Last week, we buried our grandmother Mwaitu Annah Mukonyo Kimanthi. She was born in 1904. During her lifetime, she experienced two global pandemics, two World Wars and countless other milestones. Tragically, dozens of other Kenyans are being denied the possibility of such a long life, not because of a bullet, road accident or cancer, but by the very air they breathe.
According to the World Health Organisation, air pollution kills an estimated seven million people worldwide every year. Kenya lost 18,000 people in 2019. For hundreds of residents from Nairobi, Machakos and other urban counties, these statistics represent actual family members, friends, neighbors or colleagues who have either fallen sick or died due to grave air pollution from industries.
Over the last several months, international and local media have highlighted how industrial pollution is gradually killing people in Nairobi and Machakos. Syokimau, Athi River and Mukuru are some of the most affected places. People in these localities need justice. For them, justice delayed is not just justice denied. Rather, delayed justice has also become an express ticket to disease and death.
Despite this onslaught of air pollution, Kenyans are not just powerless pollution victims. Citizens should remember that Article 42 of the Constitution guarantees every Kenyan the right to a clean and healthy environment. This is a right to be enjoyed by all, not a favor to be granted by a few.
It is, therefore, critical for Kenyans to nurture a habit of protecting their rights from greedy individuals and corporates. The primary way of doing so is through the corridors of justice. This is exactly what the residents of Owino Uhuru did in 2016. They went to the Environment and Land court in Mombasa seeking compensation after many of them became affected by lead poisoning emitted from a local factory. Accordingly, last Wednesday, Justice Anne Omollo from the Environment and Land court awarded them Sh1.3 billion. Indeed, the corridors of justice are not a detour for the rich and powerful but highways for all Kenyans. We have a responsibility to ensure they will be inclusive, not exclusive.
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It defies logic that the factories whose pollution is resulting in disease and death continue to operate legally because they are on the ‘right’ side of the law. It is no wonder that the phrase ‘the matter is in court’ has become a favorite defense of most prominent people. Although they are correct in saying so, the bigger issue is that most Kenyans either cannot afford to have their matter in court or have lost faith in those courts.
A few years ago, I visited the US Environment Protection Agency (EPA) offices in Washington DC. While there, I got to appreciate the extent of the work EPA has to do to ensure environmental protection in the US. Interestingly, it has become evident in recent years that even such an independent body cannot be fully productive in the absence of political will from the top echelons of government. Just this last week, EPA towed along the Executive prodding and declined to enact more stringent air quality control measures in the US.
For our very own National Environment Management Authority (Nema) to be fully effective, political leaders will need to provide more decisive environmental leadership. They must not provide the kind of political connections that encourage greedy environmental polluters to put profits before people and the environment.
Air pollution does not care about county or country borders. As such, there is need for a coordinated national strategy to combat air pollution decisively and consistently. This cannot happen without collaboration of the three arms of government, plus political will at the county and national levels of government. The recent action by Machakos Governor Alfred Mutua is commendable and worth emulating. After widespread complaints were raised against a steel miller in his county, he took action and did not just say that his hands were tied.
When it comes to protecting your rights, only you can tie your hands. There is always something that you can do, even with limited power and resources.
We should embrace and wield the power that we have under the Constitution to ensure we enjoy a clean and healthy environment. No one should fall sick or die because of the air they breathe. Once we are intentional in thinking and acting green, we can gracefully live for more than a century just like our grandmother Annah Mukonyo Kimanthi, for God’s glory!
–The writer is founder and chairperson, Green Africa Foundation. www.isaackalua.co.ke