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Nairobi River sewage and industrial pollution seeps into food and water

A member of the Canaan Riverside Green Peace voluntary group waters a young tree planted on the bank of the Nairobi River, in Dandora slum in Nairobi, on April 18, 2021.   -  
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It should an idyllic scene - a waterfall cascading into the river below.

But look a little closer and all is not well.

The Nairobi River has turned sewer conduit in Kenya’s capital.

Its waters turn from clear to black as it traverses informal settlements and industrial hubs.

As clean water runs short, one of Africa's fastest growing cities is struggling to balance the needs of creating jobs and protecting the environment, and the population of over 4 million feels the strain.

Isa Musa is a resident of the Dandora slums and remembers when this waterway was very different.

"When we were young we would cross the river into this other estate and go have some fun out there, and then come back to the same river and cross, you know? But right now considering the amount of pollution that is inside this river it is difficult for someone to cross this river,” he says.

He blames local industries for polluting the river.

Problems start upstream, where informal settlements like Korogocho have directed some of their sewer lines into the river.

The slum has more than 35,000 adults, according to the 2019 national census.

Korogocho resident Violet Ahuga relies on its water for her daily income.

She uses it to wash plastic bags, which she sells to traders who make reusable baskets with them.

But at the same time, her family also use it for a much less sanitary purpose.

"I do not have a toilet. My daughters are too young to go to the bush alone so I usually tell them to poop in a bag and I toss it into the river,” she says.

Most informal settlements, which house informal labourers and their families, are not connected to sewer lines and have open trenches where residents pour dirty water that flows into the river.

The impact of this is felt by farmers here.

Downstream of the growing pollution problem, the Athi River area is the source of many vegetables sold in Nairobi markets.

Morris Mutunga grows kale, spinach and amaranth on his five-acre farm but has watched crops like French beans wither when irrigated with contaminated water.

"Farming has been challenging. The main challenge is water. Sometimes the water is good and other times it's not. Mainly the water is good when it is raining because the river will be cleaned but when the rains stop, the water is salty and has chemicals. When you apply fertilizers, sometimes the yields perform well and other times it does not perform well,” he says.

As well as killing plants, the Nairobi River pollution is affecting the way of life for families in the rapidly growing downstream suburb of Athi River.

The river and its tributaries pass through Kibera, known as Africa’s largest slum, and dozens of factories that manufacture textiles, liquor and building materials. All have been accused by environmentalists of discharging raw sewage and other pollutants into the waters.

Anne Nduta uses the river's dark waters to wash her babies’ clothes by hand.

The alternative is to buy water, but a 20-litre can of borehole water costs 20 shillings ($0.16), and Nduta would need four of them to wash her babies' clothes every three days.

"Sometimes when it rains, this water flows with a lot of garbage and because of the garbage, we can not use the water, we have to wait for the water to get clean. Sometimes the water flows with sewage and is not good so we can not use it. We depend on this water but when it's very dirty, we have to buy water and it's expensive,” she says.

But restoration might be on the way.

The new government has formed a commission whose mandate is to clean up and restore the Nairobi River basin. No deadline has been announced yet, and no budget. The commission has yet to meet.

In Kibera where more than 185,000 adults live in mud-walled homes, a community based organization called Mazingira Yetu, or Swahili for Our Environment, is trying to address the problem by building 19 modern toilet blocks in collaboration with a government agency, Athi Water.

It also produces manure.

The manure is sold to people who have gardens, and some is used to grow tree seedlings that the organisation sells. Money generated from Mazingiza Yetu projects is distributed to young people who work with the organisation.

"All the rivers in Nairobi, one of the biggest polluters is solid waste and we are yet to find a solution. So we saw the element of introducing the circular economy model in addressing solid waste has worked, it just needs to be replicated,” says Sam Ndindi, Director at Mazingira Yetu Foundation.

“Besides that, another problem that we discovered our rivers are facing is poor sanitation especially in informal settlements. Like in Kibera, very few toilets are connected to the sewer, so all the waste from these toilets, these pit latrines ends up in the river. Since 2019, we were able to collaborate with the Ministry of Water and Sanitation and Athi Water Agency in constructing 19 ablution blocks."

The National Environment Management Authority has been accused by some Kenyan parliament members of laxity that has let industries get away with polluting the river.

In a parliament committee hearing in 2021, the environmental body was accused of not taking action against a distillery that residents said was releasing waste in the Athi River area.

NEMA boss David Ongare acknowledges that few entities are being prosecuted these days but says that's because the government has been changing its approach to encourage collaboration instead of being combative, which could lead to resistance.

"Government can not only work with one set of tools. So a long time ago the approach used to be very 'command and control' type but now it is more collaborative, discursive and also to be what we call 'compliance assistant’,” he says.

“So in this way we level the ground so that it is not one person or entity talking down to another but it is a consultative effort. Of course, they are those who have proved they are a little bit difficult or recalcitrant, then we also have a lot of enforcement actions going on and also quite a bit of prosecutions."

The NEMA boss hopes the national government’s program to build affordable housing will mean more people have good sanitation.

Cleaning up the river is crucial to the health of those living close to its banks and to food security for the whole country.

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