The public conversation following demolition of restaurants, high-end apartment blocks and malls has exposed our ethical flexibility on matters we need to be more intentional about. According to the National Environmental Management Authority (Nema), no less than 4,000 buildings have encroached on riparian reserves of the Nairobi River ecosystem and must be brought down. Both Government agencies and the public must now reflect on how Nairobi got to this situation and how to stop it in future.
The Nairobi River eco-system defines Nairobi. The Maasai gave our city the name Enkare Nyrobi, the place of water. However, a century of human contamination has left the Ngong, Nairobi, Mathare and Mbagathi rivers so polluted, that residents can be forgiven for thinking the river is in fact an open sewage system.
Demonstrating a rare common sense of misjudgment, our rich and poor neighbourhoods from Runda to Dandora have also sprawled onto its riverbanks. In many cases, they have even been built on the river. With this encroachment, we have endangered not only the environment but our very lives. The loss of lives and injuries that horrified us in the 2016 Huruma building collapse and flooding incidents are literally events of our own making.
This week’s demolitions translate from the Presidency’s declaration to regenerate the Nairobi River in 2017. Fact-finding teams have been combing the river to map and mark all buildings and structures built on the riparian reserves. Ironically, even those who swore an oath to enforce our laws and bylaws own buildings marked with the infamous red X.
Putting it politely, we have exercised a degree of ethical flexibility that has just been called out. While poor professionalism is a factor, the biggest two factors are greed and corruption. Building construction is a complex and a lucrative process. Registered architects, physical planners, developers and environment impact assessment (EIA) experts are required. Licences and permits signed and stamped by officials from Nema and Nairobi County and in some cases, transport, health and water and sewage officials are also required. We must now look through the dust of falling buildings to the chain of participation, regulation and oversight.
Nema maintains a list of certified environmental experts on its website. Could we see an updated database that excludes experts who sanctioned the condemned buildings? Perhaps it is also time to overhaul the approval process. Is it time for local neighbourhood and community associations to have representatives on all building approval committees? Is it time for County Governments to further delegate authority and empower ward administrators to be more accountable for what happens locally?
Could Nairobi County publicly list all officers who approved these buildings, interdict and prosecute a few? Perhaps the County Government could take all the money received for licences and approvals and deposit it in a fund to regenerate the river or fund community whistle-blowers? Public spaces have been under attack for a century and, we the current generation is also complicit. Most of us have eaten, shopped and lived in buildings that sit within the 6 to 30 meter radius of the Nairobi River. If we haven’t, we have watched the erection of these buildings and said nothing. Watching the South End Mall go down, I was struck by the sight of another excavator building on the riparian next to it. Demolishing private property may be necessary to restore order to the city and environment but it is not sufficient to eradicate impunity.
Past calls from communities to review building licences, EIAs and approvals have often been ignored. A case in point is the proposed triple 35 storey Cytonn Towers in Kilimani, Nairobi. As designed now, the building threatens to outstrip the infrastructure and environment of a largely residential neighbourhood. Perhaps our authorities could relook at this case as well.
- The writer is Amnesty International Executive Director. Twitter: @irunguhoughton