Is there hope for a dying river in Kenya’s growing capital?

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) – Vultures search for dead animals along a river and diverted sewage canal in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. Its waters turn from clear to black as it traverses informal settlements and industrial hubs.

The river and its tributaries cross Kibera, known as Africa’s largest slum with a population of nearly 200,000, and other informal settlements. It flies dozens of factories that make textiles, wines and building materials. Many of them have been accused by environmentalists of discharging raw sewage and other pollutants such as oil, plastic and glass into the water.

Now the new national government, which was installed after the August electionsShe says she’s on a mission to clean up the Nairobi River. Nairobi is one of the fastest growing cities in Africa and is struggling to balance the needs of creating jobs and protecting the environment from pollution.

The government formed a committee tasked with cleaning and restoring the river basin. No deadline has been announced, nor a budget. The committee has not met yet.

Experts and locals alike fear that the water is harming plants on nearby farms that feed residents. Some community organizations help clean up the river. But families in the fast-growing suburb of Athi River, about 30 kilometers (19 miles) away, say they can no longer rely on water for basic needs.

Ann Nduta, 25, uses the dark river water to hand-wash her children’s clothes.

“When it rains, the water of the Athi River is full of rubbish, and when it goes down a little bit, we use it to wash clothes,” said the mother of two children. “But as the dry season continues, the color of the water gets darker and we have to start buying expensive well water.”

A 20-liter (5-gallon) jug of water from the well sells for 20 shillings ($0.16), and Nduta needs four of them to wash her children’s clothes every three days.

Its troubles began upstream, with the informal settlements directing some sewer lines directly into the Nairobi River.

Ecologist Steven Obero said river wastewater used to irrigate farmland could cause “the potential for contamination of plant products with bacteria, viruses and protozoa…if not handled properly by end users.”

Maurice Mutunga grows kale, spinach and amaranth on his five-acre farm in the Athi River region, but has watched crops like French beans wither when irrigated by river water.

“I hope those who pollute this river will stop upstream in Nairobi for the sake of our country’s food security,” he said. The area is the source of many vegetables that are sold in Nairobi markets.

Upstream, some residents of squatter settlements, like 36-year-old Violet Ahuga in Korogocho, can’t afford to use modern toilets, so they defecate into bags and dump them into the river. More than 35,000 adults live in slums, according to the 2019 national census.

“My kids are too young to go into the bush on their own, so I usually tell them to poop in a bag and throw it in the river,” said the mother-of-four. “I know what I’m doing is polluting, but there is no other way because I can’t afford the monthly toilet fee of 850 shillings ($6.85).” The toilets in the settlement are privately operated by individuals and organisations.

Most of the informal settlements, inhabited by workers and their families, are not connected to sewage lines and have open trenches where residents pour the dirty water that flows into the river.

But Ahuja also depends on the river water for its daily income. She uses it to wash plastic bags, which she sells to merchants, with whom they make reusable baskets.

As she splashes black water on the bags and scrubs them with her feet, she fondly remembers how she used to swim here as a child.

Some members of Kenya’s parliament have accused the National Environment Management Authority, which is responsible for managing river water quality standards and issuing drainage licences, of inaction that has allowed industries to stay away from polluting the river.

Industries along the river include paint manufacturers, dairies, and producers of solar or lead-acid batteries, among others. Some industries were closed down in the past to discharge raw sewage into the river.

Heavy metals such as lead, barium, iron, aluminum, zinc, copper, etc. were found in high levels at various sampling points along the river by various research organisations, including the Department of Public Health and Toxicology of the University of Nairobi.

Alex Okaro, a public health expert at the University of Nairobi, said high levels of heavy metals in the water, especially lead and barium, can cause health effects such as liver and kidney damage if ingested.

“It is important to take the necessary steps to reduce the release of these two metals into the environment,” Okaro said.

At a parliamentary committee hearing in 2021, NEMA was accused of not taking action against a distillery that residents said was releasing waste into the Athi River area.

In an interview with The Associated Press, NEMA President David Ongare acknowledged that few entities are being sued these days, but said this is because the government has changed its approach to encouraging cooperation rather than combat, which could lead to resistance.

Since the changes were introduced, he said, companies are coming forward to seek help to comply with the authority’s directives.

“The cost of non-compliance becomes so prohibitive because if your organization shuts down, by the time you get back into production, you’ve lost customers and market share,” Ongare said.

He affirmed that the environmental authority is constantly monitoring companies that suffer from previous non-compliance issues, and said that if any of them are playing games, they will soon catch up and necessary measures will be taken.

The environmental authority also said that it is working on all pollution incidents reported by whistleblowers through its various platforms.

Local residents and community organizations say another way to clean up the river is to provide modern toilets at little or no cost. The NEMA chief said he hopes the national government’s affordable housing program will reduce the number of people living in areas that lack good sanitation.

In Kibera, a community organization called Mazingira Yetu, or Swahili for Our Environment, is trying to tackle the problem by building 19 modern toilet blocks in collaboration with government agency, Athi Water.

The organization’s co-founder, Sam Dindy, said they also wanted to prevent plastic and other waste from being dumped into the river.

“The waste is collected and sorted into plastic waste, which is sold to recyclers or recycled in bins, and organic waste which is composted,” Dendy said.

The compost is sold to people who have gardens, and some is used to grow tree seedlings that the organization sells. Funds generated by Mazingiza Yetu’s projects are distributed to young people who work with the organization.

“The idea of ​​introducing a circular economy worked here,” he says, referring to the small-scale but successful reuse of waste products. “It just needs to be repeated.”

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