Nairobi River basin rehabilitation and restoration

Nairobi – If the Nairobi River were a human being, it would have choked to death by now. Despite various attempts to restore it over the past decades, the river continues to choke with garbage, industrial waste, agro and petro chemicals, heavy metals and other pollutants, which have caused the extinction of aquatic life and turned the river into an eyesore. Nairobi River is a huge potential resource for the city. It should not be left to die.

The rehabilitation and restoration of the Nairobi River basin has been a topic of discussion for almost two decades. Work on this project started in earnest in 1999, with the launch of the first phase, which lasted for two years. This phase, which was supported by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), concentrated on water quality assessment, public awareness and capacity-building. The second phase (2001–2003), which was conceived as a pilot, targeted one of the tributaries of the Nairobi River, the Mutuine-Ngong River. It was primarily aimed at monitoring pollution and included community education. The third phase, which lasted four years (2004–2008), focused on five activities with the objective of restoring the river ecosystem so as to provide clean water for the capital city and a healthier environment for the people of Nairobi.

When the programme first started in 1999, donors, partners, NGOs and the Government of Kenya were all enthusiastic and reasonably supportive and funds were easily mobilized. Some of the funds from the government and other donors were channelled into research, entailing work that was then given to the University of Nairobi and other universities in Kenya.

Other funds were allocated to individual consultants to look not only at water quality and chemical pollution but also at the physical and social aspects of the Nairobi River basin. According to Muiruri (2009), the then Minister of Environment and Natural Resources, the late John Michuki, was disappointed because most of the planned activities and the recommendations emanating from some of the studies were never implemented.

Moreover, he was not happy because some people in authority did not care about the dumping of garbage and waste into the river. Through his passion and political will, however, and by making good use of the financial resources provided, Michuki ensured that the communities along the riverbanks were involved in cleaning up the river. He succeeded in stopping the dumping of raw sewage and other wastes into the river at 30 per cent of the points where this had previously been practised.

Since the end of the third phase of the programme, several activities have enjoyed continuing support from the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources and the Ministry of Water and Irrigation, together with other organizations. In 2016, the Ministry of Water and Irrigation launched a master-plan for the rehabilitation and restoration of the Nairobi River basin.

In contrast to the aims pursued by the previous three phases of the rehabilitation and restoration programme, the Ministry of Water and Irrigation hopes to give the current programme a people-centred orientation, by targeting change of behaviour by the residents and institutions whose actions and operations contribute to pollution of the river (Kenya Rivers and Water Resources, 2017). In addition, the ministry is of the view that previous phases of this programme failed largely because of budgetary constraints.

Given that, over time, donor funding has been steadily dwindling, it will be difficult to raise the substantial amounts necessary for the rehabilitation and restoration of the Nairobi River basin, all the more so because there is so little to show for what has already been spent on this endeavour in the past. For example, President Trump of the USA has stated that the interests of his administration are first and foremost domestic and that he is proposing to cut foreign aid by more than 30 per cent. This will have a significant impact, in particular, on funding the support provided by USAID and the US contribution to the UN system. The Kenyan national and county governments will have to come up with innovative ways of raising new and additional funds.

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By Ambassador Dr. John O.Kakonge, President of the Association of Former International Civil Servants (AFICS-Kenya).