- Research project
- – Western Pacific
On an overcast mid-morning in downtown Nairobi, the roads are muddy and trenches strewn with garbage. That same garbage will invariably end up in the Nairobi River, which snakes through the city. In the informal settlements downstream. The river is so polluted with all manner of garbage and industrial effluent. Sometimes dead bodies wash up.
Rehabilitation initiatives have yielded minimal success. The capital of 4.3 million people depend on water from the neighbouring Muranga County, while ironically, the permanent Nairobi River is rendered unusable.
Standing on a restored riparian patch on the banks of Nairobi River where a dumpsite stood last year, Fred Okinda, a resident of Korogocho recalls his younger days with nostalgia. In the early 1990’s he would swim with his friends in the river a short distance from his home. “Every day after school, swimming was our sport and we would come here with friends. The water was so clean,” he said.
Various government bodies, including the Nairobi County government, Athi Water, Ministry of Water, and the National Water Management Authority, among others, have for years announced programs to rehabilitate the river. Last year, government officials promised to rehabilitate the river in 30 days vowing to resign if that wasn’t achieved. It never happened, and no one resigned.
In the face of neglect, Fred and his childhood friend Chris Waithaka started a youth group to clean the river. They have since rehabilitated two kilometres of the river starting at their home in Korogocho and a section of the riparian land. “This is just to show the government that the cleaning of Nairobi River can be done,” said Fred.
The group of 68 young men and women dedicate a few days a week to clean the river. Not far from where they begin their efforts, is a small graveyard where they have buried the nine infant bodies that they have found in the river in the past year. “We find all manner of things in the river while cleaning and the government doesn’t care to support it despite there being a budget for reclamation of the river,” he said
Damaris Mbui, an environmental expert and lecturer at the University of Nairobi, terms their effort as akin to “addressing the symptoms”, since pollution continues upstream. True to her sentiments, Fred said that they have to repeat the exercise every few days and hope to be able to increase the distance covered in time by collaborating with other groups upstream. “We can’t win it if the government does not deal with people and companies directing their waste into the river,” he said.
A 2016 report on the state of Nairobi River found that “agricultural runoffs, domestic effluent discharge, refuse dump runoff and runoff from car wash and garage were the main anthropogenic sources of pollution in the river.” The report condemned the water as unsafe for domestic purposes, including drinking— especially due to the concentration of lead, which it found to be above safe levels for both the World Health Organisation and Kenya Bureau of Standards’ specifications.
Despite this, the water is used in the informal settlements, where there is lack of access to clean water. The water is used domestically for laundry and also for watering crops grown along the river banks. “Our people have nothing to use and they would rather use this to wash and buy clean water for cooking,” said Fred.
Damaris, who has studied the river’s pollution, said that “we are losing a lot of water to pollution and not even recycling it. This leads to a shortage of water, which we ought not to have.”
She blamed the lack of sanitation systems and absence of water recycling practices for exacerbating pollution. “We need sanitation systems so that we are able to know where water is going. However, when there is a lack of proper sanitation facilities, the waste generated ends up in the river polluting the environment and the water,” she said.
And so the cycle continues, leaving the once flush Nairobi River in a very sorry state.
About the author: Anthony Langat writes as a correspondent for the International WaterCentre, charged with exploring water challenges and the ways these challenges are managed around the world.