Milka Losia knew it was the river’s fault that her brother died. The culprit was the dirty brown water they had no choice but to drink.
‘Our village needs a hospital, people are dying,” said Benson Naitalima, a farmer.
Of course hospitals are important, Milka thought. But if it wasn’t for the dirty river water, they wouldn’t have needed a hospital in the first place. People like her brother would be alive and, Milka wouldn’t be caring for his orphaned children.
Milka heard there was going to be a meeting to discuss how local citizens like herself could get involved in making decisions on how money was going to be allocated and spent in the local budget. She decided to attend this meeting on “participatory budgeting” in West Pokot, a dusty arid county located in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley on the border with Uganda, to make a case for the importance of clean water. Milka hoped that others would agree with her.
Public participation in the budget is a key feature of Kenya’s Constitution, adopted in 2010 and implemented since 2013.
The World Bank supported participatory budgeting project has strengthened citizen’s capacity to shape the budgeting process. Thanks to the Kenya Participatory Budgeting Initiative, which started in October 2015 and is ongoing, West Pokot began integrating participatory budgeting for the first time by engaging the public.
Participatory budgeting requires dialogue and a prioritization of community needs and solutions. At the meeting in March 2015, it was apparent that the community had many needs.
When Milka arrived in West Pokot, she saw about a hundred community members sitting under spindly acacia trees. Men were on one side, women on the other. Women rarely speak at these community meetings. However, the participatory budgeting increases women’s opportunities to express their opinions by providing a platform to take an active role in their community.
County residents, including women, expressed their needs that ranged from the need for a dining hall in the village’s only school to centralized market to sell produce from the farm.
Milka wasn’t sure if she was the first to propose water as a priority, but when she spoke, her opinion was popular.
“This water is bad, it has killed so many people,” Milka said.
“I walk two hours every day to collect water and it’s not even good water,” she told the group. Many cheered, particularly the women who were familiar with strenuous daily treks to fetch water. While access to an improved drinking water source has increased in Kenya over the years, 43 percent of rural Kenyans, like the residents of West Pokot, still lack one.
“This water is contaminated and so many people had gotten sick, my whole family has suffered,” added Veronica Maditan, one of the oldest women in attendance. She had been admitted to the hospital twice due to typhoid, a water borne illness.
Milka was delighted to get support from her fellow villagers but there still wasn’t a consensus on budget priorities.
“Irrigation could finish hunger in the area,” said one man, something the community could scarcely imagine.
Irrigation would be for the fields and cannot address the immediate need for clean drinking water, Milka worriedly thought.
Veronica was old enough to remember when clean water ran freely and the community didn’t have to rely on the dirty river. In 1978, a group of Norwegians built a borehole. For a few glorious years, villagers had water, until the tap ran dry. By then, the Norwegians had left and no one knew how the borehole worked, or had the money to fix it.
The community unfortunately had to go back to drinking the dirty river water.
Veronica suggested that instead of constructing an entirely new water system, they could just repair the broken borehole.
Before the end of a participatory budgeting meeting, the community must determine their top three priorities. Fixing the unused and broken borehole landed at the top.
“This was easily justified because it really answered the question of the water related borne diseases in the community and it was cheap for the county government,” said Honorable Thomas Ngolesia, the Member of the County Assembly of Sekerr Ward in West Pokot.
This was the first participatory budgeting project to be implemented in West Pokot. The county saved money by repairing the old borehole. Extra funds were used to make the borehole a hybrid run by both solar power and electricity—ensuring continuous access to clean water to the county residents.
“Participatory budgeting made the difference here,” said Prisillah Chebbet Mungo, The Head of Budget in West Pokot. “This project had been a priority for the community for a long time but it was ignored [by the county]. Now, whatever the community decides we have to implement.”