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Marking Environment Day while ignoring social injustices hypocritical

 Resident participating in tree planting to protect Lumuli Dam in Trans Nzoia County. [Martin Ndiema, Standard]

Last week, Kenya joined the rest of the world in commemorating World Environment Day 2024. It was a prompt for us to confront the realities we face regarding the state of our environment as a nation. Thousands of Kenyans have been rendered homeless by mass and unjust demolitions along riparian reserves. While reclaiming these reserves is essential, the process has been marred by unlawfulness and discrimination. Informal settlers are being displaced, while encroachers from affluent neighbourhoods remain largely untouched. But are they really untouchable?

Despite ongoing demolitions, authorities such as the Water Resources Authority, the National Construction Authority, and the National Environmental Management Authority continue to approve high-impact developments dangerously close to rivers, particularly in Nairobi. This highlights the artificial and reactive nature of our responses to environmental calamities such as flooding. By evicting vulnerable people and leaving the reclaimed land open for opportunistic cartels, we ignore the root causes of flooding—high-impact, beacon-to-beacon developments with walls up to the riverbanks and insufficient drainage systems. These structures exacerbate flooding, condemning downstream inhabitants to repeated seasonal floods, yet they still stand tall.

Last year, Kenya launched a campaign to plant 15 billion trees by 2032. While we have had two national tree planting days, these initiatives feel like public relations stunts. Despite the efforts of dedicated Kenyans participating in corporate and institutional CSR tree-planting events, some developers and State corporations, such as Kenya Power, undermine these efforts by indiscriminately cutting down trees that obstruct their projects.

As Kenya’s urban areas densify to accommodate an estimated 15 million residents by 2050, there is a glaring lack of environmental consideration. Land use and physical development plans are either non-existent or gathering dust in archives. Consequently, many Kenyans endure deplorable living conditions with inadequate water supply, poor drainage, ineffective solid waste management, insufficient infrastructure and lack of open spaces. Despite these, our leaders continue to advocate for densification without clear plans to improve service delivery for current and future residents.

We must now focus on the reality around us and engage in open discussions about the state of our natural and built environments. As Kenya works on plans to enhance the climate resilience of neighbourhoods and support the urban poor, it is crucial that part of the $5 million received during the Africa Climate Summit, 2023, be allocated towards creating comprehensive local land use plans. These plans are essential roadmaps for providing Kenyans with liveable, safe and vibrant environments.

Raising awareness about these issues is vital. We need more than sporadic demolitions of informal settlements and occasional tree-planting ceremonies. Long-term, coordinated action is required to address the deeper systemic problems. The hypocrisy of celebrating World Environment Day while turning a blind eye to ongoing environmental degradation and social injustice must end. Moving forward, let us pledge to push for genuine, sustained efforts to protect our environment and ensure equitable treatment of all Kenyans.

Ms Ngaruiya is the Advocacy Officer, the Architectural Association of Kenya

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