And in the Kibera township of Nairobi, Kenya, many people at the receiving end of this international initiative will be discussing what has been said.

Kibera in the south of Nairobi is the largest slum in Africa, with a population of 700,000. The life of the population is largely disconnected from the official economy, and equally disconnected from basic services. But they will be listening to Blair, Benn and Geldof – even in Kibera, the mobile phone is ubiquitous and television aerials sprinkle the skyline.

What they want to hear is that they will be given help to develop essential infrastructure, and probably the most effective way to give that help is through the provision of clean water. Never has there been a truer statement than that which first appeared on a Water Aid poster more than 20 years ago: “To judge the health of a nation, count the taps not the hospital beds.” At present, many of the homes in Kibera have no toilets: in the words of Raila Odinga, the local MP, his constituents are “living like cows and goats”.

Pupils in a UNICEF-supported public school on the outskirts of the slum
Pupils in a UNICEF-supported public school on the outskirts of the slum

Quite apart from the obvious importance of water for health, it is also vital for education. In the schools the kids are there in overcrowded classes, attentive and smartly turned out – although goodness knows how, considering the conditions in which they live. In her schoolbook, an eight-year-old girl has written that “cutting down trees is bad because it leads to soil erosion”. As she reaches adolescence, unless she has access to cheap tampons and segregated toilets at school, she and countless other girls of her age will leave education. Once that happens, they tumble down the economic and health ladders.

Kibera’s population has tenuous property rights and therefore few legally recognised assets against which they can borrow. Nevertheless, community groups are striving to better their homes by constructing toilet blocks and running a health clinic and maternity unit, assisted by aid and their own personal subscriptions of a few Kenyan shillings a month.

The story of Kibera is repeated across the continent of Africa, as well as large parts of Asia and South America. Two billion people worldwide currently are without access to an adequate water supply. The UN’s target is to halve that number by 2015, despite the fact that that the world population is becoming more and more urbanised, especially in the developing world. In Nairobi, for example, almost all population growth will be accommodated in Kibera and the city’s other 198 slums.

To provide water for 1 billion people by 2015 will mean connecting a quarter of a million a day, every day, for 10 years

To provide safe water for 1 billion people by 2015 will mean connecting more than a quarter of a million people per day, every day, for the next 10 years. Can it be done? If so, how?

In November 2003 the Institution of Civil Engineers established a presidential commission, called Engineering without Frontiers, to examine the role of the engineer in meeting the UN Millennium Development Goals, which deal with poverty, education, sex equality, child mortality, the health of mothers, the prevention of HIV, the protection of the environment and global partnership.

The Engineering Without Frontiers Commission has developed a set of engineering principles for development and poverty reduction to underpin the delivery of the infrastructure needed to underpin the millennium goals. These were launched in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in February.

The ICE is now advocating that those principles be adopted as an operational platform to scale up the response for delivery of the millennium goals. Essential to this will be the creation of effective vehicles for delivery – multi-sectoral joint ventures and partnerships. These will tackle the millennium goals locally as exercises in procurement and project management. A number of these partnerships are now beginning to mobilise themselves within the UK engineering community (see “Turning on the tap”).

What is needed now is for the leaders of the G8 countries to unlock the capital, work to remove the barriers of bureaucracy and corruption and let the engineering community to get on with the job of reducing world poverty – on time and on budget.

Turning on the tap

Water & Sanitation for the Urban Poor is the first multi-sector taskforce to be set up in the UK. It consists of non-governmental organisations and, from the construction side, client Thames Water and engineer Halcrow Group. Its aim is to work with local partners to deliver water and sanitation services and hygiene education. It works at two levels: the International Alliance, which identifies and develops projects on a not-for-profit basis, and consortiums, that deliver them, and will work for margins of up to 10% on the resources they commit. WSUP’s first project is set for Bangalore in India, and aims to provide water to 70,000 people in urban slums. The selection of a second project, in Africa, is under way. WSUP is recruiting members: contact