Why cleaning Nairobi rivers is no walk in the park for task force

Bulldozer demolishes a Ukay center Building in Westlands, Nairobi.
On August 6, a green bulldozer rolled into Kileleshwa and brought down a Shell fuel station. The outlet, alongside many others, was said to have been built on riparian land.

The now famous green bulldozer then rolled to the junction of Mbagathi and Lang’ata roads, where it brought down the South End Mall. When it then demolished Ukay Mall in upmarket Westlands, the message was clear. The authorities had decided to act on impunity and bring down all buildings on riparian land. 

But it has now emerged that beyond these demolitions, there is no clear plan of action nor timelines on how to clean the numerous rivers that flow through Nairobi.

The Nairobi Regeneration Task Force, the multi-agency team charged with reclaiming riparian land, has no definite plan on how these heavily polluted rivers will be cleaned up.

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“I cannot comment on what we are going to do next because we wait for instructions from our bosses,” Julius Wanjau of the Task Force told Sunday Standard.

When the National Assembly Environment Committee members had a fact-finding mission on encroachment in riparian zones about three months ago, they started with Mukuru Slum in Nairobi and saw how buildings hang precariously on river banks.

The committee chair, Kareke Mbiuki, promised that action would be taken to ensure clear water ways.

“We have to stop this impunity and ensure we have clean water ways,” said Mbiuki.

However, pessimism is now greeting the whole exercise, with questions arising on whether the approach will solve the problem.

Those opposed to the selective demolitions now say the government could have done better.

A stroll along Nairobi River as it traverses the city tells of a dead water body – just like many other rivers in Nairobi. Those opposed to the demolitions as being carried out argue the slums along the rivers are the greatest culprits in the pollution.

From the slums that straddle rivers to impunity that has seen structures put on top of rivers, the Nairobi Regeneration Task Force faces an uphill task if the city is to achieve clean rivers status.

Divergent voices are asking if another formula can be used to achieve the intended purpose. An investor in Parklands says barely a month after the demolitions, floods were experienced in the area.

“This is because the debris was left in the same waterway that is supposed to be cleaned, which in itself amounts to polluting the same river,” says the investor.

He says close to a million people live along the river valleys in informal settlements.

“These are the people who hold the key to having a clean river, not the investors whose buildings are coming down selectively,” he says.

During the mission by MPs on riparian zones in Nairobi, Robert Orina, NEMA’s chief enforcement officer, said one of the issues that face attempts to clean up rivers is a socio-economic problem.

Solid waste

Dr Dominic Walubengo, the Director of Forest Action Network (FAN), says proper planning is key to having cleaner rivers, including removing slums that dot river systems.

“People living in houses close to a river usually dump their solid and liquid waste into the river. Some people have even directed their toilet waste pipes into rivers; we all know a polluted river cannot support aquatic life,” says Walubengo.

But this is not the first time such an attempt is being made. About 10 years ago, the Nairobi River Basin Rehabilitation Program (NRBP) came up with a 10-point strategy on how to clean the river during the tenure of then Environment minister John Michuki.

The strategy noted that Nairobi rivers are polluted with uncollected garbage, human waste from informal settlements, industrial wastes in the form of gaseous emissions, liquid effluents, agro-chemicals, petro-chemicals, metals and over-flowing sewers.

Among the action areas in the strategy were survey and delineation of riparian reserve, stopping illegal discharges, developing solid waste management systems, developing a master plan for economic utilisation of riparian zones and rehabilitation of Nairobi Dam. Much of this has not happened.

Source says cleaning Nairobi rivers is akin to demolishing almost half of Nairobi since the rivers pass through the slums, and buildings on riparian zones would be the least polluters.

The Ruai Sewage Treatment Plant is not up to capacity, forcing residents to empty raw sewer in the rivers mainly in the slums. Residential areas not connected to the sewer system find solace in septic tanks – some empty into rivers.

Built in 1961 to cater for about a million people, the sewer system cannot meet the demand of Nairobi’s five million residents and the ballooning informal settlements.

This situation is aggravated when it rains when septic tanks, pit latrines and flood water find their way in an unholy mix. Effluent from the slums adds to the sorrow.  

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