Is there any hope for Kenya’s Nairobi River?

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The plight of the Nairobi River and its tributaries, the Ngong and Mathare rivers, has been a subject of intense debate among policymakers, media, environmentalists, grassroots communities, and development partners. These discussions have intensified in the past few years as the river’s pollution and degradation remain unaddressed.

The ecological collapse of the Nairobi River can largely be attributed to Nairobi’s century-long urbanization, which has resulted in a surge in population growth over the years. When the British established Nairobi as the capital of the Kenyan colony in 1905, the population stood at approximately 100,000. By the time Kenya gained independence in 1963, Nairobi’s population had surged to around 350,000. Since then, Nairobi has experienced substantial expansion, and it now has an estimated population of 5.4 million.

This population growth has resulted in the establishment of numerous informal settlements along Nairobi River, as the urban poor seek affordable housing. Areas such as Kibra, Mathare, Mukuru, Shauri Moyo, Kwa Njenga, Kwa Rueben, Kiambiu, Kwa Muia, Kariobangi, Dandora, and Korogocho, are among the over 30 slums established along Nairobi riverbanks and these accommodate more than half of the city’s population.

Industries and institutions, including government-owned entities, have also encroached upon the river’s riparian land. Additionally, numerous informal businesses, including garages and car wash businesses, are situated along this river. Notably also, Gikomba second-hand clothing market where thousands of traders operate from, has expanded along both banks of the river, alongside other similar markets in the city.

As if this were not catastrophic enough, the Dandora dumpsite, Kenya’s largest, which receives all of Nairobi’s solid waste – estimated to be over 4,000 tonnes per day – is situated adjacent to the river, causing significant leakage of waste and other pollutants.

The proliferation of slums, encroachment by industries, institutions, and informal businesses, as well as the establishment of dumpsites along the river line, can be attributed to poor urban planning. Together with other governance factors, these have created a perfect storm for the collapse of the Nairobi River ecosystem, turning it into the city’s dumpster for solid waste, wastewater, and a plethora of other toxic pollutants. From plastics and textiles to industrial and medical waste, hazardous chemicals, motor oils, heavy metals, and even human sewage, the list of contaminants is endless. Once a lifeline for both humans and wildlife, the river now stands as a testament to the perils of unchecked development and weak public policy – a stark contrast to the image of Nairobi when the British established a railway depot back in the late 1890s in a swampy lowland during the construction of the Kenya-Uganda railway. Back then, the area was known to the Maasais as ‘Enkare Nyirobi,’ from which Nairobi got its name, translating to ‘a place of cool waters.’

Today, while the consequences of Nairobi River degradation extend well beyond the city limits, there is also reciprocity from downstream activities. Agricultural produce, such as vegetables grown with water from this toxic river, finds its way onto dinner plates in Nairobi, underscoring the far-reaching consequences of neglecting the health of our rivers. Research on vegetables sold in Nairobi has shown a concentration of heavy metals such as zinc, lead, cadmium, and mercury. These metals have serious health impacts on humans, including damage to the nervous system, reproductive system, lungs, kidneys, and skin, among others.

Clean Up Kenya is running a public facing campaign since 2023 to ‘Save Nairobi River’. © Clean Up Kenya

Nairobi River Restoration Efforts

There have been several attempts to address the problem that is Nairobi River in the last two decades. The first attempt was by the then Minister for Environment and Natural Resources, Hon. John Michuki, in the late 2000s. His efforts concentrated on rehabilitating parts of the river, particularly from the area known as National Museum Bridge to Globe Roundabout. During this attempt, illegal structures were cleared along the riparian land and tonnes of solid waste recovered from the river and the banks where an illegal dumpsite had existed for many years. This was celebrated as an important step and years later after the death of the former Minister, a public park in his name has been installed at this location and stands today as a testament to his vision and commitment to a cleaner and safer city.

Later, under a different regime, President Uhuru established the Nairobi Regeneration Committee. When this was established, there was a lot of hope that its work would extend to rehabilitating Nairobi River. As part of the work of this committee, the Nairobi Governor, Hon. Mike Sonko, invested heavily in the river cleanup and we have famous pictures of him getting into the river water to help with the cleaning where hundreds of youths were tasked with removing tons of solid waste. At one point under his regime, 900 million shillings was approved in the county budget to help with Nairobi River cleanup. This attempt has largely, however, been branded a Public Relations gimmick from the flamboyant ex-governor.

Many other organizations including some development partners including UN Habitat have also poured significant resources into Nairobi River. Despite these efforts, Nairobi River has continued to degrade, perhaps pointing to the wise adage that goes that cleaning rivers is not sustainable, at least if you don’t tackle the root cause of the problem, which are systemic failures in governance and urban planning.

Clean Up Kenya is running a public facing campaign since 2023 to ‘Save Nairobi River’. © Clean Up Kenya

Enters Nairobi River Commission

In December 2022, there was renewed hope as the Government through a Gazette Notice Number 14891, established the Nairobi River Commission, seen as a credible attempt to address the governance failure in tackling the problem of Nairobi River.

A few months later, President William Ruto launched the commission with a lot of enthusiasm where he stated, “For far too long, the city of Nairobi has fallen into a state of shameful, hazardous and unpleasant state of environmental and sanitary neglect. Runaway air, water, land and even noise pollution have been so normalized that there are people who have never seen the clean, green, healthy and safe City in the Sun that Nairobi used to be. This state of affairs must come to an end and the unsafe and unhealthy environmental situation must be corrected to restore Nairobi to its true identity. We have resolved that the city must not only reclaim its glorious reputation as Africa’s green city in the sun, but must also live up to its ancestral identity as the river of cool, fresh and safe water.”

The President even announced that thousands of unemployed youths from across Nairobi would be contracted to help rehabilitate this shameful river.

One year after these significant events took place, Nairobi River still remains more than an eyesore. This is despite the Nairobi River Commission undertaking several river cleanups including through partnerships with other organizations. This therefore leads us to pose the question as also posed in an article on the Nairobi River Commission website, “Is there hope for Kenya’s Nairobi River?”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Betterman Simidi Musasia

Founder & Patron, Former CEO, Clean Up Kenya

Betterman is a sustainable public sanitation advocate and a pollution control evangelist. In 2015, after becoming extremely tired of seeing all the trash in Kenyan neighborhoods and hearing the authorities fake promises to clear the mess, he sold his trucking business to establish Clean Up Kenya. Today, the organization is a leading national sustainable public sanitation advocacy brand. In September 2020, he stepped down as Clean Up Kenya Chief Executive Officer and currently serves as Founder and Patron.