Cleaning Nairobi’s Air for a Healthier City: Interview with Public Health Expert Kanyiva Muindi

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Often a thick cloud of smog hands over Nairobi: Source http://aphrc.org/vehicles-air-pollution-and-health/

Nairobi, like many of the world’s cities, is facing a growing problem of air pollution which can have very serious health impacts. Recently, NPI  had a chance to talk to one of the city’s public health and air quality experts Kanyiva Muindi. Kanyiva is a researcher at the Nairobi-based African Population and Health Research Center who is finishing her PhD at Umea University in Sweden. She is passionate about cleaning Nairobi’s air and took some time to explain why this is important.

NPI: As a public health expert can you explain to us why Nairobians should be concerned about the quality of the air they breathe?

Air is an essential public good that each of us must breathe, whatever state it is in. It is each person’s responsibility to take action to ensure the air is clean. One may wonder why bother about air quality. Research indicates that in a few years, most of us will be living in an urban area  and that urban air pollution is the biggest environmental risk factor faced in today’s world and a leading environmental cause of cancer. In 2012 alone, air pollution (both outdoor and indoor) led to 7 million premature deaths globally (equivalent to about 64 planes carrying 300 passengers and crew crashing each day). In addition, air pollution has been implicated in the development/aggravation of cardiovascular illnesses such as hypertension and heart disease. Respiratory illnesses including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma are also caused/worsened by poor air quality. With Kenyans waking up to news of increasing cases of cancers, and many of us suffering from or having a person close to us suffering from a chronic respiratory illness such as asthma or COPD, we search for reasons why these diseases seem to be getting too common… the answers might lie in the air we breathe.

NPI: In a nutshell, what do we know about Nairobi’s air quality?

There is scattered evidence about the air quality in Nairobi and all seems to point to poor air quality with levels of particulate matter being several fold above the  World Health Organisation guidelines.

NPI: Which are the most vulnerable populations in terms of impacts of poor air quality?

All individuals are vulnerable to the impacts of poor air quality, however, children, the elderly and people with pre-existing conditions such as heart disease or asthma are at elevated risk given poor air quality. In Nairobi city, I would also add unique groups such as hawkers, traffic police officers, matatu/bus crew and beggars who are exposed to high volumes of traffic for most part of each working day as among those most vulnerable to the impacts of poor air quality.

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Vehicle emissions are a key source of pollution. Owners need to keep their vehicles in good shape and use clean fuels. Congestion and idling also create problems for air quality.

NPI:  Do we know the major sources of air pollution in the city?

I would say we somehow know the major sources of pollution; existing studies have indicated that motor vehicles are the major sources of air pollution in the city. In addition, other sources such as industries and open burning of garbage contribute substantially to poor air quality in the city. However, a comprehensive city-wide study would be important to bring to the fore the major sources of air pollution.

NPI:  How can citizens get information about the quality of their air? Is there enough data and information out there?

Currently, I know of no single resource where citizens can obtain information about the quality of air in the city. Much of the existing evidence is in peer reviewed journals which might only be accessible to few Nairobians. Further, we do not have city-wide data collected in a systematic way. Both the lack of comprehensive data and an information resource on air quality are issues that need to be addressed to avail this critical information to Nairobians and indeed to Kenyans.

NPI: Can you describe your research briefly and some of the most critical findings?

My research is looking at household air quality in two Nairobi slums with particular interest in people’s perceptions of and attitudes towards air pollution, the levels of household air pollutants and the effect of these on birth weight. This research involves both qualitative and quantitative methodologies. Some of the critical findings include the perceived better quality of household air compared with outdoor air in both communities despite reported practices that encourage higher concentrations of pollutants indoors. For example there is poor use of ventilation during cooking episodes especially in the evening. Another critical finding was the feeling of helplessness among community members to address some of the air quality issues they face- there was general settling into the situation- a finding that calls for awareness creation in these communities to inform and stir people into action. Further, household particulate matter with aerodynamic diameter of less than 2.5 micrometres (PM2.5) (which is particularly bad for health) was found to be much higher than the outdoor level especially in households relying on charcoal fuel and the local tin lamp (koroboi) for lighting.

NPI:  What would you like to see change in how the city and the central government are addressing poor air quality? What can citizens do on this issue and where can they find more information?

First I would like to see an air protection act come into being- I am aware that a bill on air quality has been pending in parliament and it would be a step in the right direction if this were signed into law. Secondly, it would be important to have monitoring stations in different parts of the city to provide continuous information on levels of key pollutants as this would inform decisions that city managers and individuals make; for example city managers can use this information to call for a reduced traffic flow into the city on days when levels of pollutants are high. Third, there should be efforts to engage lay people in the air quality discourse so that when certain decisions that affect them are made, they buy into these decisions and support their implementation. Lastly, could we think about educating the future generations and empowering them early in life to take actions that protect the air we breathe? I feel it would be a great investment if we were to include in our education curriculum (from primary level) such subjects like exposure sciences and build the next generation of scientists who would lead in assessing levels of pollutants and innovating solutions that would lead to better lives for urban dwellers.

Citizens also have a responsibility to ensure that the air is clean. This can be achieved if we all are made aware of the ways in which we each contribute to making the air quality poor and the consequences of exposure to poor air quality. Having the right information empowers individuals to make well-informed decisions and I believe that providing Kenyans with this information should spur change in some of the behaviors that lead to poor air quality. Further, the current constitution assures each citizen the right to a safe clean environment in which to live; it is therefore our right to demand for actions taken to assure us of clean air as part of a clean environment (I usually feel that water and land are given more emphasis than air when we talk about the environment).

NPI will continue to give readers updates on this issue. The government has been planning for some time to introduce air quality regulations. It is unclear why this has not yet happened. More recently, Kenya along with other East African countries, has phased out fuels that contain high levels of sulfur, a step in the right direction. However, we will not be able to measure the improvements since no monitoring system is in place- an urgent priority if we are to get a  more fine grained understanding of the air quality in Nairobi and its health impacts and use this knowledge to design effective measures to make the air clean and healthy for residents.

UPDATE: NPI has obtained a copy of the existing regulations Please find them here: regulations.  It appears that the min reason these have not passed is concern by manufacturers about the cost. The government might find a way to support industries to access affordable technologies to help clean their emissions. 

Nairobi City Hall Responds to Collapsing Buildings and Needs Your Feedback

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The Huruma Collapse: Nairobi News: http://nairobinews.co.ke/two-dead-scores-trapped-in-huruma-collapsed-building/ January 5, 2015.

In light of the recent incidents of collapsing buildings in the city, most recently in Huruma, the Nairobi County Assembly has been recalled from recess on Tuesday the 20th January 2015 to fast track the passing of a new bill that city hall hopes will help address the lack of development control in the city. The Bill aims to set up a committee to regularize Nairobi’s “unauthorized buildings” which will also help to ensure that they are in compliance with safety and other standards.NPI readers are encouraged to look at The Nairobi City County Regularization of Developments Bill 2014 and submit any comments to the Office of the Nairobi County Assembly Clerk  via email to clerk@nrbcountyassembly.go.ke  and tweets to @NrbCityAssembly.

While this is a good step forward, it raises the question of whether the Physical Planning Act 1997 needs reviewing, what kind of building codes and safety standards exist and whether they need modification- a discussion that has been ongoing for many years without clear progress on the policy end. This is of particular concern to some middle  and low income communities in Nairobi which still legally must adhere to the very cumbersome and expensive processes detailed in the Physical Planning Act along with unrealistic building codes. These communities and households have minimal resources for “regularization fees” and redesign in order to be in line with the law as it exists.

An investigation into why development control fails  is also critical at this point so the County needs a more holistic and comprehensive approach to the problem. The Architectural Association of Kenya has for some years being attempting to draw attention to the poor development control frameworks in the country and published a report prior to devolution in 2011 called ‘A Study in Development Control Frameworks in Kenya”. It merits a reread as it reveals the myriad of problems in how local government (now counties) have (mis) managed development control.

One of the major concerns of those in charge of development control at the local level is political interference. There is also the question of inadequate budget for control, technical competence, low public awareness, slow processing and corruption which clearly undermines implementation of any proper control.These are institutional problems that need serious public and policy deliberation and action. The County should consult with the Architectural Association of Kenya, other professionals, and residents associations to more fully address these issues. Overall, then, while the aims of the bill make sense, it will not address the broader legal, capacity and governance issues at play. One might also worry about whether the bill just might give a great deal of power and ability to an executive committee to extract “fees” without a lot of public accountability. Empowering tenants and other concerned citizens to report safety concerns would be a step forward. It would be important to see some open information and data clauses in the bill (in line with the much neglected Article 35 of the Constitution of Kenya) to ensure the public can scrutinize and access all decisions and trace the fees which presumably would go back into a reform process including the hiring of more technical support to address the serious development control issues in the city.

NPI encourages its readers to review the bill and comment to the county! Send emails to clerk@nrbcountyassembly.go.ke and tweets to @NrbCityAssembly.

Is Nairobi a Child-Friendly City? An Interview with David Shisya, Reality Tested Youth Programme

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Young Nairobian discusses his plan for his neighborhood

One of Bogota’s most successful mayors, Enrique Penalosa, once said “The measure of a good city is one where a child on a tricycle or bicycle can safely go anywhere.”   “Children are a kind of indicator species. If we can build a successful city for children, we will have a successful city for all people.”

On November 8, 2014 Reality Tested Youth Program (RYP) exhibited some of the urban planning ideas of children from some of the poor informal schools in  Mathare. This is part of a project to explore the city from children’s eyes. NPI asked David Shisya, a program officer at RYP about the work and its implications.

NPI: Can you describe the work you do for RYP?

Reality Tested Youth Programme is a Community Based Organization (CBO) with a vision of having a society in which members participate in community development to address poverty. Currently the organization operates from the Ongoza Njia Community Development Centre (OCDC) at Kiamaiko- Huruma. RYP is non-governmental, non-partisan and not for profit, legally registered, by the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Services.

RYP works in collaboration with 150 partner community associations/Self Help groups bringing together directly approximately 3,000 families in Mathare, Nairobi North District, Nairobi County, Kenya. The centre also serves as an “open forum” where people from the local communities drop-in to discuss, explain or express social, economic, or judicial issues and then receive guidance on how and where they can address their concerns.

Children and teachers as Furaha Community Center discuss their nighbourhood

Children and teachers as Furaha Community Center discuss their neighbourhood

In order to achieve its objectives, RYP offers direct services through the OCDC to partner CBOs. These services include provision of information, CBO leadership and management training, popular civic education, community based asset mapping and resource mobilization, computer and Internet skills training, environmental conservation, access to venues to hold meetings, assisting youth to acquire education and skills training sponsorships, support towards Community Economic Development (CED) activities and entrepreneurship training, support for youth in accessing national identity cards and other vital documents such as birth certificates, linkages to health care services (HIV/AIDS care giving), counseling, and supporting target partners to access legal assistance and justice (domestic violence, rape and general domestic issues.

Residents learning from their children

Residents learning from their children

NPI: Recently, you ran a competition focussed on children as urban planners. Can you describe this work?

Reality Tested in collaboration with the Center for Sustainable Urban Development at Columbia University conducted an idea competition among informal school pupils from Mathare whose main purpose was to gain insight into how children see their neighbourhoods and city and what they would like to change. The five participating schools provided 12 pupils each aged between 9- 16 years for the competition. These schools were Codman academy, Destiny educational centre, Undugu Society of Kenya-Mathare UBEP, Reality Tested youth and Furaha Community Centre.

The idea competition was in two forms. First, there was the Focused Group Discussions (FGD) with the pupils in their respective schools. During the FGD the facilitators used structured questions to stimulate the participants into discussion.

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After the FGD, they moved to the next stage of drawing their neighbourhood as it is and if given an opportunity what they would like to change.

On 8th November 2014, 180 people attended an exhibition of their work at NCCK-Huruma. Participants, parents/guardians, representatives from the Mathare community, Nairobi County government representatives, other invited guests and the Assistant County Commissioner graced the occasion. The picture walk gallery begun as from 9.30 to 1.00 pm. All the participants were given book vouchers of 800 shilling each as a sign of appreciation for taking part in the competition.

NPI: What did you learn about poor children’s concerns and priorities for their neighbourhoods?

During the exercise, it’s clear from the FGD and the drawings that children’s concerns and priorities areas to be looked into are as follows;

  • Unplanned structures/dwelling in their neighbourhoods
  • Poor garbage /sewage disposal systems
  • Poorly constructed roads with potholes
  • Insecurity
  • Congested/crowded structures- in case of fire all structures burn down
  • No playing space/grounds for children
  • Lack/Poor infrastructures e.g. no electricity/ dangerous hanging wires
  • Lack of toilets
  • Lack of road signs such as Zebra crossing , speed limits near schools
  • Traffic jam
Children playing in Austin's playground. Austin, a Mathare footballer, organized the kids to clean up a dumping ground to make a place to play.

Children playing in Austin’s playground. Austin, a Mathare footballer, organized the kids to clean up a dumping ground to make a place to play. Such playgrounds are very rare for most children in the city.

NPI Do you think planners in Nairobi think about creating a “child-friendly city” for the large numbers of children who need to move around-to get to school, visit friends and family or get exercise?

The planners so far have not considered ‘child friendly city’ as most roads lack the basic signs such as Zebra crossing and speed limits, for example  on Juja road which serves the schools in this area.

No space has been set aside as a children’s play ground. Those that the former city Council of Nairobi set aside have all been grabbed by influential people who have put up illegal structures. A part from the public schools grounds, the only one available used by non formal schools in the area is the Austin ground near Kiboro primary which if not protect might end up being grabbed.

Also, the footbridges constructed on Thika super highway are unfriendly to young children. At times they have to be carried by guardian to pass. The footbridges at the same time are far apart from one another causing more inconvenience to road users.

NPI: What are some of the safety concerns for children in the neighbourhoods where Reality Tested Youth Program works?

  • No road signs that makes children crossing roads very dangerous. Near Kiamaiko where our office is located many school going children have been knocked down by speeding vehicles.
  • There are no speed limits signs for vehicle along Juja road.
  • No playing grounds for schools making them use any space available such as the potholed roads thus endangering their lives.
  • Poorly constructed Iron sheets schools with as many as 100 children sharing a single toilet making spreading of disease inventible.
  • Pupils’ mistreatment in Matatus as they are ignored by the matatu crews, made to stand for long distances despite having paid the normal fares
Hillary of Mathare shows a well-marked nicely paved road with a clear zebra crossing and stop sign.

Hillary of Mathare shows a well-marked nicely paved road with a clear zebra crossing and stop sign. The child is conscious of safety and would make a fine engineer or planner!

NPI: The Outer Ring Road project will impact a lot of poor communities and children used to a much smaller, almost rural road. Do you have concerns about an upgraded road in your neighbourhood?

Yes, as an organization we have concerns namely that the wide road will lead to an increase in number of accidents as most residents will still attempt to cross the road avoiding the footbridges just as it happens on Thika superhighway. A long the 13 km stretch the footbridges to be constructed are few and way apart which may result in inconveniencing the residents especially the school children.

The traders along the road who will be displaced and not relocated might attempt to occupy the sideways also leading to accidents.

NPI: The proposed Traffic (Amendment)  Bill 2014 has provisions dealing with safety for school children including reduced speeds especially in school zones. Do you have any thoughts on this?

 Traffic Act (Amendment) Bill 2014 Section 3A (1) limits speed to 30km per hour on any road within schools boundaries and (b) on any section ordinarily used by children. This is currently not observed by both private and public vehicle drivers. Vehicle speeding near schools has led to an increase number of death and injurious to school going children.

Section 3B (1) (b) requires construction and maintenance of traffic signs such as speed limiting designs features such as speed bumps, rumble strips and traffic circles. Rigjht now all these are non existence on the Kenya roads.

Sub section (d) calls for ensuring that no man made or natural obstructions including stationary vehicles on roads or parking areas are near schools  blocking children’s view of the road.

The rules are good and should be implemented but to make all of this work, there is need for public awareness  to the drivers, school children and administrators and the general public at large.

NPI Can you share with us, the most striking urban planning ideas you saw coming from the children’s drawing competition?

The most striking idea from the drawing competition is the disorderly planning of the current neighbourhood children stay in. All the participants drew enhanced pictures of how they would like their neighbourhood and city to be from what it is now. Most were dissatisfied with the state of things as per now.

The Top-Bottom Approach currently used by planners with minimal participation from the consumers is undesirable. As end users of the projects the general public intentionally ignore the correct use of the project such as use of footbridges on Thika Highway and prefer to cross the road by running across to the other end.

In future there is need, before any project is undertaken, for local participation of those to be affected so as to feel part and parcel of the decision making process.

DSCF9073NPI: And planners need to think about how children experience their city and how planning can involve them and also make the city a safer and friendlier place for them! 

Nairobi’s Urban Enthusiasts: An Interview with Njeri Cerere of Naipolitans

Nairobi Planning Innovations is noting the growth of urban enthusiasts and civic patriots in Nairobi, people who care about their city and want to see it become a better, more livable place to call home.  We interviewed one such Nairobi enthusiast, urban planner Njeri Cerere who founded Naipolitans with Sheila Kamunyori in 2012. Njeri kindly took some time to talk us about Naipolitans.

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Naipolitans having fun in the city

NPI: How did Naipolitans get started and what does the group aim to do?

Naipolitans started as a result of regular chats over coffee between me and my co-founder Sheila Kamunyori about the goings on in and around Nairobi. Sharing information on upcoming events and interesting urban initiatives made for lively and thought provoking conversation. As urbanists we knew that it was possible to have livable, vibrant urban spaces and wanted to bring this aspiration to bear on the Kenyan situation. We just were not sure where to begin. It then occurred to us that there were probably other “Urban Enthusiasts” who were interested in exploring practical ways in which urban areas in Kenya could become more livable.

The first such meeting of the minds was held in September 2012. It established that there was critical mass of people in Kenya who were interested in discourse on the urban experience and were willing to engage on a regular basis to share ideas on ongoing or possible urban-shaping initiatives.

Naipolitans in conjunction with various partners has since featured over twenty urban shaping initiatives through a combination of forums and tours. The Naipolitans platform provides that neutral space necessary to host conversations about urban-shaping initiatives taking place across our city.

 NPI: Who is a typical member? Can anyone join?

We are urban professionals, residents and enthusiasts, trying to figure out how, when, where, and what we can do to make Nairobi and Kenya a better place to live. Naipolitans is an open forum and all one has to do to get involved is attend a forum or tour and stay posted for future events through our mailing list or interact with other members via the Facebook group.

 NPi: What are some of the highlights of recent Naipolitan events?

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Naipolitans visiting Jasho Letu Bio Center

Recently, we participated in a Mapping Party for Cyclists hosted at the C4D Lab at the University of Nairobi. The event brought together cyclists, alternative transportation advocates and mapping techies in a studio setting to work on a cycle route map. The aim of the exercise was to visualize the existing bike routes in the city and imagine what a proper system of bike paths for Nairobi would look like. Information on previous activities can be found on our blog at http://www.naipolitans.org

NPI: What is the aspect of Nairobi you would personally like to see changed the most in the next few years?

I would like to see a city that realizes its full potential and makes it to the global list of most livable cities.

 NPI: If people wished to join Naipolitans, who should they contact?

They can get involved by: emailing us at naipolitans@gmail.com to be included on our notification list; visiting our blog at www.naipolitans.org; joining the discussion online by asking to join our Facebook group – Naipolitans: Urban Enthusiasts Getting Together; or following us on Twitter @Naipolitans.