Nairobi, Kenya — Vultures search for dead animals along a river that has been converted into a sewage system in Kenya’s capital Nairobi. Its waters turn from clear to black as it traverses informal settlements and industrial centers.
The river and its tributaries cut through Kibera, known as Africa’s largest slum with a population of almost 200,000, and other informal settlements. It bypasses dozens of factories producing textiles, liquor, and building materials. Many have been accused by environmentalists of dumping raw sewage and other pollutants such as oil, plastic and glass into the water.
Experts and locals alike fear the water is damaging crops on nearby farms that feed residents. Some community-based organizations are helping to clean up the river, and the government also hopes to step up their efforts. But families in the fast-growing downstream suburb of the Athi River, some 30 kilometers (19 miles) away, say they can no longer rely on water for their basic needs.
Anne Nduta, 25, uses the river’s dark waters to hand wash her babies’ clothes.
“When it rains, the water of the Athi River is usually full of rubbish and when it gets a little clearer we use it to wash clothes,” said the mother-of-two. “But if the dry season continues, the water will turn darker in color and we’ll have to start buying expensive borehole water.”
A 20-litre jerry can of borehole water sells for 20 shillings ($0.16) and Nduta would need four of these to wash her babies’ clothes every three days.
Their troubles begin upstream, where informal settlements have dumped some of their sewage lines directly into the Nairobi River.
The new national government installed after August’s election says it has a mission to clean up the Nairobi River. One of Africa’s fastest growing cities, Nairobi is struggling to balance the demands of creating jobs and protecting the environment from pollution.
The government has formed a commission tasked with cleaning up and restoring the river basin. No deadline has been announced and no budget either. The commission has yet to meet.
Ecologist Stephen Obiero said that runoff in the river used to irrigate farmland “can create the possibility of contamination of crop products with bacteria, viruses, protozoa… if not managed properly by end users.”
Morris Mutunga grows kale, spinach and amaranth on his two-hectare farm in the Athi River area, but has observed crops like green beans wither when irrigated with water from the river.
“I wish those who are polluting this river upstream in Nairobi could stop in the interests of food security in our country,” he said. The region is the source of many vegetables sold in Nairobi’s markets.
Upstream, some residents of informal settlements, like 36-year-old Violet Ahuga in Korogocho, can’t afford to pay to use modern toilets, so they empty themselves into sacks and throw them in the river. According to the 2019 census, more than 35,000 adults live in the slum.
“My kids are too small to go into the bushes on their own, so I usually tell them to poop in a bag and I throw them in the river,” the mother-of-four said. “I know what I’m doing is pollution, but I have to because I can’t afford the monthly toilet fee of 850 shillings ($6.85).” Toilets on the estate are run privately by individuals and organizations.
Most of the informal settlements housing workers and their families are not connected to sewers and have open ditches into which residents pour dirty water that drains into the river.
But Ahuga also depends on the water of the river for her daily income. She uses it to wash plastic bags, which she sells to vendors who use them to make reusable baskets.
As she splashes the black water on the bags and scrubs them with her feet, she fondly recalls swimming here as a child.
The National Environmental Management Agency, which is responsible for managing the river’s water quality standards and issuing discharge permits, has been accused by some Kenyan MPs of negligence that has allowed industry to pollute the river.
Industries along the river include paint manufacturers, dairies, manufacturers of solar or lead-acid batteries, among others. Some industries have been shut down in the past for dumping raw sewage into the river.
Heavy metals such as lead, barium, iron, aluminum, zinc and copper, among others, have been found in high concentrations at various sampling sites along the river by various research organizations including the University of Nairobi Department of Public Health and Toxicology.
Alex Okaru, a public health expert at the University of Nairobi, said high levels of heavy metals in water, particularly lead and barium, could cause health effects like liver and kidney damage if consumed.
“It is important to take the necessary steps to minimize the release of these two metals into the environment,” Okaru said.
A parliamentary committee hearing in 2021 accused NEMA of failing to take action against a distillery that local residents said releases waste in the Athi River area.
In an interview with The Associated Press, NEMA chief David Ongare acknowledged that few companies face criminal prosecution these days, but said it’s because the government has changed its approach to encourage collaboration rather than being combative , which could lead to resistance.
He said companies have been asking for help in complying with the body’s guidelines since the changes were introduced.
“The cost of non-compliance becomes very high because if your business shuts down, by the time production resumes, you’ve lost customers and your market share,” Ongare said.
He claimed the Environment Agency had been constantly monitoring companies with previous violations and said if anyone was playing games they would soon catch up and take action.
The Environment Agency also said it responds to all pollution incidents reported by whistleblowers through its various platforms.
Locals and community organizations say another approach to cleaning up the river would be 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 without good sanitation.
In Kibera, 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 partnership with a government agency, Athi Water.
The organization’s co-founder, Sam Dindi, said they also wanted to prevent plastic and other waste from being dumped in the river.
“The waste is collected and sorted into plastic waste, which is sold to recyclers or recycled into baskets, and organic waste, which is turned into compost manure,” Dindi said.
The manure is sold to people who have gardens and part is used to grow tree seedlings which the organization sells. The money generated from Mazingiza Yetu projects is distributed to the youth working with the organization.
“The idea of introducing a circular economy worked here,” he said, citing the group’s small but successful reuse of waste products. “It just needs to be replicated.”