Finding a cure for Nairobi’s sick river

Tuesday, September 19th, 2023 09:40 | By
Finding a cure for Nairobi’s sick river
Ongoing clean-up excercise of Nairobi River next to John Michuki Memorial Park. PHOTO/BERNARD MALONZA

As you enter the gates of Michuki Park along Kijabe Street in Nairobi, all that welcomes you is a pungent smell emanating from Nairobi River that cuts across the park.

The odour becomes even more

pervasive as you venture deep into the greenery in the forested and well-manicured grass and hedges, before you come face-to-face with the charcoal-black water, filled with methane and hydrogen sulphide, which innocently snakes through the park.

Engineer Solomon Owango

Michuki Park is not the only victim of human’s destructive activities that have eventually caused pollution to the river, resulting in unhealthy hard to live in environment.

As you drive down Museum Hill into Uhuru Highway and Harry Thuku Road where the river intersects, the choking stench fills your nostrils and unlucky you if the stretch has traffic jam. It is akin to the smell of a morgue without proper refrigeration.

Some of the high-end hotels along the river, such as Villa Rosa Kempinski have obviously been affected by the stinking smell of the river.

As it flows through the city, which is home to nearly five million dwellers, toxic material seeps into the water. The river is heavily polluted by domestic waste, agricultural waste, sewage, pharmaceutical waste, chemicals and heavy metals, as well as industrial pollution stemming from the commercial and industrial activities taking place along its banks.

Antimicrobial resistance

Previously, tests on water samples collected from different sites along the river indicated there was 100 per cent presence of antibiotics, a clear indication of disposal of pharmaceuticals and agricultural chemicals.

The menace has not only been a source of air pollution, but contamination of the water with antimicrobials and heavy metals has driven the emergence of Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR).

But the river has not always been black and grey in colour. Nairobi River used to be the perfect ecosystem for plant and animal life until human settlement expanded.

As the city’s population bulged to the roof, the infrastructure failed to keep up with it, overburdening the existing ones, which then resulted in massive spilling of sewer into the river, causing major water pollution.

The river and its tributaries pass through a number of informal settlements in Nairobi, such as Kibera and Korogocho, who have been marked as the top contributors of the river’s pollution.

 Amani Achieng, a Kibera resident, says there are various ways that slum dwellers have contributed to dirtying the once clean water body. “Long ago, we would use water from the river for cooking and other domestic chores. But over the years, that has become impossible, because of its current status,” she says.

Achieng says disposal of human waste and illegal discharge of raw sewerage into the river is the slum’s largest contribution to its pollution.“We have insufficient toilets and, therefore, most people either relieve themselves at the river or in their houses and then dispose of the waste to the river,” she says.

Engineer Solomon Owango, the project engineer for the Nairobi River rehabilitation says aside from homesteads, dozens of factories that manufacture textiles, liquor and building materials discharge raw sewage and other pollutants into the waters.

Owango says the pollution of the river begins at Gatina area in Dagoretti.

“At the place where the Nairobi River begins, you can actually see the difference in colour. The water is so clean and clear. But as it comes down, the problem begins as city dwellers dispose of everything possible into the river,” he says.

Map up strategies

The National Environmental Management Authority (Nema) has severally been accused of laxity, giving culprits leeway to dispose of garbage at the river despite there being laws protecting such resources.

But things are about to change months after the new government vowed to clean and rehabilitate rivers in Nairobi.

In February, President William Ruto launched a massive clean-up campaign of rivers in Nairobi by establishing the Nairobi River Commission whose main mandate was to map up strategies leading to cleaning and rehabilitation of rivers in the county.

Ochieng Elvis, the team leader of youths cleaning part of Nairobi River under the national government, says they have so far removed over 20 tonnes of garbage from the river mainly, plastic wastes.

Armed with gumboots, long coats and safety gloves, tens of youths fearlessly rummage through the murky water as they remove waste. “A lot of waste we are removing obviously comes from our own houses, such as used diapers, synthetic hair, plastic utensils, containers and bottles and even fabrics. We are hopeful that by the time we are done with cleaning this river, the water will go back to being clear,” he says.

Massive support by residents

Contrary to previous years where any efforts to clean up the area were thwarted by “cartels”, Owango says the ongoing excercise has received tremendous support from every quarter and stakeholder. “This time round, there are no major challenges, because we have the blessings of the government. We anticipate that in the next few months, we will notice change,” he says.

To avoid the garbage removed finding its way back into the river, Owango says it is dried up before being picked up by the county garbage collectors and eventual dumping at the Dandora dumpsite.

To make the clean-up sustainable, the engineer says, as they remove the garbage, they take the opportunity to map out and identify the possible culprits before notifying relevant authorities. “This helps the authorities to issue warnings to specific institutions, such as companies, hospitals or factories. Relevant offices are then responsible for protecting the river post-the clean-up,” he adds.

And to target homesteads, Owango says there will be a launch of a massive campaign to sensitise residents living closer to the river on the importance of environmental protection and also the possible laws that can be used against them, if they pollute it.

Infrastructure on rivers adversely affects aquatic life. For example, it can prevent some species of flora and fauna from flourishing. By protecting and restoring our rivers, we play a critical role in bending the biodiversity curve. Rivers and the waters and nutrients they carry feed forests, wetlands and other terrestrial habitats, and are home to many freshwater species.

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