Rivers 1. Cleaning up the Nairobi River

Posted: 15 June 2001

Author: Robert Otani

The Nairobi River, one of the most polluted in Kenya, is the focus of a clean-up campaign by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) which is based in the city.

Since the turn of the 20th century, when the city of Nairobi came into being, the communities living along the river flowing through it have been dumping garbage into it. Raw sewage, solid waste and untreated industrial effluent have, to a large extent, destroyed Nairobi's rivers as a resource of clean water.

In the last few years the situation has got worse as the city's population has grown along with industry.

Nairobi River. Credit: UNEP.Also affected is the well-being of the communities downstream of Nairobi River and Athi River, into which it flows and which empties its waters into the Indian Ocean.

As the Kenyan capital grew physically so did its population, which now stands at about three million. This growth has led to the mushrooming of slums where sanitation and other facilities are almost non-existent.

New buildings and manufacturing plants have also been built with little regard for the environment, with untreated effluents flowing freely into the streams from the Ngong Hills to the west of the capital and the Nairobi River itself. Water-borne diseases like typhoid fever, cholera, dysentery and diarrhoea are a constant threat to the people of this region.

Now a new project - the Nairobi River Basin Project - is giving hope for a fresh lease of life to the river and the communities along it, including the Nairobi residents.

Pilot scheme

The first phase of the project (1999-2000) assessed the impact of river pollution; reviewed relevant laws; held comunity management meetings; prepared education programmes and began a publicity campaign.

The second phase will concentrate on the Mtoine/Ngong River upstream of the Nairobi Dam, the Dam itself and downstream to the confluence with Athi River.

A pilot project to put in place "proper sanitation and waste management pratices and reduce the negative impact on the river" will cover 200 households upstream of the Nairobi Dam, says a UNEP report. Local communities will be helped to improve their living conditions and to construct and manage sanitation facilities, including ablution blocks. They will also be helped to get a mains water supply.

Rapid population growth and industrialisation have made river pollution worse. Credit: UNEP.

Other activities include building two wetlands to reverse the depletion of groundwater and to change the quality of surface water entering the Dam. Water hyacinths will be used in purification ponds, while local people will shown how to manage the water hyacinth for income-generating projects.

Learning lessons

The practices of the Save the Nairobi Rivers campaign and the lessons learned from it will be documented in a handbook before being replicated to other communities throughout the Nairobi River watercourse.

A community information desk on pollution will be established to distribute information about environmental and health related hazards and waste management. A waste recycling facility will be established. This phase will involve an intensive public information campaign in collaboration with the UN's Habitat Managing Water for African Cities Programme and the local news media.

Sources: Environment News Service and UNEP.

Related link:

Nairobi River Basin website.