Before the railway line reached the place Maasai called Ewaso Nairobi, or a place of cool waters, verdant vegetation was the norm. In fact, it was due to the abundant vegetation and easy accessibility to water that made the herders frequent the swampy grounds. Forests characterised the upper segments of Nairobi such as Langata, Karen and Westlands. Kibra, the Nubian word from which one of Africa’s largest slums is named, means forest or jungle.
From the forest that Nairobi was came another jungle, a concrete one. Nairobi’s lungs were shredded in the name of development. The few remaining forests are under constant threat from individuals who look at them with envy. Even the eucalyptus trees that have been a constant feature on the upper end of Haile Selassie Avenue may have to give way for a new mega development.
Karura Forest is the largest in Nairobi, with 1,041 hectares. It contains 605 species of wildlife, including three types of antelopes. Some 632 hectares contain plantations while indigenous trees cover 260 hectares.
In the past, Karura has seen violent protests as environmentalists led by the late Prof Wangari Maathai fought off attempts to hive off parts of the forest for human development. Ngong and the Arboretum are the other two gazetted forests in the city.
The new Nairobi County Integrated Development Plan does not clearly state any specific measures that will ensure the long-term survival of the few forests. The county’s environmental department is the civic arm of the county that ought to spearhead environmental preservation.
The department was quite active under former Environment minister the late John Michuki. Trees were planted along city streets, roundabouts and open parks. Nairobi River was once a clear water body, thanks to sustained efforts from Michuki and former Town Clerk, John Gakuo. Fish were even spotted in this river. But all that seems to have gone down the drain as the river has once again become a soggy quagmire.
With climate change becoming the next big disaster of our times, Nairobi has little time to regain its lost glory as a green city under the sun.