President Uhuru Kenyatta on Wednesday ignored the raging controversy over the standard gauge railway route through the Nairobi National Park and commissioned the second phase of the project.
The Nairobi-Naivasha section is expected to be the most challenging yet for the Chinese contractor in Kenya as the terrain to be covered is quite mountainous and attached to divergent political and environmental sentiments.
The works will begin with the drilling of a five-kilometre tunnel under Ngong Hills beginning at Em-bulbul, near Ngong Town.
Addressing Kajiado residents just a few kilometres from the Nairobi National Park, he said the world-famous wildlife sanctuary would not be affected and those criticising the project were being malicious.
“Hiyo ni upuzi (That is nonsense),” said President Kenyatta. “We have taken measures to ensure that the park is not affected and those going to the courts should stop preventing Kenya from moving forward.”
Less than a year to the General Election, the SGR is the biggest project yet under Jubilee watch and is expected to significantly boost the local and regional economy.
The Nairobi-Naivasha phase will cost Sh150 billion, which is less than half the cost of the Mombasa-Nairobi one. Though only 120 kilometres long, it is also expected to take longer to build, with the estimated completion period set at four years and five months. Most of that time will be spent on the tunnel northwest of Ngong Hills and the uneven Rift Valley landscape.
The railway will descend into the Rift Valley through the tunnel and proceed northwest to the proposed Industrial Parks at Maai Mahiu and Suswa and on to Duka Moja and Narok.
Demonstrations have marked the second phase of the multibillion-shilling project with many more expected as the railway cuts across more settlements.
President Kenyatta implored residents to avoid venting their grievances with the projects on the contractors. He advised them to instead use the available official channels to air their concerns. This is after angry youths attacked and injured 14 Chinese workers at the Duka Moja railway construction site on the Narok-Maai Mahiu road in Narok County.
Controversy over the route through the park was taken to court last month with environmental conservation campaigners demanding an alternative route. But the proposed alternative routes, skirting the park, would have inflated the project cost by hundreds of millions, making the six-kilometre section through the park the least expensive option.
President Kenyatta has launched the project before an environmental impact assessment (EIA) was done, prompting fears that the National Environment Management Authority (Nema) may be compelled to grant a certificate of approval.
“It is unlikely that Nema will deny Kenya Railways an EIA licence for a project that the President has launched,” Mr Julius Kamau, the executive director of the East African Wildlife Society, had earlier said.