Murky water gushes from the bottom of a cliff facing the densely populated Katwekera area in Kibera, an informal settlement in Nairobi. It is an open sewer flowing through several villages including Kisumu Ndogo, Lindi and Siranga, Soweto, Makina, Kianda, Mashimoni and Laini Saba. The waste drains into Nairobi River, and ends up in the Nairobi Dam.
Joshua Mungai, a father of five, who is sorting plastic cords for sale nearby, has been a resident of Kibera for 40 years, and has seen the channel expand from a stream of clean water to a “sewer river”. Water that used to be clean is now mixed with sewage and of no use to residents.
Along the open sewer are jumbled clean drinking water pipes which supply adjacent houses. Mr Mungai is not sure about the safety of the drinking water given the proximity of the pipes to the open sewer, but he knows where the sewage generated in the settlement goes. This is the story of part of the one half of Nairobi, where only 50 per cent of residents are covered by a sewerage system. For those that are not covered, but rely on exhausters to empty their septic tanks, the destination of their waste might not be so clear. It is supposed to be disposed at the Ruai Sewerage Treatment Plant for treatment before the waste water is released into the environment.
However, a few months ago, there was outcry when an exhauster was spotted pouring its contents (faecal sludge) on the roadside along the Northern Bypass in Nairobi. Others have been spotted discharging waste in rivers and in the drainage.
Even in Ruai, where the exhausters are supposed to dispose their waste, only one out of nine discharge points for exhausters is working, with the rest shut for safety reasons, according to Chief Administrative Secretary at the Ministry of Water and Sanitation Winnie Guchu.
“Only one remains in Njiru, and the National Environment Management Authority wants to shut it too, but they shouldn’t because if they do, where will the exhausters go? It is up and running, not because it is safe or in good condition, but because there are no other options.
“We need other discharge points and we have the money for them, but we are not able to get the land because of resistance from people (landowners),” she said during a recent water and sanitation workshop for journalists, in Nakuru.
To make matters worse, the Kariobangi Sewerage Treatment Plant was shut down last year for rehabilitation and the sewage that used to pass through the plant now drains into Nairobi River.
This scene plays out not just in Nairobi, which has the highest sewerage coverage in the country at 50 per cent, but also in the entire country, with a national sewerage coverage of 16 per cent.
Nationally, only 32 out of 215 urban centres in 26 counties having a modern sewerage system, according to the eleventh Impact Report, that was released by the Water Services Regulatory Board (WASREB) last week, covering the 2017/2018 period.
The counties with the highest sewerage coverage are Nairobi (50 per cent), Kisumu (49 per cent), Laikipia (36 per cent), Trans Nzoia (34 per cent) and Bungoma (34 per cent), while those with the lowest sewerage coverage are Garissa (six per cent), Murang’a (five per cent), Meru (five per cent), Homa Bay (four per cent) and Busia (two per cent).
The report revealed that urban centres in 21 counties have no sewerage system and 84 per cent of people in urban centres depend on non-sewered sanitation such as pit latrines, septic tanks, soak pits and modern container-based toilets among others.
Even where there is sewerage coverage, sanitation is not always at its best. To take the example of Nairobi, only 41 per cent of the waste in the sewerage system reaches the Ruai treatment plant, and only 29 per cent is treated, according to Caroline Kabaria, an associate research scientist at African Population and Health Research Centre (APHRC), who made a presentation at the sanitation workshop.
Moreover, nine per cent of waste water and 30 per cent of faecal sludge in the system is not delivered for treatment.
Further, 15 per cent of faecal matter flows freely, without passing through septic tanks or soak pits before being discharged, and only three per cent of this waste is emptied.
Even when faecal matter is contained through a sewerage system, only 27 per cent is emptied.
A 2015 report by the World Bank found that 12 per cent of the offsite waste water that is delivered for treatment is not treated and 12 per cent of faecal matter is released into the environment raw – without being treated.
“Only 34 per cent of waste water and faecal matter in Nairobi is safely managed while 66 per cent is not,” said Ms Kabaria.
Nationally, Ms Guchu, the CAS for Water and Sanitation, worries that there is a huge volume of sewage that is unaccounted for, meaning that it is not treated, and therefore poses health risks.
“It is not in the pipes, it is not on the ground, but it must be somewhere. Some people say it is in the rivers, in fact in some places, the river is called sewage. We need to be candid about this. We know we are doing badly, and we need to face the problem,” she said, adding that poor sanitation costs Kenya Sh27 billion each year.
Kenya had set a target of 40 per cent sewerage collection, treatment and disposal in urban centres and 10 per cent in rural areas by 2015, but four years later, it is way below target.
This, according to WASREB, is because of high investment and maintenance costs for sewerage systems.
Moreover, the agency adds in its impact report, in places where settlements are unplanned and water consumption is low, sewerage systems cannot be built and operated.
According to WASREB’s Impact Report covering the 2017/2018 period, there are also places where the sewerage system exists but a large proportion of households are not connected due to the costs of maintaining a connection or due to the poor functioning of the system, and in many places (such as medium towns) where residents can afford to pay for the services, they are not existent.
According to WASREB, the other reason why sewerage coverage has only increased by a paltry five per cent, is that water and sewerage service providers view sewerage services as a by-product of water services, thereby, give them little attention.
“As a result, treatment and control of waste is insufficient, and the option of re-using and recycling effluent is not explored. Moreover, sewer flooding occurs regularly in many towns leading to outbreaks of waterborne diseases such as cholera,” notes the report, adding that lack of sewer systems and sewerage treatment plants pose the risk of pollution of underground water and contamination of existing water sources, especially for downstream users and in flood prone areas.
“Going forward, this situation presents a big risk to public health and the environment considering the rapid rate of urbanisation with the accompanying challenge of growth in informal settlements. The situation is expected to become even more dire considering there shall be more urban areas in the country now that the Cities and Urban Areas Act has been amended to vary the criteria of defining urbans areas,” notes the report.
“We need to get more innovative in the way we deal with sewage, there is need to decentralise sewage treatment in the country and in Nairobi because centralised system is no longer working,” said Ms Guchu.
Currently, treatment of waste in urban centres happens away from the point of generation in residential areas, usually several kilometres away, before it is released into the environment.
Ms Guchu reckons that bringing effluent discharge points and treatment closer to the point of generation would help matters.
“It is the only way to clean the rivers. If we start from Ngong going down into the city so that the sewage is contained in specific areas until we get to the tip where the Nairobi River water joins Athi River, we will succeed.”
“The County Government of Nairobi is doing a good job in removing solid waste from Nairobi River, but we also have to do our part to make sure that sewerage is not part of the river,” she said, calling for other counties to emulate the Nakuru Water and Sanitation Service Company’s model.
Compared to the conventional system which requires several acres of land, the Nakuru treatment plant requires only half an acre and takes only three months to be constructed compared to the normal sewerage treatment plants which require lots of land and take at least two years to construct said the CAS.
“If we could have such small plants in all the urban areas, we can have a solution so as to prevent sewage from draining into the rivers,” said Ms Guchu, adding that the waste water can be re-used at home or in farms after treatment.
She said that the government will help county governments construct decentralised treatment plants by offering expertise and the infrastructure, and called for collaboration to help meet full sewerage coverage targets in urban areas by 2030.