Government should do more than just demolishing buildings

Ukay Centre in Westlands, Nairobi, is one of the building demolished by NEMA as it moves to reclaim riparian land. [File, Standard]
The ongoing demolition of houses built on riparian land is welcomed. With climate change and ever more erratic weather patterns, the sooner we take defensive measures against flooding in Nairobi, the better.

However, the demolitions also raise two very important questions. First, how did people build on riparian land to begin with? And second, what else are we doing to prevent future floods beyond demolishing houses encroaching on natural drainage channels?

The answer to the first question necessarily implies expanding the groups of people liable for the problems caused by the buildings being demolished. There are the individual investors, the construction companies, the architects, and the authorities at the National Land Commission, the Nairobi City County Government, as well as the National Environmental Management Authority.

In other words, multiple agencies and individuals were involved in the violation of multiple laws. All those involved should be held to account.

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As I have argued before, land use policy can be a powerful tool for accelerating development in Kenya. Such policy can unlock immense value. It can also structure Kenyans choices on how they deploy their labor, where they send their children to school, the hospitals they attend, among other choices.

The fact that as a country our land use remains singularly haphazard should be a seen as a deliberate wastage of public resources.

In other words, the government should not stop at demolishing buildings. The next logical step should be to streamline the construction industry, from the permitting authorities, to private architectural and construction firms, to the licensing of brick layers.

All this should be part of a coherent process to standardise building codes across the country. Such standardisation will allow not only for easy regulation, but will also open up markets for land and buildings. Ease of valuation will allow for deeper financialisation of the construction industry.

Beyond standardising the regulations, zoning standards, and building codes, the government should also consider building proper storm drains. The fact of the matter is that Nairobi will only get denser over time.

Eventually, we will not be able to afford large tracts of land for runoff drainage. Here, too, zoning and regulation can help us achieve the desired results. Proper mapping of human settlement in our urban areas would facilitate the construction of the needed drainage systems. And the government need not bear all the cost of such construction projects. The private sector as well as the individuals served with such drainage systems can be incentivized to pay for them.

In sum, as the national government mulls the implementation of the housing component of the Big Four Agenda, there are opportunities to completely overhaul the housing and construction sector. It is my hope that beyond the hoopla of cranes bringing down expensive apartments in Nairobi, our policymakers are thinking of what ought to come next. And what ought to be the everyday way of doing things.

- The writer is an Assistant Professor at Georgetown University

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riparian landNational Land CommissionNairobi City County GovernmentNational Environmental Management Authoritynema demolitions