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A conversation in Kisii

A recent field visit took me to Kisii, a Kenyan town close to the shores of Lake Victoria. The population has swelled to 100,000 from approximately 70,000 largely because of refugees fleeing the post-election violence in other parts of Kenya. Local authorities expect to see that population double over the next ten years. Providing public services, especially water and sanitation, to this growing population is an enormous challenge.

In 2000, the international community made a commitment to the UN Millennium Development Goals to help communities access basic public services, like health, education, water and sanitation. One the key milestones of Goal 7 is to "halve the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015." As of 2004, the MDG Monitor shows the nations bordering Lake Victoria- Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya only 60% of their populations have access to improved drinking water sources.

While great progress is being made in Kisii, local officials say far less than 60% of their population has adequate service, despite what the official statistics say. New water pipes have been donated to the local water provider. This has doubled the capacity, but it only reaches half of Kisii's estimated population (50,000). Water kiosks stand proudly along the main road. And yet, the taps run dry. The connections to the main line are not even functional. Young women still trudge the kilometers to the river, at risk to their own security, to collect water. Bright blue toilet stalls line the periphery of a girls school. While the school has seen an increase in attendance since the installation of these toilets, they continue to be plagued by their inability to deal with the sanitation requirements of their students. As we depart, the headmistress of the school pleads with us to help with the sanitation problem.

Some more recent data gathered from towns surrounding Lake Victoria in Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya, tell us a very different story than information from the MDG Monitor. This story is closer to the facts reported to us on the ground: while basic infrastructure (water pipes, points, toilets) may exist, those facilities are rarely functional, affordable or accessible, indicating to us that access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation services is substantially lower than many think. Presented with this information at a recent UN-Habitat meeting in Nairobi, international donors and development agencies were astonished. They asked, "how come we didn't know about this earlier?"

And yet, unsurprisingly, the people of Kisii have long known that they don't have appropriate water and sanitation services. They may not have even heard of the MDG's. They are likely unaware of the conversations that transpire amongst donors and development agencies and help shape where resources are allocated. They are having their own conversations about what they need. But who can they tell? Who hears their voices?

Our challenge going forward is to help amplify these voices and contribute to efforts to inform these local discussions.

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