Kariobangi community members cleaning the Nairobi River | Photo by Ashnar Dholakia
The name “Nairobi,” coming from the Maasai word, “enairobe,” translates to “a stream of cold water.” Running from the northwest to the southeast of the city, the Nairobi River was once a source of clean drinking water and home to a thriving population of aquatic life. Nowadays, it is referred to as the most abused water system in the region, as it is relentlessly suffocated by heaps of non-biodegradable trash, industrial effluent, human waste, harmful bacteria and even dead bodies.
According to the Kenyan census (conducted decennially), Nairobi’s population increased from about 828,000 people in 1979 to about 4,397,000 in 2019. Rapid urban migration has strained public infrastructure, increased levels of urban poverty, affected equitable access to housing and social services, and caused a proliferation of informal settlements. Consequently, residents of informal settlements are subject to living in overcrowded, unsanitary and unsafe conditions in close proximity to fragile areas (like adjacent to dumping grounds, sewers and polluted water sources).
The Nairobi River runs through informal settlements like Kibera, Mukuru and Kariobangi where sewerage systems are broken, homes lack toilets, and potable water is an unaffordable commodity. In September 2019, we attended a focus group discussion in Kariobangi where respondents identified water cartels as one of the biggest obstacles to accessing affordable water. With limited access to treated piped water, community members already living below the poverty line are forced to pay water cartels — who divert the “Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company (NCWSC) pipes that run through the slums to create their own watering points” — for water supply. Costs of water can increase to about Ksh 200 (about $2 USD) for a week’s worth of water. The water supply itself is also precarious.
The disturbing reality is that residents of informal settlements must resort to relying on the River’s murky and feces infested water for cleaning their homes, watering crops, washing clothes and even bathing.
Urban farmers in informal settlements use sewage water from the river to grow fruits and vegetables, resulting in mass soil and crop contamination and illness post-consumption.
After conducting numerous tests on the River’s water quality, an environmental chemist from the University of Nairobi cited exorbitant amounts of “ lead, copper, chromium, zinc and manganese…beyond those allowed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and Kenya’s National Environment Management Authority.” Additionally, up to one million units of deadly bacteria, like E. Coli, were found in a mere 100 mL sample. Consuming water, directly or indirectly, from a source that is contaminated by feces and raw sewage can cause diseases like typhoid, cholera and dysentery. One respondent from Kariobangi reported how him and his family recently suffered from cholera as a consequence of consuming contaminated water.
Article 43 of the Kenyan Constitution guarantees every citizen “a clean and healthy environment” and access to adequate amounts of safe water that is compliant with national sanitation standards. Kenya’s Ministry of Health, Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries and Irrigation, and Ministry of Environment and Forestry are the three main national-level entities responsible for policy and strategy development concerning water, sanitation and the environment. The State, ministries, and national and county governments are responsible for securing financial resources, setting goals, implementing policy, and meeting environmental objectives in the 2010 Kenyan Constitution.
In partnership with public and private organizations, Kenya Vision 2030, the Water Act 2016, the Kenya Environmental Sanitation and Hygiene Policy (KESHP), the Kenya Environmental Sanitation and Hygiene Strategic Framework (KESSF) and the Kenya Slum Upgrading Programme (KENSUP) exemplify some of the national legislations, policies, frameworks, and development plans created to reform Kenya’s water, sanitation and hygiene sector.
A lot has to be done about the poor environmental and living conditions in Kenya’s urban informal settlements. Along with providing local residents and grassroots organizations with resources to aid in the clean-up and restoration of the Nairobi River, national and county governments must devise effective policies and methods to facilitate “the separation of solid waste, waste pickers and recycling industry to be streamlined and supported to ensure no waste reaches the rivers or surrounding areas.”
There is a dire need for the proper set-up and maintenance of dumping waste in informal settlements. This includes sustainable provision of sanitation facilities, upgrading and expanding waste water treatment plants and creating well-engineered landfills.
Writing legislation is an integral step in implementing change, but it must be enforced and sustained. Despite drafting pro-poor policies, cooperating with influential international development partners and investing in monetary and non-monetary resources, the Government of Kenya must take practical action to improve access to water, sanitation and hygiene in urban informal settlements.
Deep-seated environmental, institutional, financial and knowledge-based obstacles prevent holistic, tangible, and sustainable urban development; until this is rectified the health of millions of Kenyans are at a daily risk.
Ashnar Dholakia is an EAI research assistant conducting research on water, sanitation, and hygiene within the context of urban informal settlements.