Unearthing the sanitation crisis within Nairobi’s public schools

Residents cross the Mathare River /file
Residents cross the Mathare River /file

The bell rings. Break time is over. A Standard Three girl carefully, but quickly, makes her way through the flooded entrance to a toilet. At least 50 other girls are with her.

The girls squeeze into the few toilets, with the older ones jostling the younger ones out of the way. They then wrinkle their noses in disgust and walk away. This is the everyday life of pupils in Nairobi public schools.

With the rains, some schools are in pathetic condition as dirty water and sewage flood the institutions' compounds. Mathare North Primary School is flooded after the nearby dirty Mathare River broke its banks. Teachers say this is nothing new.

Kindergarten pupils here have only two functioning toilets, one serves the girls and the other the boys. Since the introduction of free primary education in 2003, the population has almost tripled but the toilets, like many others in Nairobi, have never been improved.

“The funding from government is very small and there isn’t much we can do,” Rose Bulimo, a teacher, says. Deputy headteacher Catherine Kariuki explains that the government disburses money depending on the student population. On the higher side, the government gives around Sh324,000 per term for at least 600 pupils. Each child gets Sh600 per term for sanitation.


With 1,300 pupils, Mathare North Primary School, like other public primary schools in Nairobi, faces a severe shortage of toilets for its ever-growing population. The Ministry of Education's Handbook for Inspection of Education Institutions states that for primary day schools, one toilet should serve at most 30 boys and one toilet should serve at most 25 girls. The toilets must be separate for boys and girls. For boarding schools, the ideal student to toilet ratio is 50:5 for boys and 50:7 for girls.

Director of Quality Assurance and Standards Pius Mutisya says these requirements apply to both public and private schools. “Toilets are put up according to the population of the school and in the event that the population increases, then there is need to erect new toilets to sustain the population,” he says. Mathare North Primary has 12 working toilets.

Mutisya says primary schools are inspected at least once every term. “It is a requirement that during these inspections we check if the toilets are cleaned daily; if the toilets are disinfected and if there are special toilets fitted with rails.”

Despite the checks, schools such as Tom Mboya and Kariobangi primary faced closure early this year. The filthy Mathare Rivers flows right behind Mathare North primary, with no fence separating it from the school's playground. Only half the school is surrounded by a perimeter wall.

Mr Nzokia (who requested to be referred to this way), a teacher at Mathare North primary, says the smell from the river can become unbearable. “During heavy rains the effects are devastating as the river usually bursts its banks, flooding most of the school and making learning impossible,” he said.


The recent heavy rains, which caused widespread flooding, exposed the sorry state of sanitation facilities and infrastructure in schools. A report by the Kenya Red Cross Society stated that at least 200 schools were flooded, making then inaccessible and a health hazard. Poor drainage and poorly maintained infrastructure such as sanitary blocks were mostly to blame.

Despite sanitation being a major problem, it has no specific budget. The chief economist at the Education ministry, Michael Kahiti, says, “However, the budget allocation for sanitation is under infrastructure and the government disburses this money to schools depending on the need as well as the money available, which is usually not much.”

The Education ministry was allocated Sh375 billion by the National Treasury for 2017-18. According to the office of the Controller of Budget, this amount represents 14.2 per cent of the total gross national budget. In the first quarter budget implementation report 2017-18, the Education ministry spent most of its budget on the Teachers Service Commission, the state department for basic education and state department for university education. Most of this was recurrent expenditure.

The report also indicated that recurrent expenditure has increased over the years. In 2013-14, it was at Sh245.8 billion but today it stands at Sh350.1 billion. On the other hand development expenditure has been on a steady decline from Sh30.4 billion in 2013-14 to Sh24.8 billion in 2017-18.

Efforts to get comments from the financial director at the Education ministry on the detailed breakdown of development funds, including on sanitation, were futile.


Low budgets and heavy demand on sanitation facilities have forced schools to waste away, seek help elsewhere or solve the situation by themselves. Peter Kibukosya Primary School in Embakasi constituency took matters into their own hands. Unlike Mathare North primary, which has received some support from Unicef to rehabilitate its toilets, the Parents Teachers Association at Peter Kibukosya primary, working together with the board, takes care of toilet rehabilitation and maintenance as well as provision of water and hiring of cleaners.

Headteacher Francisca Anyango says, “We work very closely with the parents to ensure that there is good and proper sanitation in the school. The money we contribute as an association is used for projects in the school.”

In 2017, Peter Kibukosya primary spent about Sh124,520 on environment and sanitation. Their proposed budget was Sh93,000.

Board chairman Benson Luganji says the school has a serious water problem. He says they buy the commodity from water bowsers three times a week for Sh4,000 per tank; this translates to almost 144,000 per term.

“The parents have been very supportive and very cooperative in all our initiatives. This is because they see the fruits of their contributions first hand and I am very proud of what we have achieved,” he says.

Luganji says local MCAs donated water tanks to help ease the burden of insufficient water.

According to Sanergy, a social enterprise organisation that provides sanitation in informal settlements, and schools, only 12 per cent of Nairobi county has appropriate sewer facilities and only five per cent of sewage is properly treated.

The sanitation problem is not limited to public schools. Deputy director of public health Jairus Musumba admits lack of proper drainage is a problem.

“Nairobi is very old. The sewage piping that was planned out years back can no longer contain the huge population of Nairobi county. Our sewers are currently running full when ideally they should be running half full. This is why there are frequent sewage bursts, even in schools,” he says.

Government relations manager at Sanergy, Alex Manyasi, says public participation will help improve sanitation in schools. “There is need to revise policies for collaboration between the government and the private sector, including the Public Private Partnership Act.” He admits that the policies are in place but they are not implemented. “There is need for sensitisation of what the situation is on the ground, as most stakeholders are not fully aware of them.”

A concerted collective approach by the respective stakeholders in Nairobi county is undoubtedly a better remedy to the poor sanitation in primary schools.

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