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Noisy, above the law? Tale of pubs in residential areas

In Nairobi's mixed residential areas, hubbub reigns supreme. Even at odd hours, businesspeople and merrymakers are engrossed in hustle and bustle that many residents loathe.

Where bars are involved, the din is unfathomable. So much so that recently, cases abound of residents suing, albeit often in courts of public opinion, bar owners who are making life in suburban areas difficult.

A recent call to shut down at least 43 bars in Nairobi's upmarket areas of Kilimani, Lang'ata, Westlands Upper Hill, Thika Road attracted a crisis stakeholder consultative forum between the Bar Owners Association and Residents' Association and Nairobi Deputy Governor Njoroge Muchiri.

"The Sakaja government is pro-business and we want to grow business. We are focusing on changing how our enforcement is done, and change to be customer-based and offering support to business and not harassing them," said Dr Muchiri, dismissing the intention to shut the bars.

The meeting was held after complaints from resident associations over noise pollution, claiming it had been denying them sleep.

Two years ago, a Nairobi court temporarily closed four nightclubs in the Kilimani area of Nairobi after residents complained of noise and disturbance.

Kilimani Project Foundation, a non-governmental organisation, filed an application at the Land and Environment Court arguing that the residents of Kilimani were aggrieved by the four nightspots.

The nightclubs' operators were accused of playing loud music which deprived residents of good rest at night.

The clubs also hosted rowdy merrymakers who were all over the place, a double whammy for the complainants.

Earlier this year, the now disbanded Nairobi Metropolitan Services (NMS) reacted to noise pollution in the city by providing directives to business operators and residents on sound control.

"We have received numerous complaints regarding excessive noise and vibrations from various business establishments. This is a gross violation of the regulations causing harm, disturbance and annoyance to Nairobi residents hence prompting the issuance of this advisory," it said in a notice.

"NMS through the Directorate of Environment, Water and Sanitation is mandated to ensure that the citizenry enjoys the right to a clean and healthy environment pursuant to Article 42 of the Constitution of Kenya. This is also enshrined in the Environmental Management and Coordination Act of 1999 which has brought forth several regulations to ensure that the environment within which we live is habitable for all."

In the notice, sound level limits were set at 40 decibels (dB) during the day in the silent zones and 35 decibels at night for the same zones.

Places of worship were to maintain 40dB by day and 35dB by night, residential indoor areas 45dB by day and 35dB by night, and residential outdoor zones 50dB during the day and 35dB at night.

Mixed residential (with some commercial and places of entertainment) were allowed 55dB (day) and 35dB (night), and commercial zones 60dB (day) and 35dB (night). Construction sites, with measurements taken within the facility, including health facilities, educational institutions, and homes for the disabled, were allowed the same treatment as the commercial zones (60 dB during the day and 35 dB at night).

A decibel is a unit of measurement that tells the relative loudness of sound. A decibel scale indicates that breathing produces 10dB, rustling leaves 20dB and a whisper 30dB. A refrigerator hum is in the region of 40dB and the soft pitter-patter of rainfall on an umbrella is 50dB, which is described as a faint sound.

A normal conversation reaches sound levels of 60dB, with the drone of a car engine at 70dB. A truck, described as loud, will give a booming sound of 80dB as it drives past, a hairdryer 90dB, and helicopter drones at 100dB.

Above that, the sound is described as very loud. Trombone (110dB), police siren (120dB), jet engine (130dB), and fireworks (140dB), which reaches what is described as the 'threshold of pain', are all above any limits recommended by NMS.

When such instances occur as would need very loud sound emissions, permission is granted for temporary pollution.

According to the Environmental Management and Co-ordination Act, the National Environment Management Authority (Nema) may on request grant a temporary permit not exceeding three months, allowing emission of noise in excess of established standards for such activities as fireworks, demolitions, firing ranges and specific heavy industry on such terms and conditions as it may determine.

"The Standards and Enforcement Review Committee shall recommend to Nema minimum standards for emissions of noise and vibration pollution into the environment as are necessary to preserve and maintain public health and the environment," says the law.

As zoning models often put residential areas adjacent to commercial areas, pubs have become a pain point for locals whose quiet time is disrupted by revellers taking their excitement a tad too high and their conversations beyond a whisper.

The constitution grants every person "the right to a clean and healthy environment, which includes the right to have the environment protected for the benefit of present and future generations through legislative and other measures."

Further, The Nairobi City County Public Nuisance Act 2021 advocates for a pretty noiseless environment for Kenyans, including for passersby.

"A person shall not in any street or in any shop, business premises or any other place adjoining any street to which the public are admitted, play, operate, cause or allow to be played or operated, any musical instrument, wireless, gramophone, amplifier or similar instrument thereby making, causing or authorising noise to be made which is loud and continuous, or repeated as to constitute a nuisance to the occupants or dwellers of any premises in the neighbourhood or to passersby on the street".

Churches whose stereo systems boom through the night in residential areas also flout the law, with the NMS' regulations requiring that their sound is barely a whisper and should not be heard beyond their walls.

There are, however, according to The Environmental Management and Coordination (Noise and Excessive Vibration Pollution) (Control) Regulations, 2009, factors that are used to determine whether noise is loud, unreasonable or unnecessary.

These include the time of the day (as earlier seen, with requirements for maximum sound during the day and maximum at night), proximity to a residential area, whether the noise is recurrent, intermittent or constant and the level and intensity of the noise.

It also depends on whether the noise has been enhanced in level or range by any type of electronic or mechanical means and whether the noise can be controlled without much effort or expense to the person making the noise, the Regulations indicate. As automobiles with massive twin-turbocharged engines emit earth-shattering sounds in the city, they are also breaking the law. The sound should not exceed 84dB when accelerating.

But the most bothersome of noises find people in their households courtesy of bars and parties in their neighbourhoods, with authorities often accused of being slow to crack the whip on reckless noise polluters.

"Any person in charge of a party or other social event which occurs on any private or public property shall ensure that the party or event does not produce noise in a loud, annoying or offensive manner such that noise from the party interferes with the comfort, repose, health or safety of members of the public within any building or, outside of a building, or recklessly creates the risk thereof, at a distance of 30 meters or more from the source of such sound," indicates The Environmental Management and Coordination (Noise and Excessive Vibration Pollution) (Control) Regulations, 2009.

Bar owners are, seemingly, above the law.

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