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Step up roads without hurting the future

COMMENTARY
By Patrick Mwaura | November 6th 2020

Kenya is at an early stage of urbanisation, but by 2050 about half of the population will be living in cities. Around 27 per cent of Kenyans today live in urban areas and it is estimated that the country is urbanising at about 4.3 percent a year. This growth is expected to drive up demand for housing and exert pressure on existing infrastructure.

Over the last ten years, the government has spent approximately Sh1 trillion in modernisation and construction of the road networks. This has increased the country’s road network to more than 160,000km from less than 60,000km ten years ago.

The country will still need to invest at least Sh1 trillion more in the next five years in new road projects and maintenance of existing ones. Because infrastructure projects often comprise large-scale civil works, they are likely to affect natural habitats in one way or another through construction.

It is difficult for infrastructure projects to avoid some overlay with natural habitats therefore projects can only seek ways to minimise impact on the environment.

For instance, the Sh62 billion JKIA-Westlands expressway from Mlolongo to Waiyaki Way for example was redesigned to avoid touching Nairobi’s Uhuru Park as was previously planned.

The SGR line that stretches from the port of Mombasa to Nairobi, runs through Tsavo West National Park and through Nairobi National Park. Part of the SGR was elevated to allow wildlife to pass without risk of injury. The rest is elevated on embankments, and six underpasses have been constructed to allow wildlife to cross. The SGR engineers designed wildlife paths under the railway line to ease migration of wildlife in the areas.

The adjustments did increase the overall cost of the project but it was necessary due to the need to conserve wildlife habitats for the benefits of generations to come.

It is difficult to strike a balance between development and environmental conservation. Development however does not need to come at the expense of the environment. The country can pick learnings from Malaysia which is one of the larger economies in South Asia.  

The country underwent rapid development during the late 20th century and today less than one percent of Malaysian households live in extreme poverty.  The World Bank projects Malaysia’s economy will transition from an upper middle-income economy to a high-income economy by 2024.

Despite rapid industrialisation and urbanisation in the country, the issue of environmental protection was given top priority. Malaysia still has 62.3 per cent or about 20,456,000 ha of forest coverage, according to FAO. It is recognised as one of the top 12 countries for mega-biodiversity and ranked fourth in the world for having the most tree species. 

The World Bank also indicates that 96 per cent of all Malaysians have access to clean cooking energy.

Kenya too can strike a balance between development and environmental conservation. We need to focus more energy on planting at least 1.8 billion seedlings needed to increase forest cover from the current 7.2 per cent to 10 per cent by 2022. 

Forests, due to their capacity to act as carbon sinks and by providing key environmental services, are globally recognised as critical in climate change mitigation and adaptation. We also need to encourage Kenyans to switch to clean cooking energy as a majority still cook with firewood and kerosene which have a negative impact on the environment.

-The writer is a communication consultant. [email protected]

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