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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.

Besides financial constraints, a number of other persisting challenges to this programme are identified by various studies. These include:

  1.  Poor involvement of the riparian residents

Various studies and evaluations of the first three phases of the Nairobi River basin rehabilitation and restoration programme (ADB, 2010; Dulo, 2008; Kithiia, 2012; UNEP, 2004) find that the level of awareness by residents of the basin’s pollution was low. According to Dulo (2008), the public did not seem to realize that a polluted river could be a source of malignant ailments. A strong campaign was, therefore, recommended to educate the residents of the basin about the negative impact of their activities and to identify solutions that are within their reach. It was also suggested that the residents should be offered financial incentives for collecting the garbage in their own vicinity and beyond.  

An example of successful resident involvement may be seen in the Watamu beach programme in Malindi, which has been effective in clearing garbage and waste off the beaches (SEED, 2015). Community members, principally young people and women, but also men, collect all kinds of waste and take it to collection centres where they are paid according to the quantity delivered. This motivates them to collect as much as they can. The beaches are now clean and tourist numbers are rising, both local and international (SEED, 2015).

Following this example, the Nairobi City County Government and the ministries of environment and natural resources and of water and irrigation could usefully consider encouraging industries and other businesses to establish a fund to pay people for gathering waste and delivering it to designated sites. In commercial areas such as shopping malls, business owners should be required to install colour-coded containers, such as brown bins for compost, green bins for recycling and black or grey bins for residual waste. Clearly, without such incentives and public education, the battle to stop the dumping of waste and other pollutants in the Nairobi River will be very hard to win.

  1.  Scarcity of and highly technical nature of data

Currently, there are no clear data on the extent of the pollution of the Nairobi River basin. There is also no comprehensive picture of the population residing along the banks of the river and its tributaries, or of the major land activities in which they engage, such as large industries, small-scale industries and agricultural practices. Given the large number of organizations and groups involved in the restoration and rehabilitation of the river basin, the relevant information is fragmented, uncoordinated, unconnected and in some cases outdated or not useful.

In its 2006 study, the University of Nairobi noted that, in particular, initiatives related to research, pollution management and information management are not centrally coordinated (UoN, 2006). Furthermore, there had been no analysis or synthesis of available data, information and environmental issues. Added to this, some of the information and data collected were difficult to understand because they were too scientific. In fact, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and UNEP had funded the preparation of a booklet in 2005 to ensure that the information was user-friendly and could assist policymakers in making decisions (Network for Water and Sanitation (NETWAS), 2005). But more needs to be done in this regard. The available information should be rationalized and coordinated by one focal point to ensure ease of access. This will avoid wastage of scarce financial resources and duplication of efforts.

  1. Lack of enforcement

In the past, several studies pointed out the lack of clear legislation covering the rehabilitation and restoration of the Nairobi River basin. Such legislation has now been in place for some time but neither the national nor the county government has done much in the way of education or enforcement. The main challenge appears to be the enforcement of existing legislation. Both national and county governments are unable to move people who are living or have built homes in the riparian areas. The residents of these riparian reserves are protected by a cartel of powerful politicians, who can turn to the highest authorities and claim that members of their communities are being harassed or targeted. Human rights groups also supported the residents in these areas, claiming that they are poor and have nowhere else to go.

For example, the former Minister of Environment, Michuki, proposed that the people living in the riparian areas of the Nairobi River should be moved to Njiru and Mwiki areas, but his proposal was strongly rejected by the residents on the grounds of their poverty and their need to be able to walk to their work places in the city centre and the industrial area. The proposed resettlement areas were very far away and relatively inaccessible. As a result, the government and the City Council could do nothing to move these people.

The only time residents are forced to move from riparian areas is when a disaster strikes, like the collapse of a building, or heavy floods such as those of 2015 and 2016 in the east side of the city. Despite this obstacle, Michuki still succeeded in his pilot project of cleaning the Nairobi River basin by recruiting young workers through the “Kazi Kwa Vijana” initiative (“jobs for youth”) to serve as security guards and to watch out for anyone violating the law either by dumping waste or trespassing riparian areas. Without such a strong-willed and well-empowered enforcement team, little can be done to tackle the current and future problems facing the Nairobi River clean-up efforts.

  1. Corruption

Corruption remains a major obstacle to efforts to rehabilitate and restore the Nairobi River basin. On 29 December 2015, Evans Kidero, Governor of Nairobi City County, announced that cartels had lobbied residents and businesses to bypass the company contracted by the County government to collect refuse (Kajilwa, 2015). He also expressed uncertainty as to whether the company promoted by the cartels was depositing the refuse in the designated area. This situation is highly suspect, as the county government is the only authority which can award or cancel service contracts for the city. It means that certain individuals in the county government work in cahoots with the cartels by arranging to award them contracts through the back door.

Within the riverine areas there are many businesses run by cartels that are supported by powerful politicians: they operate with impunity because no authority will touch them. For example, a current member of parliament is building a five-storey hotel on the banks of a major tributary of the Nairobi River, knowing full well that it is located in a riparian reserve and undeterred by the knowledge that his hotel is among the structures listed by an inter-agency committee for demolition (Ndunda, 2017). To begin with, it is difficult to understand how he secured a building permit from the county government and the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) to build a hotel in a riparian reserve. In the light of past practice and the fact that the owner is a sitting member of parliament, it is quite likely that the building will not be demolished or – if it is – he may receive handsome compensation. In this instance, however, the county enforcement agency and NEMA have a duty to demolish the building with no compensation to send a very strong message.

Generally, it is a lamentable fact that immense amounts of money earmarked for cleaning up over the years have been mismanaged because of political infighting and corruption by both the national and county government of Nairobi.

  1. Lack of interest in turning waste into opportunity

Most African cities have undergone rapid growth and struggle to cope with the side effects of that growth, in particular waste management. To make matters worse, they seem unable to see the generation of waste as an opportunity. This is the case with Nairobi city, whose entire river basin is heavily polluted. Mwaniki and Mwau (2012) point out that chemical analyses of the Mathare River, a tributary of the Nairobi River, over the past three decades show that the river is now so polluted that it exceeds WHO standards for safe water by a factor of 2,000. Analysing waste-generation patterns in slums, they found that plastic waste tops the list, followed by organic waste and recyclable materials such as paper and glass. Their study concludes that most of these materials could be reused and recycled to create employment opportunities not only for Mathare but also for other slums within the Nairobi River basin.

Interestingly, and as mentioned above, the Watamu Marine Association (WMA) in Malindi was established in 2010 to address the problems faced by coastal resort villages with growing populations and a lack of waste-management facilities (SEED, 2010). The approach followed by the WMA is to create community-based waste-recycling businesses and income-generating enterprises. Members of the local community are employed to collect solid waste from the beaches and village environs. The association has acquired land and developed premises for demonstrations and the training of local people in new technologies. Items produced from the collected waste include compost, biofuel briquettes, bio-charcoal from coconut husks, and biogas. Training is being conducted on environmentally-friendly techniques such as permaculture. All the plastic and glass waste generated by the big hotels in Watamu is used at their demonstration site to construct walls and houses.

This has resulted in the general clean-up of the beaches and has created employment opportunities for the poor in the Malindi community. The project, which has been mounted under the slogan “Turning Trash into Cash”, has created a win-win situation for the environment, coastal community and its partners and sponsors (beach hotels, the county government, charity organizations and others) (Gari, 2016). The WMA experience could easily be replicated in Nairobi, where big businesses polluting the Nairobi River basin should be encouraged – or even obliged – to pay to create opportunities for the poor living along the river banks and in the slum areas.

On 30 April 2017 President Akufo-Addo of Ghana promised that, by the end of his four-year term, he would make Accra the cleanest city in Africa. We hope that the current leadership in Kenya, at both the national and county levels, will emulate President Akufo-Addo’s aspiration, and make the cleaning of the Nairobi River basin a priority.


  1. The cleaning of the Nairobi River Basin should be coordinated by a single entity or ministry, working together with the Nairobi City County government. As indicated earlier, the manner in which the work is currently being done makes a mockery of the task of making the river clean, usable and sustainable; adopting a holistic approach will help to ensure that consistent standards and work methods are adopted by all players. Moreover, proper coordination will be cost-effective and will enable all stakeholders to stay on the same page and to apply a clear-cut vision. This is in line with the observation by Montella (2009) that the involvement of too many agencies working on implementation of a project causes the dilution and fragmentation of responsibility and this, in turn, ruins the chances of success of such a difficult undertaking, with repercussions on the lives and health of the inhabitants of Nairobi. In a sobering admission, the national and county governments have revealed that most of the funds for the programme were used up in meeting the overhead costs of 17 government ministries and agencies and very little was left over for actual cleaning activities. A prime example of the English proverb: “Too many cooks spoil the broth’’.
  2. The cleaning of the Nairobi River basin should be the responsibility of everyone: residents, national and county governments, the private sector, NGOs, and community groups, in particular youth and women’s groups. It is universally recognized that this problem needs to be addressed with urgency. The littering of paper, plastic, or other forms of waste should be a thing of the past and anyone found littering should be punished, fined or made to pay in some way. The Government of Singapore, for example, continues to take drastic action against people found littering, imposing severe punishments on culprits, and in this way has managed to  make their city state clean. There are no shortcuts – if the national and county governments want the Nairobi River basin to be clean, they should adopt an approach on the same lines of the Government of Singapore. In addition, a number of recommendations made since the programme started in 1999 should be revisited and implemented, in particular the construction of sewers and latrines in slum areas. People living on the riparian reserves should be moved to the areas that had been specifically allocated for their resettlement some years ago, if those designated areas are still available. This is also necessary for their own safety, especially when the city experiences heavy flooding. The bottom line is that the national and county governments have the obligation to ensure that people stop dumping refuse and waste into the tributaries of the Nairobi River.
  3. Incentives for collecting paper, plastics and other materials are critical to the success of any clean-up operation and to maintaining it in the long term; they are aslso critical to the opportunities that such operations provide to unemployed people, particularly youth and women, to earn something no matter how small to meet their basic needs. Small and big businesses that are dumping their waste in the river should be made to pay to support this initiative, and to stop dumping. In addition, the ministries of environment and natural resources and of water and irrigation and the county government should establish awards for greening of the Nairobi River basin and the county’s wards should be challenged to compete. The winning ward should be given a trophy and a financial reward, which could be donated by such sponsors as commercial banks, industries and hotels.
  4. Since the programme started in 1999, the authorities have made many promises, most of which have failed because of lack of political will. For example, in 2008 the radio station Capital FM quoted the then boss of NEMA, Dr. Mwinzi, as emphasizing that 4,000 structures within 30 metres of the riparian reserve were to be demolished. In addition, the former permanent secretary for environment, Professor James ole Kiyiapi, promised to clean up the mess and hopefully create a better and regulated system (Capital FM, 2008). He added that previous attempts had failed because of lack of political will. Unfortunately, after all these deliberations and promises the officials left their respective positions without doing much. As things stand, rehabilitation of the Nairobi River basin needs can-do leaders, with a passion, determination and strong political will, not empty promises. Otherwise, the situation will continue to deteriorate.


If the Nairobi River basin were a human being, it would have choked to death by now. As Gathura (2008) states, the Nairobi River continues to “choke with garbage, industrial waste, agro and petro chemicals and heavy metals among other pollutants, which have led to the extinction of aquatic life in the river and made it into an eyesore”.

The successive phases of the Nairobi River basin rehabilitation and restoration programme which have been implemented since 1999 have achieved very little and the situation is deteriorating daily. During the years of its implementation, there has been a heavy turnover of staff working on the programme and the relevant national ministries and re-merging, resulting in the loss of institutional memory and critical information. In addition, the capacities of the ministries and parastatals handling refuse and waste have been eroded and some entities have been seriously weakened by corruption.

Furthermore, most of the studies carried out on the river clean-up exercise strongly recommend the education of stakeholders and measures to change the attitudes of the city dwellers. Unfortunately, some of these recommendations have not been taken seriously. In any event, the pollution of the Nairobi River should be the concern of every city dweller whether living in an affluent neighbourhood where garbage and waste are collected regularly or a slum dweller who is preoccupied with survival as opposed to the negative impact of garbage and wastes. Otherwise, as things stand, Gathura’s 2008 article entitled “Cleaning up Nairobi River will take time, money and miracle” is still relevant today.

The cleaning up of the Nairobi River, therefore, calls for passionately committed leaders who are ready for action and not merely seeking publicity. That said, a fragmented approach with the involvement of many actors and players should be discouraged because it is wasteful, leads to infighting and is ultimately not cost-effective.

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


African Development Bank (ADB) (2010). “Nairobi rivers rehabilitation and restoration program: sewerage improvement project.” Project appraisal report. Nairobi: African Development Bank Group. Available from Accessed 28 April. 2017.

Capital FM (2008). “The dirty clean-up of Nairobi River”. Nairobi, Capital News, 17 July 2008. Available from Accessed 3 May 2017.

Dulo, S. O. (2008). “Determination of some physio-chemical parameters of the Nairobi River, Kenya”. Journal of Applied Sciences and Environmental Management, 12(1), 57-62.

Gari, A. (2016). “I clean the beaches and make cash”. Nairobi, The Star. Available from Accessed 22 April 2017.

Gathura, G. (2008). Cleaning up Nairobi River will take time, money and miracle. Daily Nation, 24 November 2008. Available from Accessed 25 April 2017.

Kajilwa, G. (2015). “Governor Evans Kidero blames corruption and cartels for city garbage menace”. Nairobi, Standard Group Limited. Available from Accessed 5 May 2017.

Kenya Rivers and Water Resources (2017). Master Plan for Nairobi Basin. Available from Accessed 20 April 2017.

Kithiia, S. M. (2010). “Water quality trends in Kenya over the last decade”. In Voudouris, K. and Voutsa, D. (2012), Water Quality Monitoring Assessment, ch. 23, 509–516. Available from Accessed 20 April 2017

Montella, M. G. (2009). Nairobi River Basin Programme, problems and delays in the project. International Alliance of Inhabitants, 17 August 2009. Available from Accessed 2 May 2017.

Muiruri, B. (2009). Life slowly returns to Nairobi River. Daily Nation, 13 November 2009. Available from Accessed 24 April 2017

Mwaniki, D. and Mwau, B. (2012). “Slums and River Pollution: The Convenient Marriage? — Sewer drains from Eastleigh”. Available from Accessed 22 April 2017.

Ndunda, J. (2017). “MP Manoti’s building on wetland will be demolished — City Hall”. Nairobi, The Star, 14 May 2017. Available from Accessed 28 April 2017.

Network for Water and Sanitation (NETWAS) (2005).  ‘’Nairobi River Basin Programme, Phase III: Resource Booklet on Pollution Monitoring Activities’’. Available from Accessed 2 May 2017. 

SEED (2015). “Watamu Community Solid Waste Management and Recycling Enterprises (WSWMR)”, 2011 SEED winner. Berlin, Adelphi Research GmbH. Available from Accessed 2 May 2017.

United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) (2003). Nairobi River Basin phase II: Pollution Monitoring Report. UNEP Evaluation and Oversight Unit, Nairobi. Available from Accessed 24 April 2017.

University of Nairobi (UoN), (2006). “Survey and situation analysis of the biological characteristics of the main tributaries of the Nairobi Rivers, reservoirs and wetlands”. Available from Sequence=2&isAllowed=y. Accessed 4 May 2017.



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