The impact of Covid-19 in Kenya: testimonial from a women human rights defender

Paris, July 28, 2020

Today, we celebrate 10 years since the adoption by the United Nations General Assembly of the Resolution 64/292 which explicitly recognized the human rights to water and sanitation and acknowledged that clean drinking water and sanitation are essential to the realisation of all human rights.

We regret that 10 years after the adoption of this resolution, the right to water and sanitation continues to be subject to systematic violations worldwide. While good hygiene practices are the main measure to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the access to clean water and handwashing facilities remains a privilege that many people cannot afford.

For the occasion, Human Dignity publishes its second interview with a human rights defender on the right to water in Kenyan informal settlements.

Ms. Samantha Oswago, a human rights lawyer and legal officer at the East African Centre for Human Rights (EACHRights) in Kenya , explains  how people living in informal settlements in Kenya have been left behind with no access to water and sanitation and no means to protect themselves against COVID-19. 

Does the Kenyan legal framework recognize the rights to water and sanitation?

The right of all Kenyans to safe and quality water in adequate quantities is enshrined in Article 43 of the Constitution 2010. This right encompasses the right to clean water, basic sanitation and good hygiene practices. Beyond the constitution, Kenya has committed itself to Sustainable Development Goal 6 which aims to achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all by 2030.

Did the Kenyan government take any specific measures to ensure the right to water and sanitation in the face of COVID-19 pandemic, including for the most vulnerable populations?

With the confirmation of the first case of COVID-19 in Kenya in mid-March 2020 and in pursuit of the recommendations issued by the World Health Organization (WHO), the Government urged the nation to adhere to the WHO’s directives on hand washing, hygiene and physical distancing. However, this directive has proven difficult to implement, especially in informal urban settlements. Such settlements often experience limited access to clean water and basic sanitation. Water often has to be purchased from private water vendors, sometimes at exorbitant rates. Secondly, by nature, informal settlements are densely populated and therefore the notion of physical distancing is nearly impossible.

It is unfortunate that the vulnerability of inhabitants of informal settlements has been further exacerbated through Government sanctioned evictions especially in the backdrop of the current COVID-19 landscape.

Despite a court order issued on the 3rd of May 2020 that effectively restrained authorities from conducting an eviction, around 8,000 persons were forcibly removed from Kariobangi settlement on the 4th of May. Verbal notice was issued only 24 to 48 hours in advance, without any prior measures to provide at the very least shelter, access to water and sanitation or any type of compensation. A replica of the same occurred on the 15th of May whereby over 1,500 people were forced out of their homes in Ruai at night, after curfew hours and in heavy rainfall. Such evictees now live in conditions that are devoid of clean water, sanitation and little room for distancing. With the COVID-19 epidemic looming over the nation, this situation can only be described as a ticking time bomb.

What are the measures the Kenyan government should take in order to ensure its compliance with national and international human rights standards?

The right to clean water and sanitation is an inalienable right as provided for by the Kenyan constitution. The Government is therefore fully and entirely obligated to halt any contemplated evictions during this precarious period and to provide alternative shelter, clean water and sanitation to curb the spread of the COVID-19 epidemic. It could be said that the true measure of a state is by how it treats its most vulnerable subjects.