The 390 km Nairobi river which resides 56% of the state’s population on its bank has been polluted for 75 years straight, unabated. Authorities have acknowledged that 2475 tons of waste is produced every day throughout the city and most of it goes directly into the river.
The Nairobi River map (ResearchGate)
The water in the river is black, extremely odorous with bubbles of methane and hydrogen sulphide, and contains large amounts of dark suspended material.
It has not always been black and grey in color. Nairobi River used to be the perfect ecosystem for plant and animal life until human settlement expanded. Now, the river is filled with all sorts of contaminants, which makes it very difficult to spot aquatic life in the stream.
SLUM ALONG THE BANKS: CAUSE OF DOMESTIC WASTE
Various communities encroached along the banks of the Nairobi River depend fully on the river to do their household chores.
The very huge part of the river’s pollution comes from the slums as most domestic wastes are dumped directly into the river. Most of these slums do not acquire a proper sanitation system or drainage system.
Lack of sanitation facilities leads to the direct dumping of toilet waste into the river. 83% of households without a private toilet report poor health. Respiratory illness/cough (46%), diabetes (33%), and diarrhea (30%) are reported as the most frequent health hazards.
The levels of Escherichia coli (E. coli) in Nairobi river in 2019 were very high. The standard for bathing is 100-200 units/100 ml of water, while the level in Nairobi River was up to one million units in 100 ml of water.
Nairobi River contaminated by human and industrial waste (allafrica)
Above this, slum residents wash their clothes directly in the river causing chemical detergents to flow with the stream. People living along the banks are often affected with serious diseases when they use the river water to consume an illegal alcoholic drink.
Even with this evidently polluted water, the communities find the river as the only source of water to do cleaning, bathing, washing, and watering.
SOURCE OF POLLUTION
In 2018, 27.03% percent of Kenya’s total population lived in urban areas and cities through which the Nairobi river passes. It is an unfortunate fact that the river has to bear industrial and domestic waste as it travels from the urban areas to the rural.
There are industries in Nairobi who dump sewage directly into the river without undergoing any treatment processes. Some of these include a cloth manufacturing industry, a tannery industry, an industry which exports tanned animal skin, and two other leather manufacturing industries.
Nairobi River contains effluents in large amount (alamy)
THE CONCENTRATION OF POLLUTANTS
Wastewater in open waste channels at Nairobi industrial areas have elevated levels of Pb and Hg. The Nairobi River’s average P concentration is 1.5 and 2 mL/L in the rainy and dry seasons, respectively. Concentration of more than 0.01 mL/L may cause eutrophication and reduce water quality
The pollutants from industries also comprise harmful metals and high levels of bacteria which leads to water-borne diseases like typhoid, cholera, dysentery.
Studies have been done to calculate the metal content in the river and it has been found out that Manganese (0.0092-3.6843 mg/L) and Iron (0.0974-3.1438 mg/L) content is above the critical limits set by the Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS) which is 0.1 mg/L (Magnesium) and 0.3 mg/L (Iron) for domestic water
Cleaning of motor bikes on river banks is a common practice in Nairobi. Most motor bikes are chrome plated and hence some amount of Chromium gets deposited in the water from peel off. This can cause various health issues.
CONSUMING TOXIC FOOD EVERY DAY
Unhygienic markets of Nairobi (The Star)
It is reported that irrigation trenches in Nairobi receive sewage water from markets, roads, and surrounding cities. This very system is responsible for watering the market gardens which produce crops for the entire city.
More than 100 years later, Nairobi residents are still eating vegetables grown with sewage water.
The rest of the sewage water flows directly into the river which is taken up by the residents for drinking and domestic purposes. Runoff water from the agricultural land containing toxic pesticides also seeps into the river which is then utilized for domestic purposes.
On July 29, 1913, Price Williams, a civil engineer from Westminster, arrived in Nairobi and protested about the town’s drainage because by that time, raw sewage from Nairobi was being drained into Nairobi River without treatment.
Abundance of waste along Nairobi River (Dubai92)
These ‘poisoned waters’ the residents are drinking is one of the factors that leads to adverse health effects such as dysentery, which caused more than 16% of all deaths of Africans in Nairobi.
TURNING THE RIVER INTO A GRAVEYARD
The condition of the Nairobi River has worsened such that it has become a common sight to spot dead bodies in the river during cleanup work.
During a cleanup work last year, six children were found buried in the river. Recently, an abandoned baby was found in an unacceptable condition from the river by a cleanup volunteer.
Abandoned infant found in the Nairobi River (cnyakundi)
According to locals, such incidences are very common in the area. The terrible act of dumping dead bodies in the river does not stop here. Several similar occurrences were witnessed in different parts of the city. The number of bodies found along the river since cleanup works started in 2018 is 17.
Of the 17 bodies found in the river, 13 were infants and 4 were adults
RIVER BASIN REHABILITATION PROJECT
The rehabilitation and restoration of the Nairobi River basin was a four-phase project.
- First phase (1999-2001), led by the administration with the support of the United Nations Environment Programme. All the stakeholders were very enthusiastic about the project and it was easier to collect funds. This phase focused mainly on water quality, public awareness, and capacity building. The project succeeded in reducing the dumping of raw sewage and other wastes 30% than what was practiced.
- Second phase (2001-2003), monitor the pollution rate and to educate the communities in one of the tributaries of the river Mutuine-Ngong River.
Waste disposed by Nairobi slums (ResearchGate)
- Third phase (2004-2008), five activities were done to restore the river ecosystem, bring life back into the river, and to create a healthier living environment for the people of the city. By the end of the third phase, several activities received support from the ministries to engage in similar works.
- The fourth phase (2016), improved people’s involvement in the actions. This targeted on changing the behavior of the city’s residents and institutions in disposing of domestic waste and industrial toxic wastewater which are causing the dreadful state of the river.
SHUTTING DOWN THE POLLUTANT SOURCES
Four companies in Nairobi’s industrial area were shut down because they did not own an effective wastewater treatment plant. A paint manufacturing company, a paper recycling company along with two other companies was closed down for exposing toxic water into the Nairobi River.
The action was taken by Kenya’s National Environment Management Authority who started the two-month-long river pollution investigation project “toxic flow”.
The project started on April 16 2018, focuses on finding industries that do not meet the standards of waste management and disposal to provide them with improvement orders.
SLUM RESIDENTS ON THE ACTION: A RIVER CLEANING PROJECT
- Local student and environmentalist, Fredrick Okinda developed Komb Green Solutions, a community organization which focuses on involving former criminals into community works. The organization started the river cleanup act along with Friends of Ondiri Wetland, Kenya to bring back the lost glory of the Nairobi River. The project involved 70 Korogocho residents to clear rubbish and waste from the river.
Members of Komb Green Solutions (Thomson Reuters Foundation)
- On the upstream side, locals planted bamboo to prevent the chemicals from entering the river.
- Many locals also initiated several projects to provide a safe and healthy lifestyle to different parts of the city to create awareness among the local population and to bring back the lost freshness of the river.
Kenyan youngsters take up river cleanup act (Photo by Jack Owuor)
INEFFICIENT MEASURES TOWARDS THE PROBLEM
Nairobi’s slums have informally accessed the banks of the river for accommodation since the city’s formation. These poor communities fight with inadequate sanitation, unhealthy water facilities, and improper waste disposal methods to retain life.
They have been going through the situation for centuries and the administration has had very less concern about the conditions.
The truth is that the slums are excluded from owning houses and from service sectors.
Even when the communities are brought under awareness programs and campaigns, there is still the need to have proper facilities for them to dispose of their waste.
There is a high need for a solid waste management system and proper disposal methods among the communities that must be imposed by the administration since the population is set to be about 8.5 million by 2035.
INACTIVE RESPONSE TO ACTIONS
The four-phase river rehabilitation project did not result in success not just because of the financial crisis, but also several other factors.
Some of the communities were unable to recognize the importance of cleaning their environment and surroundings.
The major problem was that the authorities did not produce effective support with clarity. They failed to display the correct extent of pollution and on top of that, the project involved corruption. Strict enforcement of the policy was also lacking.
IRRESPONSIBLE GOVERNANCE: THE ROOT OF PROBLEMS
Nairobi’s dirtiest river is in its current state because the people and the industries in the city thought of it as a way to dispose of their waste. This very thought must be deleted by the administration’s responsibility.
- The 2.5 million population of the slums in Nairobi is not equipped with proper facilities to protect the river. Even when the communities felt the need to discharge their waste properly, they are left with no support.
Nairobi is lacking in proper waste management (UN Environment Programme)
- There are no strict rules and regulations for dumping untreated sewage into the river, the practice goes on.
- One of the water treatment plants in Nairobi has to temporarily close down for rehabilitation in July 2018 as a sewer line broke leading it to flood in houses.
- The officials who should protect the resource are becoming the role models for its exploitation.
- The city does not have a proper waste management system. It does not have a properly engineered landfill for waste disposal and it lacks heavily in public sanitation and waste collection systems.
NEED FOR BETTER COMMUNICATION BETWEEN THE AUTHORITIES AND THE PEOPLE
The people of Nairobi are struggling to retain life with unhygienic living conditions with a high unemployment rate. On the other hand, various organizations and authorities are trying to tackle the situation with much ease.
A lot can be done to solve the Nairobi River pollution if there exists a proper connection between the administration of Nairobi and its people.
- The most important thing of all is to provide sufficient sanitation and waste disposal facilities to the communities living along the banks and undergo strict inspections on the effluent rate and treatment plants of industries around the city
- There is a need to have the absolute presence of the circular economy. Nairobi is lacking in proper solid waste management and waste collection system, namely lack of landfills. It would be best if the rightful authorities allocate such works to the local communities of Nairobi on a regular wage system. This very concept can bring a lot of change with a rise in employment rate and proper management.
Nairobi streets filled with plastic waste (Kenya Recyclers)
- Local involvement is needed to Improvise security along the banks of the river to avoid illegal dumping.
EARTH5R MODEL: CIRCULAR ECONOMY SOLUTION
The presence of a circular economy must be a prime concern in any administration. The concept allows every sector of the economy to develop itself together with the others.
- It brings out the best we could offer to our communities and to our environment.
- As in the case of the Nairobi River, a major concerning factor of the river pollution is the heavily populated slums on the banks of the river. If these communities are made capable of reducing waste dumping through entrepreneurship, the entire nation can benefit from them.
- Earth5R’s sustainable livelihood program for Mumbai slums is the perfect example of introducing programs that benefit such unprivileged communities. There is a need to bring change within these communities for their better and healthy lifestyle.
Rebecca Piscani from Malta, an Earth5R volunteer at Mumbai interviewing the slum residents (Earth5R)
- It is not too late for the Nairobi River to bring back its glory. Through waste management involving local communities and developing sustainable livelihood among slums, the once clean river can be brought back to life.
Reach out to Earth5R to know more about solving environmental issues by creating circular economy based sustainability projects.
Earth5R is an environmental organization from India with its head office at Mumbai. It works with the NGO sector, Companies and helps them conduct environmental corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs across India. Earth5R specializes in circular economy based projects. Earth5R also offers short term and long term environmental courses.
Earth5R’s Global Sustainability Hub is a cross-sector and cross-country collaboration in pursuit of UN Sustainable Development Goals. It is an excellent opportunity for governments and the private sector to engage with communities, use Sustainability-based models to drive economic changes and create social and environmental impact.
Reported by Mehfil Mubarak, Edited by Shafa Azzahra