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Opposition to river evictions misguided

By | June 15th 2009

Cleaning up Nairobi River was always going to be a difficult task: There are hundreds of thousands of city residents living and working on the banks of the partly-canalised main channel and its tributaries, which flow through the city.

Their activities leave the river "choking with human waste from over-flowing sewers and informal settlements, industrial waste, agro-chemicals, uncollected garbage, and petro-chemicals and metals from jua kali firms".

Tackling this environmental disaster is now being made more difficult with a campaign by Amnesty International among slum residents to demand dignity and the right to adequate housing.

Complaining slum upgrading has been "too slow and under resourced" and implemented without adequate consultation, Amnesty wants Government to put its plans on ice. Its report calls for an end to forced evictions, consultation with the affected, adoption of guidelines that comply with international human rights law, and better co-ordination of State entities dealing with land and housing issues.

When Government proposed drastic measures to clean the river, including the eviction of some 130,000 people living in a 30-metre riparian reserve, we warned it would have to make tough choices. Prime Minister Raila Odinga’s initiative would see 17 ministries rally behind the Nairobi River Basin Programme (NRBP), now run by City Hall’s former chief executive John Gakuo.

Rights abuses

Rather than rely on the private sector and communities living or working on the riverbanks to conduct occasional clean-ups, the Government plans to demolish 16,046 structures constructed along the riparian zones. An initial budget of Sh1.4 billion had been set aside for relocation of 127,000 people, but this has not eliminated fears of forcible evictions and human rights abuses.

A certain amount of compulsion may prove necessary to demolish riverside housing. While Amnesty may imagine the residents to be living in dignity and amenable to reason, the greater likelihood is of resistance to any move to protect illegal stills that are set up near the river. When homes are lost in Kibera (Silanga, Lindi and Gatwekera) or the Mukurus (Kayaba, kwa Reuben and kwa Njenga) or in Mathare and Majengo, we expect Government to provide alternative housing. It is unlikely violence will be avoided: As the fighting over the Grogan property near Ngara showed, political agitation and a sense of entitlement to ‘reparations’ and not just alternatives makes this inevitable. All we can ask is that a reasonable effort is made to let all stakeholders contribute to the solution and that the police conduct the evictions that are needed as humanely as possible.

This country is not known for moderate protest. Violent resistance to eviction is certain. Agitating slum residents to dig their heels in on the river evictions not only does nothing to speed up the slum upgrading programme, it perpetuates the conditions that make slums, as Amnesty’s Irene Khan phrased it, "a human rights black hole".

Crime levels are stratospheric in Nairobi’s slums. Areas around rivers where muggers await people on bridges, organised gangs dispose of their victims and illegal stills are fed and cooled, rank among the most dangerous. The clearing of structures in these areas, affecting just six per cent of the city’s total slum population, would make life safer for the rest. Surely better security trumps the right to retain squalid housing?

Children dying

The direct pollution of Nairobi River tributaries is a major factor in the health challenges the slum residents face. Take under-five child mortality, for instance: The number of children who die before the age of five, primarily of diarrhoeal or respiratory diseases, is four times higher in the slum areas than in other parts of the city. This is despite access to pretty much the same medical facilities. The planned evictions are not perfect and can certainly be done better. But putting them off when we know that will do some good is a mistake. Let Government plan the moves without interference or those in slums may wait for ever for change.

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