Access to Water in Nairobi: An Interview with Dr. David Nilsson

Nairobi Planning Innovations is very pleased to interview Dr. David Nilsson, an urban environmentalist who has been working with long-term change and development issues in sub-Saharan Africa for the last 16 years. Now based in Sweden, he works as a consultant and as a researcher at KTH Royal Institute of Technology. David previously lived in Nairobi for many years and was involved in an important study by UN-Habitat and the Institut Francais de Recherche en Afrique (IFRA) on  Access to Water in Nairobi” . The project started in 2011 and generated important insights into equity issues as regards to water and sanitation access in the city. It will be the focus of our interview.


An estimated 64% of Nairobians have access to an individual or yard tap to access water

NPI: What was the motivation for doing the “Access to Water in Nairobi” project?

Just like so many other cities in developing economies, access to urban infrastructure services in Nairobi is extremely unequal. Reducing inequality is one of the most pressing challenges – perhaps the most pressing – if we are to live up to all nice words about human rights and sustainable development. The fact that huge inequalities persist in Kenya is an insult to the Bill of Rights. This project set out to develop an innovative method to analyse and visualise how large the service segregation is when it comes to water in Nairobi. But we also wanted to explain what is behind this inequality.

NPI: This research effort collected an impressive amount of data on water and household incomes. Can you briefly explain how you collected this data?

The project used a groundbreaking method, developed by IFRA, where open-source satellite images were spatially analysed and combined with a modest household survey sample of some 800 households. First of all, a set of characteristic indicators in the city landscape was identified, such as housing density, percentage of public space, tree cover, roofing material and so on. Using the satellite images, it was then possible to create a typology of different urban settings within the city based on these indicators. Once this ”map” of different urban types had been established, it was used to target the socio-economic survey. Being the first time we did this, a lot of work went into method development. But the method has a great potential for making the mapping of inequalities on the ground so much easier.


Nairobians in poor neighborhoods rely heavily on water kiosks (82%) or communal taps (24%). This means they often pay more for water than people in wealthier neighborhoods.

NPI: What were the most startling findings from this work?

I think that what surprised me most was not the fact that the poorest people in Nairobi pay so much for the little water they consume – this is well known – but that the rich people consume so much and pay so little. In large parts of the city – typically in the upmarket areas to the West and Northwest – consumers use well above 160 litres per capita per day. This is in line with average consumption in well-watered regions of the world, like my home country Sweden. But Kenya is a water scarce country. And now we have the richest 10% of Nairobi’s population using 45% of all the water available for consumption. This made me reinterpret my understanding of Nairobi’s water challenge from one of scarcity and poverty, to a problem of unsustainable consumption by a rich minority.


NPI: What impact do you think your work has had on Nairobi? Do you think the Nairobi Water and Sewerage Company will take into account the concerns raised about equity and wastage? Does it have incentives to do so?

The prime concern of the company is to improve economic performance and day-to-day operations, so it makes perfect sense for them to reduce wastage and illegal water use. But they have too few incentives to really focus on equity. It is the County, Athi Water Board, and the national regulator who need to create such incentives for the operator. Today the regulator, the Water Services Regulator Board (WASREB), ranks water operators almost exclusively on their economic performance. If the national regulator doesn’t take service equality seriously, why should the water company care? But I know that Nairobi Water and Sewerage Co is struggling to provide better service also to poor people. In the end, Nairobi’s one million unconnected offers a potential market, although the rich and already connected users of course is a much more lucrative market segment.imgres

NPI: Based on your expertise and experience in Nairobi, including this project work, what are the most pressing interventions that need to happen if the city is “to achieve by 2030, universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all as well as access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all” (SDG 6)?

Several things need to happen as there is no universal cure. First of all, accountability in the sector has to be severely strengthened to root out corruption and to ensure that ordinary people’s voices are heard. Civil society will hence be crucial as watchdogs, but politicians and technocrats also need to show some leadership. Secondly, donor agencies need to put their money where their mouth is and stop funding large-scale supply-oriented solutions while there is still rampant inefficiency, wastage and inequality on the distribution side. Yes, Nairobi has recurrent water shortages. But large-scale bulkwater transfer solutions now advocated by the World Bank and others will first and foremost benefit rich Nairobians and foreign technology suppliers. Thirdly, we need locally engaged and genuinely committed research and development activity on the ground. Innovation actors in Nairobi can – and must – develop solutions that work here. Unfortunately there’s no off-the-shelf solution that can be imported to fix things up quickly.

NPI: What kinds of policies around Water and Sanitation should Nairobians advocate for in your view to achieve SDG6?

None. There is too much emphasis on policy development. I have studied the water policy landscape in Kenya since before the Water Bill of 1929. Nowadays, governments and donors seem to believe that to achieve a societal goal, it always starts with a policy or the passing of a law. At the same time we all know that enforcement and policy effectiveness is a totally different story. I think to achieve SDG 6, Kenyans should not spend another ten years refining policies and legislation, but instead nurture a vivid debate in society about equality, and if the city should be for everyone. A culture of accountability, of hard work and of  “harambee”, is much more crucial than any policy in the world.

NPI: Thank you so much! I hope this interview will contribute to the needed debate on water and inequality in Nairobi. NPI readers can learn more from the Access to Water project here including the recommendations that came out of this work.




The Art of Shaping Nairobi (NaMSIP project): An Interview with Pedro Ortiz, World Bank

Nairobi Planning Innovations has the pleasure of talking to Pedro B. Oritz, Senior Urban Planner at the World Bank. Pedro has been working for many years on the Nairobi Metropolitan Services Improvement Project (NaMSIP) which aims to strengthen urban services and infrastructure in the Nairobi metropolitan region. Pedro has a long and distinguished career in urban planning in Spain. He is the founder and Director of the Masters program of Town Planning of the University King Juan Carlos of Madrid, a former elected Mayor for Madrid’s Central District (1989-1991) and member of the Madrid’s City Council (1987-1995). Pedro also served as Director of the “Strategic Plan for Madrid” (1991-1994) and as Director General for Town and Regional Planning for the Government of Madrid Region. He is the author of the “Regional Development Plan of Madrid of 1996” and the “Land Planning Law of 1997” and recently wrote an important book on metropolitan planning The Art of Shaping the Metropolis. Today he talks to us about his work in Nairobi on commuter rail and metropolitan planning.

NPI: You have been working for NaMSIP for many years and have had a chance to explore how Nairobi and its surrounding counties and towns work. In the absence of metropolitan institutions, how do you see metropolitan planning working in practice in the Nairobi region?

We started NaMSIP in March 2011. The idea was to produce a comprehensive cross-sectorial program that would integrate a metropolitan vision on public transport, land-use and water/environment, within a strategy of economic international positioning and response to local social needs.

The basic metropolitan strategy was producing polycentrism to avoid the congestive dependency of the central CBD. This needs to be based in a renovated commuter rail system with urban centralities (TOD’s) along the three main existing lines and consistent strategic urban planning. Every town must have a different role to play complementing one each other. The periphery has to be reticulated, instead of orbital-designed, to provide homogeneous accessibility to maximize competitive potential.

I must say that Nairobi is the African leading metropolis in this metropolitan comprehensive approach. Many other African capitals will benefit from Nairobi’s leadership and experience. That will increase the leadership role of Nairobi as the capital of the African continent.


Nairobi is not circular. Ring roads and bypasses are not the solution. It has a very distinctive directionality, the borderline between Kiambu Hills and Athi River plain. The Metropolis has to be planned accordingly.

NPI:  You have remarked that “Nairobi needs to play chess not darts” in order to relieve congestion. Can you explain what you mean?

Every town in a metropolis has to play it’s own role in a common strategy. That is the game of chess. Every piece has different movement tactics and that defines its role. Rooks are Thika, Athi River and Limuru. Knights: Tala, Kiambu and Ngong. Bishops: Riuru, Githurai, Imara Daima and Kikuyu. The Queen is obviously the international airport and the King the actual CBD. There will be in 30 years time another Queen. She will be the New south-central-station CBD, and this Queen will move progressively towards Makadara OuterRing road junction. Tala will become a Rook and Mlolongo and Ruai Bishops. Sorry if this sounds complex now, but metropolises are complex mechanisms. What must be clear is that Nairobi should not play the game of Darts anymore where everyone wants to reach the center and you get 3-hour jams. If Nairobi wants to be a world-class city, it has to play chess and not darts, which, by the way, is a much more intelligent game.


NPI: Under NaMSIP, there is a plan to upgrade commuter rail. Can you tell us what Nairobians can expect and what kinds of impacts this upgrade and expansion of commuter rail will have on the city?

To have an efficient metropolitan system you must have an efficient commuter/metro system. Nairobi is a 5 million inhabitant metropolis and will become a 14 million one. Those figures cannot just be served by BRT. BRT in Bogota (9 million) takes 2.5 hours to reach Chia from Soacha (25 km) and people riot. An efficient commuter service has trains every 10 to 15 minutes. Some are in the 3 minutes frequency. Now Nairobi has one train in the morning and another one in the evening. That is not a Commuter service. Figures have to move from ten thousand passengers a day to one million. Imagine taking a million future cars out of the streets of Nairobi. Now motorization is low: 1 car for every 10 people. But it is growing fast and will reach developed countries ratios of 7 cars for every 10 people. That means that Nairobi which now has 500,000 cars will have 10 million in the future. It is an impossible task to have an efficient metropolis if you don’t have an efficient public transport that will keep those cars out of the streets. All this requires an efficient commuter system, 60 trains per day in each line, a train every ten minutes. That requires a massive investment form KRC and the World Bank is helping on that. When will this happen? It depends on the management capacity of KRC and the political backing it has from Central Government. This is a national issue. Nairobi produces 50% of Kenyan GDP. If Nairobi works, Kenya works. National Government must be aware of that.


NPI: The majority of people use matatus today as their form of transport. What do you see as the future role of minibuses in the Nairobi region? How, if at all, will they link to the commuter rail project?

BRT’s, buses and minibuses are part of the comprehensive system of public transport. Each mode complements each other and plays a specific role. Minibuses are not made to run long distances. That is up to the train. The train has to feed matatus; matatus have to feed the train. Matatus must have efficient and comfortable intermodal stations at the train stations, and the trains will provide a million passengers to the matatus waiting there. The 100, 000 necessary matatus will take the passengers to their final destination a few kilometers away. Commuter rail and matatus do not compete. They complement each other in a win-win strategy. Columbia University is doing a wonderful job in this issue. We shall be working together for the years to come to make the whole system work.


NPI: There are a number of bus rapid transit (BRT) plans for Nairobi. In your view, what is the role of BRT in Nairobi and how would you like to see these projects link to the commuter rail and the matatu system?

Again, BRT and trains must complement each other. For instance: I see BRT on Thika road with train intermodal connections in Githurai, Riuru, Juja and Thika. It is clear that BRT terminals have to coordinate with train stations: Imara Daima, Githurai, Kikuyu. Those are the actual priorities. The issue later will be if train and BRT can follow the same routes. A train stops every 2 km. BRT every 300 m. There could be a complementarity there, depending on the demand. If the demand is not high enough, then buses will be enough. You see: there is a lot of work to do to coordinate the whole public transport system of Nairobi. And future of the metropolis and the well being of the Nairobians is at stake.


NPI: You are working on transit-oriented development (“TOD”) around new commuter rail stations in Nairobi. Can you explain why TOD is important and the likely impacts of TOD for Nairobi?

A train station is not just a train station. It is an opportunity to serve the population that is using the train with complementary services. It is an excuse to fill the train with the population that is using/benefiting form those complementary uses. If 200,000 people are using a station, there are many possibilities to serve them right there or close by. Activities have to take place around the train stations: activities such as Social Facilities, Hospitals, Education, Administration, Commercial, Services, Offices, etc. On top of that you must provide a nice setting with public parks and public spaces for people to meet and enjoy themselves, plus the required intermodality to create easy access from other parts of the urban context. If all that has a high-density residential potential, then the whole thing will be a success as these people will have all those urban services at hand and those services will have the people they serve. This is what has been done in Europe since the implementation of the train in mid 19th C. London started that in 1850, Paris around the same time. The USA has branded the term TOD (Transit Oriented Development) from 1993 onwards. I guess we owe much to the ‘Millennials’ (young urban professionals that are changing the face of American cities by changing attitudes to car ownership). They get my gratitude from here. We are doing that in Nairobi. 32 centralities are being designed around 32 stations. The difficulty will be managing them. Land property is often not clear in Nairobi. Many times the private landowner does not see the benefits for him coming out of a public investment on transport and accessibility. He does not see his possibilities, or his duties. A lot of work has to be done in promoting that win-win dialogue and working together for the benefit of both the landowner and the public. Probably the legal system will have to be adapted and modernized. Professionals and stakeholders will need to be engaged. A huge task but essential if Nairobi wants to be an efficient, equitable and sustainable metropolis.


Parallel waterways flowing from Kiambu Hills to Athi River can support a sustainable green infrastructure network with parks, urban agriculture, storm water catchment reservoirs and environmental amenities.

NPI: Nairobi county has a Non-Motorized Transport (NMT) policy addressing walking, cycling and other forms of non-motorized transport. How important is NMT investment for Nairobi and its metro region?

The best way to access the commuter train is by walking or on bicycle. That means that this should be conveniently placed, close by and accessible. That is already a success. So to improve the accessibility via NMT to the station is a priority. As such we are working on this and improving access with quick-win investments on the NMT connection between the town centers and the train stations in 20 out of the 32 designed Centralities. Once this essential connection will be made. the NMT system can expand integrating the urban network and connecting further to the Green Infrastructure network based in the blue waterway assets of the Nairobi River effluents. This way transport, land use and environment will be integrated through the NMT network. It is the best way to make a sustainable focused integration.


The incrementalist approach to growing an NMT network across gray and green infrastructure networks will progressively integrate and serve the urban structure.

NPI: Where can citizens go to get more information on the NaMSIP plans?

NaMSIP has a coordination office on the 20th floor of Ambank Building. Excellent professionals are working there. They are there to serve Nairobi and the Nairobians. Don’t rush in numbers to ask them. They have to work. But you can reach out to them to ask for information. You also have the World Bank related webpages:

World Bank press release on NaMSIP

You can see as well some of the fertilizing ideas in this link: I hope you appreciate what you can see there, and I will be happy to discuss with anyone interested. My contact email is provided in the webpage. This interview has given me the idea that probably NaMSIP should produce a brochure, or a set of brochures, to inform easily to whoever wish to get more information. NaMSIP belongs to Nairobians and is working for their future. They should know. It’s their Right. Thank you very much for the opportunity to fulfill that Right.


An example of how Metropolises play Chess: The case of Madrid with towns characterized accordingly to their role on the overall metropolitan strategy. Sometimes the game will be won thanks to a pawn.

NPI: Thank you so much! I hope more planners will join the public conversation so that Nairobians can be informed and add their input into plans for their city.

How Africa Can Build Inclusive, Safe and Sustainable Cities

Jacqueline M Klopp, Columbia University and Jeffrey W Paller, Columbia University

Recently, world leaders gathered in New York to commit to the new sustainable development goals. For the first time, a specifically urban goal is among the 17 goals to be achieved by 2030.

This goal is to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”. It reflects growing recognition that human development depends on how well urbanisation is managed. According to Dr Joan Clos, Executive Director of UN-Habitat and former mayor of Barcelona, the global view of “cities as containers of problems” must change. Cities are, in fact, “accelerators of development”.

This is important for Africa, where despite high urbanisation rates the development focus has been primarily rural. Consider Ghana. The country’s urban population has grown from four million in 1984 to more than 14 million today. Fifty one percent of Ghanaians now live in cities. While urbanisation rates vary across Africa, Ghana reflects an overall global trend towards a predominantly urban future.

Ghana demonstrates how cities can be highly productive in Africa. One World Bank report draws an explicit link between urbanisation, productivity, and poverty reduction. Over the same period of its urban growth annual GDP growth has averaged 5.7%. The number of industrial and service jobs has increased by 21% and the capital city, Accra, has registered a 20% reduction in poverty.

Similarly, the Nairobi metropolitan region generates at least 50% of Kenya’s GDP. While it has too many unemployed youth and significant poverty, the more rural counties in Kenya are often the poorest.

The scarcity of affordable housing

As Africa’s cities grow, the challenge will be to provide adequate services and equitable access to its opportunities. Currently, large gaps exist between needed and current services and infrastructure. One result of this gap is an affordable housing crisis. This produces slums, often near expensive gated communities and suburbs.

Access to affordable houses is a major problem. It results in slums like this.

Transit services are overstretched and spaces that connect people to work and create a more socially inclusive civic culture need to be supported, fostered or created by African architects, artists and planners with citizens and government.

Like many other countries in Africa, Ghana’s urban housing stock is growing. But, like many cities across the globe, much of this housing is for the middle and upper classes, and the housing is not growing fast enough. African real estate is hot. In Nairobi real estate investment gives a high rate of return – more than almost any other sector.

This housing demand is an incredible investment and growth opportunity if managed effectively. Given current housing inequalities the question is: how will this sector develop in an “inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable” way?

With Chinese, European Union and African Development Bank involvement, investment is flowing into urban infrastructure, especially road building all over the continent. But are these investments helping to create access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems for all? Are they doing all of this taking into account the needs of the vulnerable as aspired to by the new sustainable development goal?

More often than not, Africa’s cities are building high carbon, unsafe infrastructure for the minority with cars, not the majority who need or want excellent mass transit and healthy and affordable options like cycling and walking.

The biggest challenge is politics

Often the mantra about African cities is that poor planning is an obstacle to unlocking the promise of urbanisation. Much of the problem dates back to the colonial period. Planning does need to be reinvented to address the specific needs of African citizens. More often than not these citizens were and are victims of planning instead of beneficiaries.

Ghana has had a series of plans for its cities since the colonial period. The 1958 Town Plan for Accra pointed to the small and insecure land market as a problem for the provision of housing, and formed state bodies to address the issue.

The Strategic Plan of 1991 sought greater collaboration between agencies, as well as coordination with international funders – the perennial problem that is not entirely the fault of African cities. The World Bank report highlights some of the same problems, without outlining a political solution.

Like cities in Ghana and elsewhere, Nairobi has had a series of “master plans”. From the 1948 “Plan for a colonial capital” to an excellent 1973 Metropolitan Growth Strategy, which was never properly adopted or implemented. The more recent Nairobi Metro 2030 and Nairobi Master Plan reflect the heavy use of foreign consultants in planning.

These “plans” have not passed through any elected body and often reflect a high modernist vision that justifies large infrastructure projects and excludes attention to citizen priorities.

The central problem to unlocking equitable opportunities in African cities remains politics. In today’s competitive multi-party environment, leaders make political calculations that privilege short-term horizons to win votes over long-term solutions to urban problems. Most critical, many urban planning problems are the result of power struggles and, in particular, the capture of “public goods” such as land or transit routes for certain interests.

Communities must be involved

Many politicians have an interest in maintaining insecure rights around these critical public goods needed for making a city function, because they are part of networks that benefit from the status quo. In Ghana, some traditional authorities benefit from selling land multiple times.

With the involvement of communities, beautiful urban planning such as this is possible.

This contributes to numerous land disputes that get stuck in an underdeveloped legal system. In Kenya, “land grabbing” wreaks havoc on land-use and transport planning. The outcome is the escalation of the cost of urban improvements and it encourages environmental disaster.

Community leaders and their followers often internalise societal norms to win elections. For example, politicians strive to be parents, employers and friends to their constituents, often using state goods and resources as patronage for their political supporters.

This undermines the achievement of sustainable and inclusive cities. Of course, some neighbourhoods can and do sustain civic cultures and public service, and it is these communities that deserve more attention.

For projects and policies to have the desired results of improved urban space, better transit or more affordable housing, incentives need to be reshaped to make it beneficial to follow sound policy prescriptions and play by the official rules.

Registering land and businesses should be profitable and not invite predation. Relocation to and development of new neighbourhoods should consider local architectural, social, and economic preferences but also equity. And providing public goods and services to all citizens including newcomers should contribute to electoral advantages.

The mayors from Johannesburg and Maputo came to New York to explicitly signal their support for the sustainable development goals, and especially Goal 11, which promotes inclusive, safe and sustainable cities and settlements. Whether progress will be made on these laudable goals will depend on politicians working in collaboration with citizens.

As people continue to move to urban areas in Africa in search of opportunity, let’s hope that they can help fashion an urban politics that gives birth to the kinds of cities that are better for all.

The Conversation

Jacqueline M Klopp, Associate Research Scholar, Center for Sustainable Urban Development, Columbia University and Jeffrey W Paller, Post-doctoral Research Fellow , Columbia University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Nairobi and the New Urban Sustainable Development Goal

imagesLast week in New York, the world’s leaders signed a commitment to achieve a new set of sustainable development goals by 2030. Reflecting growing recognition of the importance of cities for human development, sustainable development goal 11 specifically addresses improving cities and human settlements to make them “inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”. The seven specific targets for this goal can be read here but note that it includes affordable housing and slum upgrading and  “access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems for all, improving road safety, notably by expanding public transport, with special attention to the needs of those in vulnerable situations, women, children, persons with disabilities and older persons”- key areas for improvement in Nairobi- along with other critical target areas. A number of African cities, including Joburg and Maputo, have explicitly signed on to supporting these goals and also using them as part of their strategic planning.  Will Nairobi join them?


For Nairobi to contribute to achieving these goals, it will need to improve its governance performance. Recently,  the Auditor General’s report for Nairobi County Executive and Assembly for the year 2013-2014 was released. It makes for sober but familiar reading, detailing no doubt deliberate financial disorganisation, the usual appalling land grabbing and the failure to collect rates  that could be put into better service delivery if the financial system had more integrity (read the reports here). Using the new sustainable development goals and targets, Nairobi residents might assess where they want to go and  after reading the AG report demand what specifically needs to change in county gover
nance to ensure that it happens. Nairobi, with all is remarkable assets, should gear up to meeting the new urban sustainable development goal targets-but, as the AG report makes clear, this will take some changes.

Results from the First Public Opinion Poll in Nairobi on Transportation

Today, Ipsos Ltd released an opinion poll on transportation in Nairobi. Funded by the Center for Sustainable Urban Development and released with the Kenyan Alliance of Resident Associations, the poll (full results here and a video of highlights here) asked over 800 Nairobi residents what their transportation experiences and concerns are. Too often it seems that transportation experts do not consult with the users of transportation services and roads-forgetting that most people walk or ride matatus. The poll looked at car owning households (401) and a representative sample of Nairobi citizens (415)  with an error bar of +/- 4.9%.

CHsrI40UcAAtOH6First, the poll shows that Nairobians clearly do not feel that they are consulted in transportation decision-making. When asked “when decisions about transportation are made in Nairobi City County, do you think members of the public like you are consulted?” 89% said no. Mr Martin Eshiwani of the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure who attended the release conceded that more could be done to connect with the public. The opinion poll, which is becoming more common as a tool for planners, piqued his interest.

Secondly, Nairobians agree completely on some issues. The poll indicates mass support for flexible work hours (91%) and slower speed limits generally (68%) and near schools (98%) especially.These findings are roughly the same whether your household has a car or not. Note that a lower speed limit near schools is the point of contention for some members of parliament when considering passing the Traffic Amendment Bill 2014.  The bill proposes 30 km/hr, and some MPs in the transportation committee want to change this to 50 km/hr, the existing general speed limit. Bright Oywaya of the Kenyan Road Safety task force noted that the survey supports passage of the Traffic Amendment BIll 2014 as is. She explained that if a child is hit at 30 km/hr, the survival rate is 90%. As speed increases the survival rate plummets. This is the scientific reason for the 30 km/hr limit near schools in the Bill. The results also show that a majority of children walk or take a school bus or matatu to work and that roughly a third of parents think this is unsafe or somewhat safe. Road crashes and poor driving as well as crime remain concerns for parents.


Congestion is a daily headache for Nairobians.

It is no surprise to many that the majority of people take matatus (71%) and walk (42%) every day. It is clear that rail and cycling are very neglected as transportation modes with very few using them on a regular basis. Even car owning households use matatus (37%) and also walk (27%). Security for those taking matatus and personal cars, waiting for the bus or walking on the streets is a major concern.


Many Nairobians-even those- with cars-would consider cycling if there were special lanes.

Most interesting is that about a third of people including those with access to a car would consider riding a bike to move around if there were special lanes for bikes. This reflects the growing interest among the middle class in cycling, but the current transportation infrastructure does not support this interest that if realised would help with congestion. Cyclists have started to develop a cycling map of Nairobi that indicates where they would like to see new lanes.

Air quality is also an issue with a majority of people deeming the air bad or very bad (69%) and seeing an impact on their health (93%). Transportation is a major source of Nairobi’s air pollution. Still, the majority of people without cars aspire to have one; if current neglect of walking, cycling, rail and matatu improvements continue, then the city is even in more trouble. Already, those surveyed said they lost one hour or more on a typical weekday (48%), a figure that rises to 57% among people in car owning households. Over a third of people lost a job or business opportunity because of transport problems. This may be why many car users in the city seem interested in other options.

Cholera in the City: A Ticking Biological Time Bomb


Washing clothes and bathing in the contaminated river…

NPI invited guest blogger James Kariuki to discuss the way his neighborhood in Ongata Rongai is experiencing the lack of a proper sewage system and no environmental regulation. Throughout Nairobi’s history people have lamented the failure of the government to invest in proper drainage and sewage treatment systems that would be connected to homes and be affordable. As recent cholera cases reveal, this long standing failure to properly invest in critical urban infrastructure continues to put all Nairobi residents in danger. With climate change, this problem could get worse. James gives us a vivid account from the ground about this “ticking biological time bomb” in his home of Ongata Rongai  and the difficulties of grassroots activists in trying to improve the situation.



Children swimming in the Mbagathi River

The cholera outbreak in Kibra- and other slums in Nairobi is really bad news; the areas affected are right in the capital where an estimated 3 million people reside. This is a national tragedy that sends shivers in the hearts of many of us who work and live in the outskirts of the capital. Cholera is one of the most contagious diseases that can spread to a whole region within a very short time. Now that the problem is here, let us not act surprised- worried maybe- but the truth of the matter is; all along, we knew it would happen. We just did not think it would come so soon. Waste disposal in Nairobi and its environs is a big problem. It is even worse in densely populated areas. Almost every slum in Nairobi is adjacent to a river; Mathare slams, Kibra, Sinai, Lunga Lunga, Kia-Ndutu, Kangemi and many others.

For many years, the residents of Ongata Rongai have relied on and benefited from Mbagathi River, an all season’s river that has its source in the dense Ngong forest 30 km west of the town. A fresh water river, people have been coming to its banks for decades to wash clothes, shower and even fetch water for domestic use. Some churches around Ngong and Dagoretti area also use the waters near the source for baptism. It is also a favorite spot for young boys to learn swimming skills.


Ongata Rongai is a rapidly growing town.

Ongata Rongai is a rapidly growing town attracting real estate development but little environmental control. I have been a resident of Ongata Rongai for the last 16 yrs. I came when there were fewer rental houses and most of the residents were born and brought up here and lived in gated homes, most with extended families. Mbagathi River was a major source of water for the majority of residents. I would go to the river whenever I was off duty for meditation i.e to dip my feet in the clear cold water and smoke weed with my age mates. I would not dare to try that today. A lot has changed; I don’t smoke weed anymore and the River keeps on getting dirtier; a fertile breeding ground for mosquitos and any other water related illness/disease including cholera.

Since then Ongata Rongai has grow sevenfold and still has no sewage system; I know of a businessman in this township who started the exhauster services business with just one tractor; in less than three years, he was commanding a fleet of over seven trucks and making more investments in providing disposal services. The reason he became a millionaire so quickly was because of the demand for his services. As Ongata Rongai continues to expand and the needed sewage system has not been put in by the government: his services are needed.


Many people illegally dump sewage into the drainage to save money.

Close to Nairobi, Ongata Rongai  is a point of interest for real estate developers and it is on the record as one of the fastest growing towns in Kenya. New rental houses and story apartments are coming up every single day. But as for sewage, there is only one option,: to seek the services of private exhausters. Most surprising, the exhauster business has not kept the pace with the growth as expected bearing in mind that there is still no sewage system and there are 300 times more residents than we were back then. The demand is still where it was seven years ago; the price of draining septic tanks has not changed either. This is in explicable in a business sense bearing in mind the law of supply and demand, demand and costs should have gone up. The reason for this situation is that people have found alternative disposal methods which are pocket friendly, but a curse to residents of this beautiful town. For the last 10 or so years, landlords have been pumping raw sewage from their septic tanks at night to trenches in the streets using portable water pumps. These trenches drain the waste into River Mbagathi. It has become a normal routine to see the trenches overflowing every night even during the dry seasons.


“We used to use the river for agricultural needs”

Most shocking,  it appears that among the leading polluters of this river is a government funded institution of higher learning. For years, raw sewage from this university has been flowing to this river. The university which is supposed to be leading from the front in conservation is risking the lives of thousands of residents and also wild animals as the waters flows into the Nairobi National Park before joining Athi River. I don’t believe it is a coincidence, that the sewage plant at the university is built less than 100 meters from the river. And I have reasons to believe. it is not by mistake that every day, thousands of liters of green mucky raw sewage flows from the open sewage to the river.


Once a source of fish, the river now holds raw sewage.

Bernard Ngumi, a father of two teenage children, is a resident of Ongata Rongai. He was born and brought up in this place and  is one of the founders of a self-help group called “Friends of Nature”. This group was originally founded in 1998 mostly by the children of land owners whose large parcels of land touches river Mbagathi. The group was later registered as a CBO and issued with a certificate, but it was to be disbanded a few years later after failing to get support from the locals and vicious campaign by landlords to disband the group as it posed a big threat to those who polluted the river. “We formed this group with the aim of conserving the river for continued use of the fresh water for domestic and agricultural needs.” he said.


People live right next to open and contaminated water…

“We came together to campaign for the preservation of our source of water-this was after we realized the river was becoming a health risk. It started with the fish dying, then the water changed color and the visits to the hospitals started becoming frequent.” Ngumi explains. “We were not prepared enough and that was our biggest mistake!!! We had not anticipated any resistance since we assumed that everybody would wish to see a cleaner RIVER. As soon as we started questioning and warning offenders that we would take action against anyone polluting the river…”  He pauses as though remembering a certain incident and then shakes his head in disappointment. “Yenyewe corruption ni mbaya- pesa ndio ni kila kitu Kenya!!”  he laments; then continued,,, Some landlords were well connected and had deep pockets,,,,, they colluded with the chief; we were labeled Mungiki . The police started harassing us and breaking our meetings, some members of the group who were most vocal and were threatening to pursue the matter to the courts were secretly bought with bribes and finally the group collapsed.”

“Mbagathi was part of our life; and touched all those close to it. The very rich on the Karen side had installed electric pumps and used the water for fishponds and irrigation. We on the Rongai side could never sleep hungry during our time. The river had clear water and many kinds of fish.”  “Do you remember the big drought in the 80s?”, he asks, looking at me for the first time since our interview started. He had been staring at the river probably remembering his youthful days at banks of the now polluted river. I nod my head; not quite sure whether he was referring to the failed coup in 1982 or the failed rains in 1984. Ngumi goes on,,, “ that was the only time the river stopped flowing and even without the flow we still had plenty of mudfish from hundreds of ponds along the river. This pollution started in the late 90s, when most of our neighbors subdivided the land and sold parcels to real estate developers. With more rental houses, the town became more populated and more polluted. The motors that pumped clean water from the river to homes went silent and those that pump sewage to the river became louder.”


Many students rent in town.

At just 20 kilometers from Nairobi central business district, Ongata Rongai provides an ideal and a cheaper alternative for civil servants and mostly self employed business people working in Nairobi. It is also a temporally residence for hundreds of university students pursuing studies in the three main Universities located in the out skirts of the town. Namely. Nazarene University, Catholic University and Multi-media University. Most of the students reside in the township in hostels or shared apartments with self contained facilities like toilets and running water. At an estimate five persons per 2 bedroom unit, a five story building with 24 units will host over a hundred people including staff and domestic workers. If we can assume that each person will use 40 liters of water daily for showering, flushing the toilet, washing hands, laundry, utensils etc. 4000 liters of water will go through the waste disposal pipes to the septic tank. In monetary terms; 20.000 Ksh will go toward disposing the waste every month. And that is why pumping the sewage to the street’s drains is much cheaper. After all, everybody else is doing it.