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Nairobi: The city in water

By Peter Theuri | Dec 2nd 2021 | 5 min read
By Peter Theuri | December 2nd 2021
Motorists make their way through the flooded highway as construction is ongoing on the Nairobi Expressway along Uhuru Highway [Courtesy]

Whenever Ms Hellen Njeri’s customers turn to leave her shop in Nairobi, she has to ask them to be careful.

Though she wishes she did not have to, the fear of leaving them to run into vegetables strewn across the verandah by mama mboga or stepping into floodwaters is real.

Her shop, located along Hakati Road, Nairobi is affected by poor drainage systems whenever it rains.

Sometimes, the road floods to her doorstep. When it does not get close, the mama mboga does, blocking the entrance to her shop. “We have a shop right there,” she points at another beauty products shop across the road.

“When a customer needs something from that shop, and we have to get it for them or send them there, it is a struggle because we have to cross the road right there,” she points to the road intersection, some 30 metres away.

In front of her shop, and smack in the middle of the road is a depression carved out of the concrete, which she said was dug by the authorities as they sought to repair roads.

But the road has not been repaired. And when it rains, the eyesore is a reservoir right in front of her eyes, a sight that does not make her happy.

Downtown Nairobi during the rainy season is also a mess. Drainages regurgitate plastic waste onto roads and soot-black water threatens to seep into shops. Sometimes it does.

For Agnes Waithira who usually sits along Haile Selassie Avenue, right off the entrance to the Muthurwa and Wakulima markets in Nairobi, the muddy afternoon won’t prevent vegetable vendors lining up along the road, arranging onions, tomatoes, garlic, coriander and courgetti in small piles.

There are pools of water behind and even in front of the road. Plastic bags pop out of the murky waters everywhere. “This is the only place I could operate from,” she says. “The conditions are bad when it rains but there is nowhere else to go.”

The conditions are usually bad even before it rains. Litter is carelessly flung about - a ticking time bomb. It usually explodes whenever it rains.

While this part of the city centre looks worse during the rainy season, the upper parts of the central business district (CBD) are no different.

Pedestrians have to be ready to hop, skip and jump over stagnant pools of water whenever it rains.

This water, which also rises onto verandahs, pushes them closer to the shops where they can walk on dry ground, creating unnecessary congestion and blocking shop entrances.

But in this mess, wily pickpockets thrive. When I meet Milton Kipkorir, who works along Mfangano Street, it is a few days since it last rained.

Everyone calls him chairman.

He oversees the operations of matatus on one of the termini that serve travellers to the North Rift.

He is still lamenting about the rainfall of nearly a week ago. It has had a negative impact on business due to poor drainage along the road and is afraid of the rain persists, the effects may be harmful to business.

“You see, it rains and floods all over and passengers seek alternative matatus home. They completely shun this terminus, and pretty much everything else around this area,” he says.

“And when the flooding persists, there is a foul smell that ultimately chases away our customers.”

Almost three days since the last rainfall in Nairobi city, matatus are parked in fresh mud, which seems keen to stay in that state until the next rains.

Kipkorir also says the city is not swept as often as it used to.

“The last time they cleaned here was three days ago,” he says. Michael Ochieng, the Director in The Transport, Roads and Public Works department in the Nairobi Metropolitan Services, says that there are teams deployed to address flooding as soon as it happens.

“Sometimes, we have clogged drainages and we will only possibly identify them when it rains. We immediately deploy people who are supposed to unclog them,” he says. Sometimes, it takes complaints from the public to know that some areas are flooded due to malfunctioning drainage systems.

One of the main reasons such drainages clog is the dumping of non-biodegradable waste into drains by the public. But the chairman of the Town and County Planners Association of Kenya Mairura Omwenga faults the authorities, saying negligence is the reason they are caught flat-footed when it rains.

“Proper maintenance of the drainage systems that we already have could solve our flooding systems,” he says. “There always should be regular maintenance of the drains to make sure they are open and clean.”

Omwenga says the problem of poor drainage in the city of Nairobi is common in many growing cities. However, it comes about due to poor planning.

“As cities grow, the problem of flooding increases if the plans were not well made. We now have more buildings coming up and more areas getting paved, whose net effect is the reduction of open space where we could have had natural vegetation such as trees and grass,” he says.

This means when rainwater hits the surface, it is unable to seep through the concrete surface unlike in a natural environment.

Sometimes, rainfall not big enough to cause runoff in natural environments leads to flooding in cities as all the water remains on the surface. In the concrete jungle, the city has now become, almost all water that hits the surface is now runoff, which makes for a bigger possibility for flooding.

“We also have a city where tall buildings are coming up every so often but where we are not widening our drainage systems,” he says.

With growing populations and increasing building infrastructures comes the need for bigger drainage systems.

However, Omwenga says the recurrent flash flooding could be arrested with the upgrading of the drainage systems to accommodate the needs of the growing infrastructure and maintenance of the existing system.

People becoming more conscious of their role in environmental conservation will help the city, he says.

“There is a bad habit of people throwing litter into drains. Whenever it rains, this is the waste that clogs drainage,” he says.

However, all this is a result of poor planning. Ochieng’ says that they are liaising with the Department of Environment to ease garbage collection around the city.

“We will be putting up bins of different types to make sure that the public does not dump all over the place. Action will be taken to those who disobey the rules and dump carelessly,” he says.

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