Nairobi’s wetlands disappearing

Forested section of the Nairobi river’s recreational park. [Photos: James Mwangi/Standard]

Nairobi, Kenya: Not far from Runda Water Limited (RWL) are upmarket homes each set on half-an-acre with lush manicured gardens - dream homes for many; their exquisiteness notwithstanding, the homes are unlivable during the rainy season.

Daniel Methu, the general manager of RWL explains that the said properties were erected on a wetland and when it rains water gushed out creating a pool, forcing the residents to pump out the water - a costly affair - or relocate altogether.

Rose Wacuka, communication officer at the Karen Langata District Association says: “In Karen, we have residents putting up developments near river banks. Recently, a resident along Mokoyeti Road was clearing soil from his farm and dumping it into the Mokoyeti River, causing blockage and polluting the water that flows to Mbagathi all the way to Duncan springs.

We have also had report of a developer in Hardy, who is diverting water from the river to his property for a development and many other residents tapping the waters for their gardens,” she adds.

“We have also received complaints about construction of septic tanks and buildings in the floodplain of the Mbagathi River,” Wacuka says.

Elsewhere a prime property in Kilileshwa has sparked a legal tussle with neighbours. “We have filed a suit against the ownership of these plots on the basis that these are on a wetland and also, that there has not been any environmental impact assessment by National Environment Management Authority,” Minaz Manji, a resident of Dik Dik Gardens tells Home & Away.

In their submission, residents question the change of user from a single dwelling to a multiple commercial plot, which they claim was procured illegally and surreptitiously, without any form of notice to the affected residents.


“In the lush Spring Valley estate lie six plots that have been on the market for a while now; the agent selling these properties has been unable to find a buyer because the properties are always waterlogged,” says Kamu Thuo, the Member of County Assembly for Karura.

The Runda Residents Association is also opposing the construction of a residential hotel, retail centre and office block.

“There is no sewer line in the area and thus the proponent proposes to install a sewage treatment plant on the site and this will be used to dispose of effluent from the hotel and other commercial buildings on the site,” the argue.

“Runda estate is not served by a sewer line. The estate also relies substantially on water from Ruaka River and any developments of the magnitude proposed by the proponent have serious environmental and other consequences. The area where the project is proposed has a stream running by it and the section where the sewer will exit is next to the sprawling Githogoro informal settlement,” reads a document authored by the association.

“The proposal for a sewer treatment plant in Runda is incomplete and unsatisfactory, having regard to the scope of the proposed development and the expected human traffic against the size of the land,” says Thuo. All these cases point to a frightening trend.

Experts believe that the repercussions of human developments on the environment are imminent.

“The city, once referred to as a ‘green city in the sun’ is now being choked by uncollected garbage and overflowing sewage which have polluted the Nairobi River system and even made it a subject of international focus,” reads a research abstract by Dr Samuel Obiero titled Effects Of Land Use Encroachment On Wetlands: Case Study Nairobi Dam Area.

Thuo says that he is in the process of drafting a bill that will help identify and protect riparian reserves, while at the same time promoting a green policy in the city.

He says some unscrupulous agents sell properties on wetlands during the dry months to unsuspecting clients. And then when it rains, the new home owner is left wading in a swamp.

Thuo apportions blame for the encroachment of Nairobi’s wetlands to corrupt city county officials, whom he claims work in cahoots with moneyed developers to change land use.

Whereas there are no official statistics on encroached wetlands in Nairobi, Mairura Omwenga, chairman of the Town and County Planners Association of Kenya says that encroachment of wetlands is widespread.


“It appears that all wetlands in Nairobi city have been encroached on. The encroachment is not only manifested in terms of physical intrusion but also in terms of pollution and depletion of wetland resources,” he says.

“All rivers, streams, springs, dams and swamps have all been massively encroached on and are heavily polluted; from Nairobi River to Ngong River, Mathari River, Kirichwa River and Nairobi Dam, in high and low-income residential areas, the CBD and industrial areas,” Omwenga adds.

“It is not very clear whether the riparian reserve is to be measured from the highest water mark or from the centre of the river. But all told, wetlands in the city are virtually all ruined,” says Omwenga.

Experts link rapid urbanisation, which is estimated at an annual growth rate of 1.6 per cent (UN, 2009), to the increased encroachment.

“Continued urbanisation has increased the ecological footprint of the world major cities far beyond their actual geographical sizes hence complicating their ability to maintain their wetlands,” reads Obiero’s research.

Omwenga says that none of the regulations to protect wetlands against encroachment found in the National Environment Management Act, Physical Planning Act, Water Act, old Agriculture Act and attendant guidelines are observed.

Lack of clear guidelines stipulating the extent of riparian reserves along rivers and streams in the city has led to property owners putting up developments near rivers, as confirmed by the resident associations in Kilimani, Lavington, Runda, Kileleshwa and Karen.

“There exist by-laws under the former local authorities. Unfortunately, these by-law provisions are not enforced and are openly abused. It is sad to note that buildings have been constructed along rivers and natural waterways have been diverted and even blocked in the city,” says Omwenga.

Lack of commitment by the Government to expressly identify, map out and clearly define the boundaries of these wetlands has also been blamed for the encroachment problem.

Designed in 1946, Nairobi Dam was supposed to provide drinkable water for the residents of Nairobi City. However, Obiero writes that over the years, encroachment of human settlements, agricultural activities, draining of raw sewage and dumping of garbage led to eutrophication and infestation of hyacinth, rendering the dam unusable.