Locals breathe life into Mtopanga River once choked by filth

Peter Mchombo the chairman of the CBO standing at the banks of River Mtopanga. [Kemunto Ogutu, Standard]

Over the years, Mtopanga, the only river on Mombasa Island, had become a dumping site for all manner of waste.

It caused flooding in homes, drove out tourists, led to waterborne diseases and left Jomo Kenyatta (Pirates) Beach in a sorry state.

The situation spurred Peter Mchombo and his fellow islanders to establish the Mtopanga River Conservation Community Based Organisation (CBO), embarking on a crusade to resuscitate their riverine lifeline.

The members conducted regular river clean-up, where they would remove plastic and other garbage from the river before it reached the ocean.

However, with time, their efforts proved futile as residents would continue to pollute the river from upstream.

To make their efforts sustainable, Mchombo and his team decided to turn waste into value through innovative commodities such as flower planters, vases, and dustbins from plastic bottles.

Their creations were not only aesthetically pleasing but also served a practical purpose, providing much-needed income for the CBO and fueling their ongoing conservation.

“The vases that we create have become a source of income that fuels our work,” he said.

Turning plastic waste to valuables

Mchombo says that the community has since committed to collecting plastics and selling them to recycling companies or to the CBO for their plastics projects.

Mchombo believes their efforts have seen a marked decrease in the volume of plastic that drains into the ocean at Pirates Beach.

Charles Vuko, the head of the CBO’s ecotourism unit, noted that despite the 2017 ban on plastic bags, many horticulturalists in Mombasa still use the bags to plant seedlings.

The CBO discourages this practice, advocating the use of coconut husks in place of polythene bags. The husk is biodegradable and eventually becomes manure for the growing seedling.

Vuko believes that teaching children from a young age to respect and conserve rivers and water catchment areas is the key to conservation.

The 50-member CBO has also revolutionised conservation by crafting durable and low-maintenance boats from recycled plastic bottles.

These vessels, led by skilled builder Suleiman Said, boast longevity compared to traditional wooden boats, and require minimal maintenance.

This not only boosts the CBO’s conservation efforts but also serves as a powerful symbol, raising awareness and inspiring sustainable practices.

Beyond their environmental impact, the plastic boats have also become a tourist attraction.

Mirriam Ndune, Suleiman’s assistant, emphasised this, while Mchombo noted that the plastic boats have directly contributed to the preservation of mangrove forests, with more fishermen opting for them over traditional wood-based vessels.

Concerted efforts

The CBO is not the only organisation fighting for the river’s restoration.

A section of River Mtopanga near the Indian Ocean in Mombasa. [Kemunto Ogutu, Standard]

Three years ago, Coastal and Marine Resource Development (Comred) played a pivotal role in the establishment of the Mombasa Smart Sustainable City Forum under the Miji Bora project.

This initiative paved the way for the formation of five technical working groups, including the Transformative River Management.

Spearheaded by Comred, this group has dedicated its efforts to restoring Mtopanga River.

Dr Innocent Wanyonyi, Comred’s director for Sustainable Cities Programme, said the river is vital to Mombasa’s economic vitality, thus the organisation’s commitment to safeguarding its health.

However, Wanyonyi said research by Comred revealed that 65 per cent of waste in River Mtopanga is plastic.

The waste, he noted, should be continually and sustainably combated, so it does not jeopardise biodiversity in the Mombasa Marine Park, which is barely 5km away from Pirates Beach.

The marine park’s coral gardens, sea grass and array of species are a major tourist attraction in Mombasa

He said that the hotel industry depends directly and indirectly on the river, therefore it should be jealously guarded.

“There are about 11 tourist hotels along the Pirates Beach stretch, which is also close to the marine park. Naturally, if we allow Mtopanga River to be dirty, then we are going to lose tourists to our neighbouring countries,” he said.

Wanyonyi recommended multi-stakeholder action as the lasting solution to the pollution problem in River Mtopanga.

Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) is part of the multiple stakeholders in Mombasa involved in restoration of Mtopanga.

Beatrice Jerop, a supervisor at KWS, said they also keep track of the quality of water draining into the marine park to ensure the biodiversity is not affected.

In the face of all the challenges, Jerop lauded the work done by CBOs in Kisauni, saying that KWS has witnessed an increase in aquatic life and improved aesthetics in the river since the conservation efforts began.

“Although previously viewed as a dead river by Kisauni residents, Mtopanga is gradually reclaiming its life and improving tourism in Kisauni Sub-county,” said Jerop.

Plastic interceptors

Two-hundred metres from Pirates Beach is another popular tourist attraction; The Bamburi Forest Trails.

Rose Sali, The Chief Operating Officer at Haller Park, revealed that Bamburi Cement PLC conducts quarterly clean-up programmes to restore the river.

This year, they collected 1.8 tonnes of litter, with 47 per of it being plastic. She noted that intercepting waste upstream makes it easier to curb plastic pollution in the ocean.

Paul Opere, the company’s Rehabilitation and Aquatic Resources Officer, said they set up strategic wire mesh interceptors to trap the solid waste. He noted that some trees along the river have strong roots which act as interceptors.

While the restoration journey hasn’t been without challenges, Mchombo and his team remain undeterred in their mission to revitalise Mtopanga River.

Their efforts, however, are hampered by delay in gazetting the river as a protected wetland.

“Gazettement would be a game-changer,” Mchombo said.

He envisions a future where tourists flock to the protected river-cum-wetland, drawn by its unique beauty and ecological importance.

This story was produced with support from JRS Biodiversity Foundation and Mesha