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Diplomacy best bet in city Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) route row

By Komu Mwati | Updated Mon, December 12th 2016 at 00:00 GMT +3

Dr Paula Kahumbu, the CEO of WildlifeDirect, has urged the National Environment Management Authority to reject the Kenya Railways Environmental and Social Impact Assessment on the construction of a viaduct through the Nairobi National Park.

She is an excellent advocate, but global urbanising trends suggest that diplomacy rather than advocacy is what will save the park.

On the Nairobi National Park, two issues framed in three questions are at stake: Is the park viable or not, and if it is, what form should it take?

No one has said it is not viable - apart from land grabbers who are wisely keeping their counsel - but Kenyans are divided on the form it should take.
A drive down most roads leading out of the city puts the issue into perspective.

As you drive down Thika road to the north-east of the city, it is impossible to know where Nairobi ends and Thika, 40 kilometres from the city, begins, or even when one leaves the urban centres of Nairobi and Thika into Murang'a County.To the North-West no one pretends that Kiambaa constituency in Kiambu is anything other than part of Nairobi.

With the upcoming high-end development at Migaa on the edge of Kiambaa, Githunguri will not be a rural constituency much longer.

Driving east along Kangundo road or Mombasa road reveals another harrowing spectre of urban encroachment. To the south, towards Kajiado, the city now extends past Isinya, 50 kilometres away.

On Magadi road to the south-west, real estate developers are promoting urban size plots to Nairobi residents at Tinga, 50 km from Magadi town. Nairobi National Park is only seven kilometres wide and communities living on the southern end have already sold out their lands to home owners and institutions, effectively making Nairobi National Park an island in the middle of an urban conurbation.

This raises the disturbing question; for how long will the park stand against the swelling mass of humanity all around it?
Whispers that the park is prime real estate land abound.

Not long ago, Mavoko municipality was angling to construct a flood waters reservoir that would supply Kitengela Township with fresh water.

Infrastructure developments continue chipping away at the park as land grabbers scheme and plan, advancing arguments that the country has wide spaces outside Nairobi where game parks can be set up.

Conservationists who have chosen the path of advocacy should consider diplomacy. Over a decade ago, the late Dr Imre Loeffler, a renowned conservationist observed: "As long as conservation and development are pitted against each other, or are perceived to be in opposition, conservation will lose out." But this need not be so.

The SGR viaduct plan mirrors the recent Northern Water Collector tunnel saga. The national government was as ardent with the tunnel as it is with the viaduct. Murang'a chose diplomacy and negotiated a sweet deal that will see its residents get piped water, which will be paid for by Nairobi.

There are indications this is the route the KWS management has taken, negotiating to keep the park even as a railway passes overhead while getting commitments that the government will get more involved in maintaining the integrity of the park.

The proposed viaduct may be Nairobi National Park’s best chance of survival. It relieves pressure on the park by opening up areas to the south for settlement.

While KWS’ tacit approval is an exercise in diplomacy, details of deals that may have been struck between it and the national government are hazy.

Conservation advocates should be interrogating any such agreements to establish their integrity to the Kenyan conservation cause.