Nairobi was founded in 1899 as a railway depot by the colonial authorities. This was two years after the colonist established Machakos as the administrative centre for the Kenya Colony.
At the turn of the 19th century Nairobi – Maasai word for cool water– was lush and green with wetlands bisected by clear rivers. A significant part of the upper Athi River basin drains through the city of Nairobi and its suburbs. The colonists chose to set up the Uganda railway beachhead in Nairobi precisely because it had plentiful supply of freshwater and a benign climate.
Complete or reliable records of Nairobi’s environmental history are scant. But early accounts describe Nairobi as a marshland devoid of humans and dense with animals of all kinds. Today lush swamps have disappeared and thriving wildlife is gone. In their place buildings and roads have emerged. The clear rivers are no more. What we have now are open sewer canals, teeming with bacteria, loaded with heavy metals and chocked with plastics.
The once luxurious riverine zones are now dense with squalid settlements. Nearly all of Nairobi’s slums are on what should be protected riparian buffers. It is estimated that about 56 percent of Nairobi’s residents live on the edge of Nairobi River or its tributaries. Some of the slum residents rely on Nairobi’s rivers – filthy fluid colonies of bacteria and poison warehouses – for domestic water. High concentrations of heavy metals have been detected in riverine vegetation and river sediments.
Pollution of urban rivers is not peculiar to Nairobi’s rivers. In the mid 1800s, London’s sewers were emptied, unfiltered into the River Thames. By 1957, the pollution levels on London’s River Thames were so bad the river was declared biologically dead. Nearly sixty years later, the Thames is alive again: teeming with hundreds of species of fish, waterfowl and more than 400 species of invertebrates.
Past efforts to restore and rehabilitate Nairobi’s rivers have achieved little. This includes Nairobi Rivers Basin Rehabilitation and Restoration Program, which was implemented between 2003 and 2009. In 2015, the Cabinet Secretary of Water and Irrigation Eugene Wamalwa announced a master plan for rehabilitation and restoration of Nairobi River Basin.
What is needed is a partnership that brings together government, private sector, civil society and especially, the residents. I believe we can roll out the largest civil works project, signing up tens of thousands of youth to remove the solid wastes, de-silt the rivers stabilize the banks. This effort must include restoration of riparian buffers, urban storm water management, construction of large wetlands to cleanup storm waters, regulate discharge and conserve vital limnological functions.
Restoration of Nairobi’s riverine glory we will create tens of thousands of new environmental and engineering jobs for the youth. More jobs will be created when we re-claim riparian buffers, construct wetlands and build thousands of new safe and affordable homes for the urban poor.
We win when Nairobi’s riverine glory is restored and picturesque waterfronts emerge as places for recreation for all cityzens of Nairobi.