The river that gave birth to the city is now threatening to be the cause of its death. Nairobi River streams down the city’s suburbs and informal estates in agony, choking under the weight of garbage.
While in other modern cities a river’s banks would have been prime land for building posh homes, in Nairobi, only street children and uncaring business people dare operate near the river bank. Just as Nairobi’s dream of getting fresh fish right in the city got real, with mudfish (kamongo) already breeding in some sections of the river, exponential population growth shot it down.
Raw sewage, untreated industrial effluent and other domestic solid waste, got its way back into the river, and the trees that had been planted along the river bank were cut down. Even the efforts of the late Environment minister John Michuki to redeem the Nairobi River went with the fast flowing waters despite international recognition for the efforts.
Michuki had achieved some results in many ways, including stopping 30 per cent of the points where raw sewage and other wastes spewed into the river, and planting 70,000 indigenous trees on its banks to restore natural vegetation.
Today, the once cool waters of Nairobi have turned into an oily and toxic goo, with the river’s banks jammed with all manner of detritus and polythene waste. At Kariakor, Lazarus Maigua, a business owner, said the county government does not collect a heap of garbage dumped right next to the river bank.
“The collectors simply ignore the heap by the bank. Nearby is a tank that releases sewage into the river,” he said. A man was openly urinating into the river near the Kariakor Bridge as other sorted out and picked up scrap metal from the waste.
According to a study by the African Population and Health Research Centre (APHRC), 29 per cent of Nairobi residents dispose solid waste into Nairobi River. The study, conducted this year, says most households whose garbage was not collected regularly in the city reported disposing it into rivers, drainage or rail road.
“However, alternative disposal practices among households that did not receive regular collection services in Nairobi were largely dumping into rivers, at 29 per cent,” it says. It said 14 per cent throw their waste on rail roads, 13 per cent in drainage trenches and 18 per cent burn the waste.
The study was conducted in Korogocho and Dandora, which is close to the city’s main dumpsite; Saika, which is located farther from the dumpsite but is exposed to solid waste management hazards; and Makadara, a non-slum area.
The most commonly reported health problem associated with exposure to solid waste according to the research is diarrhoeal diseases. APHRC said 44 per cent of people living in Nairobi report diarrhoeal diseases after exposure to solid waste.
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It attributed the problem to the deplorable conditions of dumpsites in the city and accompanying environmental and health problems. Other diseases related to solid waste exposure reported include malaria, respiratory conditions, skin problems and allergies. The report indicates that 25 per cent of the population reported contacting respiratory problems, 14 per cent malaria, three per cent got allergies and two per cent skin problems.
“Bare solid waste provides a breeding ground for diseasecausing pests and insects. Exposure to the waste therefore poses health hazards to residents, especially within the city,” it says. Ninety-two per cent of households in the city reported that their waste is collected at least four to six times in a month, a service provided for mostly by community-based organisations at a fee.
APHRC urged the county government to provide collection services, especially for households that are likely unable to afford the fees levied by private collectors. The organisation also recommended that county authorities shift from open dumpsites to sustainable alternatives given the dangers and inefficiencies associated with open sites.