This book represents a prodigious undertaking. Over nearly 500 pages Nyanchaga documents the historical development of water administration – mainly water supply – throughout Kenya, going back to 1900, the beginning of the colonial period.

The author has delved deep into Kenya archives, from the Hydraulic Inspection reports of 1951–60 in the Kenya National Archive, to reviews of water supplies in Native areas in Wajir dating from 1935, or a report on Taveta water from the Lumi River in 1914. He has pored over old documents, sometimes hand written or on flimsy carbon copies and more modern reports alike and has produced a fascinating and thorough history of water policy in Kenya over the past 100 years.

The heart of the book – running to over 300 pages – is an extremely detailed and carefully researched description of water supply systems to all the entities in Kenya, from large cities like Nairobi and Mombasa to small rural water supply projects, across the central districts out to Turkana and the north. The different regions of Kenya contain very varied water regimes, from dammable rivers, to ground water accessible through boreholes, and semi desert regions where rainwater harvesting has always been important, and this variety is reflected in the local approaches to water supply. This provides interesting reading at a local and regional level, and there are a number of entertaining historical insights. For example, one effect of the First World War is that there was a shortage of steel on world markets – and the knock-on impact was a shortage of steel latrine buckets in Kenya.

Nyanchaga documents how in the initial years of the 20th century water supply was linked to the construction of the Uganda Railway from Mombasa through to Lake Victoria at what is now Kisumu. The railway company brought water both for the workers and settlements that grew up along the railway and also to provide water for the steam engines. Over time, still during the colonial period, piped water supply was increased throughout the colony, focusing on urban areas, but with efforts to reach rural areas and to provide water for livestock. As well as the physical investments and changes, Nyanchaga summarises the main institutional and political events affecting water supply from the 1920s when water supply was under the auspices of the Public Works Department. In the later years of the colonial period, according to the author, water supplies were brought under the Ministry of Agriculture in the framework of the Swynnerton plan for intensification of small holder agriculture in the 1950s, funded through ALDEV, the African Land Development Board. After Independence, a National Development Plan incorporated a water supply plan which among other things argued for full cost recovery; in the 1980s Swedish and Japanese aid agencies (SIDA and later JICA) supported a National Water Master Plan.

The 1990s saw continuing financial constraints accompanied by inefficiency in water services, which in turn brought new initiatives, structural adjustment policies and water pricing and commercialisation of water and sanitation facilities. NGOs were brought into the mix to stimulate community level water programmes. A new National Water Policy was developed between 1995–9 which aimed to address these issues but in the event this was apparently ‘tarnished by ministerial interference’. In principle, the 2002 Water Act, the next major initiative, provided a sound basis for implementing water reforms but according to the author ‘all critical interventions in areas susceptible to monopoly power abuse [by water supply providers] appear to be totally emasculated’ (p. 578). So the 100 years of history are in some ways a sorry tale.

And by early 2000s about 75 and 50% of urban and rural populations respectively had access to safe drinking water, but only 30% of the urban areas had sewerage systems. Many of the existing water supply provisions – small dams, boreholes – required rehabilitation. Nyanchago writes that by the year 2005, the situation of water and sanitation services was inadequate in both urban and rural areas. Despite a wealth of policies and initiatives water supply in Kenya is far from satisfactory.

One of the strong conclusions from such a wide and long overview is that in technological terms, nothing much has changed in water supply: dams, boreholes, piping, rainwater harvesting, treatment. The main supply to Nairobi in the 1940s was the Nairobi dam; later in the 1970s the Chania dam was constructed. It is clear that, over such a long perspective, problems and issues in water supply are always institutional – how to finance, how to maintain, how to ensure water reaches the poorest and the rural.

In the final two chapters the author turns to contemporary theory and thinking about water: drivers of water policy and different attitudes and approaches such as IWRM. He discusses the role of the private sector, rights based approaches, and modern thinking to water issues.

But the value of the work would be much enhanced if the author took a more analytical approach, and drew together conclusions and overarching insights which would then enable him to launch into the policy recommendations of the last two chapters with more conviction. In his preface to the book the author refers to some conclusions; notably the time span between the identification of a problem and its implementation. He cites for example the Water Act 137 which was reviewed in 1972 and eventually implemented in 2002. He points out the institutional shifts over the years – from the Railways, through the Public Works Department, then the Water Development Department and the Ministry of Agriculture, then the Ministry of Water Development; then to municipalities and later to water companies. But despite these changes the endemic problems of water supply in Kenya seem to have changed little. As the author notes: ‘the main problems facing water services delivery have tended to revolve around lack of clarity with regard the institutional framework, un-sustainability of services and inadequate financing’ (p. 515).

The final section ‘Conclusions’ does not even mention Kenya. On page 610 he writes ‘There is a immediate need for the ministry of water and irrigation to strengthen its capacities focused on water investments in support of infrastructure for water conservation and management’. But what was the 2002 Water Act trying to do if not that? And what went wrong? And how can new policy initiatives address these concerns?

Given the wealth of material that Nyanchaga has assembled, a more analytical approach to modern thinking drawing on the empirical experiences of Kenya could have provided huge insights. Perhaps comparison with other African countries – South Africa perhaps – would also have provided lessons. But any conclusions that the author draws are not spelled out in sufficiently coherent form and do not really underpin the recommendations in the policy discussion of chapters 4 and 5. As it is, one is left with the feeling of an opportunity missed.

The book would also have benefited from a more thorough edit. Some of the chronology is not clear, and jumps around a bit, and as each section goes back to 1900 there is inevitably too much repetition. It would also be improved with an index.