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Athi River: A Town where industries and residents live in uneasy peace

 Residents of Athiriver say that many industries and factories spew smoke at night. [Gardy Chacha, Standard]

Athi River is home to at least 400 manufacturing industries and factories, excluding those within the Athi River Export Processing Zone (EPZ).

Among these industries, 40 are heavy manufacturing, with eight dedicated to cement production.

Machakos County Lands, Housing, Urban Development and Energy Executive Nathaniel Nganga explained the town's origins and current challenges.

“Athi River was established as an industrial town. As more industries set up, demand for labour went up, which in turn created demand for housing,” Mr Nganga said.

According to Nganga,  rapid industrialisation was not matched with adequate urban planning. The Machakos County Council, and later the Mavoko Town Council, failed to develop a comprehensive physical planning map for the area. This lack of planning led to unregulated residential development.

Today, many apartments in Athi River are located just a stone's throw away from heavy industries, resulting in a sprawling and disorganised real estate landscape.

“The government failed the people of Mavoko,” Nganga said.

Following numerous complaints and demonstrations against air pollution by residents of Great Wall Gardens (GWG), the National Assembly's Departmental Committee on Environment and Natural Resources investigated the matter.

The committee's report revealed that the land occupied by London Distillers Kenya (LDK) was correctly designated as an industrial zone.

The report placed blame on the National Environment Management Authority (Nema) for allowing Erdemann Properties Limited (EPL) to develop a residential estate next to LDK, despite the potential for conflict.

Kitheka Makanga, a bishop with Victory Faith Ministry who has lived in Athi River for over 40 years, voiced concern about the ongoing pollution in the area.

“In my assessment, the situation is bad. This pollution is slowly incubating diseases in our bodies; diseases that will be felt for many years to come,” he said.

Makanga is particularly worried about the smoke emanating from the EPZ, which is located near his residence. A visit to the EPZ revealed thick smoke billowing into the skies.

At the entrance of the company from which the smoke was seen emanating, a sign displayed the name 'Envirosafe Limited'. When contacted, Edwin Owino, a representative of the company, responded to concerns about the pollution.

“We have installed scrubbing units that sieve the smoke from our incinerators and remove pollutants before it is released. We have fully complied with Nema standards,” Mr Owino said.

He explained that Envirosafe handles the incineration of hazardous waste, including medical waste such as expired drugs.

Joan*, a nurse at a public hospital and a neighbour of Makanga, shared her battle with lobar pneumonia with The Standard.

"I was coughing blood. After I got well, I applied to be transferred. I am determined, in one way or another, to leave," she said.

Joan and six other residents we interviewed expressed fear of retaliation if they were named, indicating a pervasive sense of helplessness and concern for their safety in the face of powerful industrial interests.

On March 21 this year, residents of Galana Court in Sabaki wrote to Nema, asking the agency to investigate Vibrama Entreprises – a nearby factory they accused of polluting the air with black smoke and making the air unbreathable.

Photographic and video evidence obtained by The Standard appears to support these claims. Two weeks ago, the residents told Standard that Vibrama had installed new technology to reduce the toxicity of the smoke.

They are now seeking similar improvements from two other polluting factories in the neighbourhood.

“Residents complaining of air pollution in Athi River is not something new,” said Makanga. “The complaints are proof that we have a big problem.”

Moving either humans or the industries, Nganga said, would involve a lot of resources that perhaps the government does not have.

"There is technology today that can be used to arrest pollution. If all enterprises can install these technologies, air quality in Athi River would improve.”

Nganga said his office is currently working on a county spatial plan aimed at designating land use for every space.

The parliamentary report on LDK accused Nema officers of ‘suspicious’ games by allowing LDK, at one point, to continue operations in spite of a court order.

"There was need to scrutinise the relationship between Nema and LDK," the report says, even as it questions why Nema "remains reactive to the pollution menace and not proactive".

The committee asked the Machakos County government to find out if due process during change-of-user for the plot of land occupied by EPL was followed, and that the people who oversaw the processes be prosecuted if found to have erred. No such persecution has taken place.

Construction of GWG began in 2015 when Tourism Cabinet Secretary Alfred Mutua was the governor of Machakos.

The last mayor of Mavoko before the 2013 elections, which were held under a new constitution that gave birth to counties, was Patrick Makau.

We called and texted him to offer insights on the original development plan–if at all there was one–for Athi River but he neither picked our calls nor responded. He is now the MP of Mavoko constituency.

LDK, through their lawyers Tiego & Co. Advocates, declined our request for an interview, citing that the issues we raised are still subject to active litigation before the High Court.

By the time of going to press, Nema and EPL had yet to respond to our request for interviews weeks after we made formal contact. KCB Bank has also not responded on the parties that bought the land before ownership changed to EPL.

This story was produced as part of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network’s 2024 Reporting Fellowship

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