On Tuesday, four people - including two children - died as floods ravaged Nairobi. On the Eastern Bypass, it started as a drizzle of the type that, where I come from, is said to be only enough to get the sluggards off their farms.
Barely an hour later, the downpour had swollen into a scary deluge that washed downhill garbage, plants and even cars.
I remember one driver, upon being asked by onlookers not to take a turn somewhere near Utawala, shrugging off the warnings. “Mine is a four-wheel-drive?” the lady driver said smugly. Before she could roll up her window to drive against an especially dangerous patch, where the roaring run-off whipped everything in its path into surging foam, something spooky happened. Her huge ‘four-wheel-drive’ was swept off its expensive tyres. In a few seconds, all we could see was the roof of the huge car drifting away.
Luckily for the ‘four-wheel-drive’ owner, the vehicle got stuck and the same onlookers she had dismissed offhand came to her rescue. She was so panicky it took nearly an hour to make her talk. Though the Tuesday nightmare may not have been as frightening as the Narok incident – we still have online clips of trailers being swept away by flash floods – something is happening in Nairobi that does not entirely have to do with nature. While it’s all very well to argue that we cannot control the amount of rain the city receives, the level of destruction we see every time there is a heavy downpour in some sense indicts us for our cavalier attitude towards preparedness. And it must scare us that we spend out nights trying to find our way – just a few kilometres – to our houses.
Forget global warming, which experts argue is to blame for rising sea levels and phenomena such as El-Nino, which the recent heavy downpour could very well be a part of. Forget even deforestation and the frightening nonchalance to fix drainage that city hall exhibits. There is the rush to build on riparian sections of the city. Today, the many rivers that cut through Nairobi have nowhere to snake through on their unstoppable journey to the Indian Ocean. And then the used stuff –let’s not give details- that block the drainage system in blocks of flats and apartments.
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Fifteen years ago, places like Zimmerman and Githurai did just fine without proper drainage. All the owner of a building needed to do was set up a septic tank a few metres from the structures, which were few and far between. Today, the drainage systems in many such places are not only a nightmare, the once beautiful structures are fast giving way to sludgy slums. Tragedy is, by the time someone decides to connect the highrise slums to the city waste disposal system, there will be nowhere to lay the pipes. Already people are setting up septic tanks underneath buildings.
Worse still, as if non-existence of a proper drainage system is not bad enough, heavy downpour sees a mixture of waste and river water flowing right into people’s houses. More surprising is that even as hitherto habitable parts of the city go the slum way, no one seems to see the danger this deterioration of living conditions for an increasingly large number of people portends for future of the city. It is said water always seeks its level. What this means for us is that we could wax oblivious of the danger of not leaving the river pathways alone, but the consequences will always return to haunt us. And while we cannot blame anyone for the El-Nino, it makes sense to demand that the city authorities start thinking of a proper drainage system.
There is also urgent need to think of a way to control the city traffic. The chorus about a mass transit system has been with us for eons. There have also been suggestions to make it difficult for every Njagi, Nick and Wasike to drive to town, even when the only business they have in the city is lounging around Jevanjee Gardens. But punitive measures for private car owners must be preceded by a reliable public transport system. Putting drums and cordons around roundabouts, among other ill-thought-out experiments won’t work.