Nairobi's environmental woes: Will city find respite?

Data from Nairobi, where air quality sensors have been deployed, paints a dire picture. During recent protests, all areas measured air quality levels above WHO-recommended guidelines. According to WHO standards, people should not be exposed to PM2.5 (fine particulate matter) levels exceeding 15 micrograms per cubic meter. However, data from Mathare between July 21 and 23 recorded PM2.5 levels surging to an unhealthy 60 micrograms per cubic meter.

Remarkably, Nairobi's Kilimani Estate displayed a different trend, with PM2.5 levels falling below recommended guidelines before and after protest days.

Nairobi River: Toxic waterway

The Nairobi River, once a lifeblood of the city, now stands as a symbol of pollution and neglect. A 2016 report on the river's state highlighted agricultural runoff, domestic effluent discharge, refuse dump runoff, and runoff from car washes and garages as the primary sources of pollution.

Shockingly, the report condemned the water as unsafe for domestic use, including drinking, primarily due to high lead concentrations that exceeded both WHO and Kenya Bureau of Standards specifications.

Despite rehabilitation efforts, success has been minimal. Nairobi residents now rely on water from neighboring Muranga County, while the city's river remains unusable. The riparian reserves along the river are marred by informal settlements devoid of proper sewerage and sanitation services, leading to the direct discharge of raw sewage into the water.

Furthermore, many industries prefer to dump their effluents into the river instead of treating them.

Solid fuel in slums: A health hazard

Residents of Nairobi's informal settlements are facing health hazards due to the usage of solid fuels for cooking, such as charcoal and firewood. A two-year study conducted in Mukuru, Kenya, and Ndirande, Malawi, has exposed the toxic pollutants emitted during cooking, posing severe health risks. Families in these slums often cook in cramped, poorly ventilated spaces, leading to prolonged exposure to harmful pollutants.

The study measured PM2.5 levels, with WHO recommending exposure not exceeding 12.5 micrograms per cubic meter in a 24-hour period. Shockingly, daily data reveals extremely high pollution levels, reaching 600 mg/m3 in Kenya and approximately 2000 mg/m3 in Malawi. This alarming level of exposure contributes to respiratory illnesses, including asthma, and increased mortality rates.

It's worth noting that over 2 billion people worldwide rely on solid fuels for cooking, with household air pollution linked to around 3.2 million deaths annually, 700,000 of which occur in sub-Saharan Africa. Diseases such as stroke, heart disease, and lung cancer are among the health risks associated with this pollution.

Plastic pollution: Ongoing challenge

Nairobi's solid waste problem is further compounded by plastic pollution. According to the National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA), the city generates an average of 2400 tons of waste daily, with 30 percent comprising plastics. A 2018 UNEP report highlights that a staggering 20 percent of the plastic waste generated in the city remains unmanaged.

The establishment of recycling infrastructure demands a substantial capital investment, estimated at approximately Sh20 million. Proper waste management and recycling efforts are urgently needed to address this environmental issue effectively.

Mohamed Adow, Director of the energy and climate think-tank Power Shift Africa explained that as Nairobi hosts the Africa Climate Summit, residents and stakeholders must prioritise addressing these key issues that weigh heavily on the city's environmental and public health landscape.

"The summit provides an opportune moment to confront these challenges head-on and pave the way for a more sustainable and cleaner Nairobi," he said.