Big water expansion project in western Kenya brings clean water and modern sewage treatment to the people who need the most help

A salesman shouted “next” and motioned to the girl waiting in a long queue to buy water for her home. Phoebe Atieno, 16 years old, hurriedly picked up her two big plastic containers and began filling.

“That will be 50 shillings,” the man said, as he stretched out his hand to take her money. Atieno paid and quickly picked up her heavy jerricans to begin a difficult walk home. It’s hard for any adult or child to carry two full jugs of water, but Atieno also was tired after a long day at school. She got home a little past 7 p.m., three hours after beginning the trip.


A resident of one of the informal settlements in Kisumu, Kenya, getting water at a communal collection point.

This difficult daily ritual by women and children is a fact of life where Atieno lives, in one of the informal settlements in Kisumu, a big port city on the shores of Lake Victoria in western Kenya. There are not a lot of water pipes in the area. Many residents wait every day for the water vendors who arrive in tankers or handcarts to sell water.

The European Investment Bank is trying to improve piped water supplies in the whole region. In 2020, the Bank signed a €35 million loan to support a €70 million project improving water and sanitation in Kisumu. The work, which is still underway, is adding more water pipes and improving the sewer network in the Lake Victoria area, because a lot of raw sewage flows into alleyways around Kisumu. Agence Française de Développement provided €20 million for the project, and the European Commission gave a €5 million grant.


A handcart filled with water jerricans for sale to residents at an informal settlement in Kisumu.

No time to play

For most residents of Kisumu, especially in the informal settlements, searching for water is a big chunk of their lives. Getting a regular supply of clean drinking water that is affordable is not easy. Many residents don’t make a lot of money, and a significant portion of it goes to food and water. This leaves little room for savings and investments to improve their lives.

“I have no time to play with my friends after school,” Atieno says. “A lot of my time is spent queuing for water and helping out at home.”


A water tanker that is commonly used to transport water to residential areas around Kisumu.

It’s not just poor residents who have a rough time getting good water. Another resident, Didi Otieno, lives in the affluent Milimani Estate in a wealthy part of Kisumu, but she also has a water problem.

“Our part of the estate is not served by piped water,” she says. “I have the means to pay, but the infrastructure does not exist. I usually order around two tankers every month to deliver 10 000 litres of water to my underground tank in my compound. From there, I pump it to the whole house for use.”

Otieno’s home also is not connected to a sewer system, so she installed a septic tank to handle the wastewater. If there were sewage and water treatment plants in the area, she and her neighbours would be more than willing to pay for those services, she says.

Critical international work

The Kisumu County government has been trying to help people like Atieno and Otieno. The goal is for all residents to have clean, piped water. There has been significant improvement compared to a few years ago, but a lot more needs to be done.

The main challenges are from old and dilapidated pumps, and water treatment facilities that are not working properly. There are many leaky pipes. There is no sewer network sufficient to collect the waste water into the existing treatment plants. The result is raw sewage entering Lake Victoria. This hurts the water quality, because the lake is the main source of water for the city.

The European Investment Bank funding and assistance from other international organisations are critical to this work, said Chrispine Juma, the former acting head of the Lake Victoria South Water Works Development Agency, which oversees the project. It has become increasingly hard to attract investors in the water sector in Kenya as the returns are not attractive, he said.

Cutting Lake Victoria pollution

The Kisumu project will improve water treatment facilities and piping for the area, as well as adding a third wastewater treatment plant and installing sewer networks to connect households to proper sanitation pipes, thus reducing the pollution of Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest freshwater lake.

The first phase of the project is nearing completion in 2024, and residents have started reaping some benefits. Water provision and coverage has improved from 26% to 60%. The goal is 90%, when the project is done. Only 8% of the population was previously connected to a sewer network. That’s expected to grow to 40%. More than 1 700 sewer connections will be installed to help serve around 600 000 residents of Kisumu. In the informal settlements, the percentage of homes with access to clean water is expected to grow to 70%.

The European Investment Bank, as one of the largest global investors in water and wastewater treatment, is investing in similar water projects around the world. Over the last decade, the EU’s financing arm provided more than €33 billion for over 300 water projects.

“Here in Africa, the EIB has provided nearly €2 billion to water and wastewater treatment projects over the last decade in loans and grants,” says Caroline Ogutu, a water engineer in the European Investments Bank’s regional office in Nairobi. “Experience gained from involvement in water projects across the continent has strengthened the EIB’s technical support for this project.“


Jan-Willem Lohr, left, and Caroline Ogutu of the European Investment Bank visiting a sewer project in Kisumu, Kenya, with Paul Agwanda of Lake Victoria South Water Works Development Agency, right.

Clean water at subsidised cost

Before the water projects began, Atieno didn’t have a lot of time to play or relax after school. She would start her homework soon after getting home. Around 10 p.m., she would go to sleep. But today, Atieno has more time to live like any other child, playing with friends after school and doing homework early so that she can get enough sleep. Her area now has a lot of water vendors who are providing bulk supplies at fair prices, with support from the local government. Many parts of the settlements have piped water, too.

“Our area now has clean piped water provided to us at subsidized costs,” Atieno says. “This has meant that we no longer have to worry about water diseases, as the water we use is treated. The water is also affordable and we don’t have to ration it. Moreover, my mother and I now have more free time.”

Atieno looks forward to the completion of the project, which will mean even more water and sewer pipes in her area and a supply of water in her house that is available all the time. It will also mean not having to jump or wade through raw sewage flowing along the narrow alleys that she uses to get around the area.

Benefits of water projects

Fixing water problems has a wide range of benefits, says Ogutu, the European Investment Banks water engineer.

“Improving Kisumu’s water system will help its economic growth, too,” she says. “Improved supply will reduce waterborne diseases and healthcare costs, as well as significantly reduce the time spent collecting water, which is usually done by women and children.”