Researchers Cut Off Water in Nairobi Estates During Experiment - NBER Report

  • Nairobi residents queuing for water.
    Nairobi residents queuing for water.
  • An experiment reportedly carried out across various estates and slums in Nairobi which involved disconnecting residents from water, some for over 9 months, caused an uproar on Sunday, August 9.

    The research paper titled "Enforcing Payment For Water & Sanitization Services in Nairobi's Slums" was shared across various social media platforms, raising various questions on ethics.

    "To address this challenge, we worked  with the Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company (NCWSC) to test two approaches designed to increase payment rates using field 2 experiments," reads and excerpt from the research paper.

    In the first experiment, they organised face-to-face meetings with tenants and explained the financial status of the water and sewer bill and discussed what they could do to encourage landlords to make payments.

    Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company offices.
    Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company offices.

    However, it was the second part of the experiment that sparked an uproar as it involved actual disconnection from water supply over an extended period to observe behaviour.

    "We find that the disconnection intervention significantly increased both the likelihood of customers making a payment, and the overall amount paid," the study report reads in part.

    649 NCWSC accounts were determined as eligible for disconnection in the disconnection treatment clusters, with 674 compounds eligible in the control clusters.

    The researchers further stated that disconnected households found a way to get back on the grid 9 months later.

    However, the issue of how ethical the study was has been raised, having been carried out in Kayole's Soweto slums as well as Matopeni area.

    Political Cost

    The researchers observed that landlords responded to strict enforcement by either increasing rent or putting up additional rental units.

    "To counterbalance the effective increase in utility fees paid, landlords increased their rental income predominantly by renting out additional space in their compounds and by marginally increasing tenant rents." 

    The study concludes that measures such as disconnections could contribute to reducing nonpayent of utility bills without any political costs. 

    "These results suggest that strict enforcement through disconnections increases payment and the financial position of the utility without incurring political costs."

    This observation rubebd Kenyans the wrong way given the low-income status of the affected populations.

    Many argued that carrying out the experiment on Nairobi's most vulnerable and poorest group was inhumane.

    The study received local and international ethical clearance from Maseno University and Innovations for Poverty Action International Review Board before commencement. 

    One of the authors involved in drafting the research paper was Idan Coville - Senior Economist in the Development Impact Evaluation Team (DIME) at the World Bank.

    The study was ublished in the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) Working Series - under the American private nonprofit research organization "committed to undertaking and disseminating unbiased economic research among public policymakers, business professionals, and the academic community."

    NBER working papers are circulated for discussion and comment purposes. They have not been peer- reviewed or been subject to the review by the NBER Board of Directors that accompanies official NBER publications.

    Efforts to reach the Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company (NCWSC) for comment on the said study were not successful by the time of publication. 

    Nairobi residents queuing for water.
    Nairobi residents queuing for water.