Environment & Urbanization

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Water for a Few: A History of Urban Water and Sanitation in East Africa


Stockholm Papers in the History and Philosophy of Technology

Published by: 
KTH Architecture and the Built Environment

Publisher town: 


Why study the history of urban water and sanitation in Africa? Doesn’t the continent offer enough problems to study at present without having to spend years of research looking into the problems of the past? These are two questions that the author raises in the preface to his doctoral thesis, Water for a Few. His answer is that perhaps East Africa’s current shortcomings relating to urban water and sanitation have a connection with the past. A reliable water supply is indispensable, and the history of humankind demonstrates a close connection between water and civilization. In an urban setting, this connection is even more apparent, as denser populations put greater pressure on local water resources through water use and through increased risk of pollution. Water for a Few suggests that with the rapid urban growth in Africa, it is difficult for the public service systems to keep in step with urban growth and that the situation has deteriorated over time. Thus, it describes and analyzes the modern history of the socio-technical systems for urban water supply and sanitation in East Africa, with particular focus on Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. The key objective of the thesis is to evaluate to what extent the historic processes frame and influence the water and sanitation services sectors in these countries today.

The book comprises six chapters. The first gives a contextual background to the research. It explains how knowledge of the history of urban water and sanitation systems in Africa can hopefully feed into the ongoing processes of reforming service systems in order to make them more sustainable and more equitable. Chapter 2 defines the research problem in more detail by expanding upon certain definitions and delimitations. Chapter 3 offers a more comprehensive discussion on related research and outlines the theoretical framework for the analysis of the history of urban water and sanitation in East Africa. Chapter 4 summarizes the three articles that underpin the thesis and emphasizes the themes and issues that relate closely to the overarching research problem. The first article provides a theoretical model of how water and sanitation services relate to social objectives, institutions and the state. The second article gives an in-depth study of how and why the large-scale systems for water and sewerage were established in Kampala, Uganda, between 1920 and 1950. The third article reconstructs the modern history of national policy for urban water supply in Kenya and analyzes the relationship between policy and the institutions, organization and technology for urban water.

Chapter 5 synthesizes the findings of the three articles and identifies two mechanisms through which history frames and influences the space of decision for water and sanitation in Kenya and Uganda. It discusses the mechanisms of both technological and institutional inertia. The final chapter discusses the research findings in relation to sector reforms in East Africa and the wider context of policy implications and future research. It emphasizes that an historic approach is of great importance when large-scale technical systems are the objects of reform such as those carried out in Uganda and Kenya.

Available from: 
Published by and available from School of Architecture and the Built Environment, Royal Institute of Technology, KTH, 100 44 Stockholm, Sweden

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