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Toxic Flow: Chasing Nairobi River to find its relationship with cases of disease

Wednesday December 18 2019

 

PAUL WAFULA
By PAUL WAFULA
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I walked into one of the University of Nairobi campuses in early June, beaming with excitement. Nothing warms the heart of a journalist than the temptation of a good story. I was certain I had a great story idea and was only looking for partners to help me execute it.

OPEN SEWER

This was an important story. Deaths of prominent personalities from cancer had caught the nation by storm. Everyone needed some answers. It was not just the high and mighty that were falling to the disease. Kenyans from all walks of life were increasingly going through the ravages of the disease.

At the same time, respiratory diseases had toppled malaria from the top spot as the most deadly ailment in Kenya. Last year alone, there were 21 million cases of diseases of the respiratory system. I had a very small window to find out what role pollution played in the country’s changing disease burden.

It was clear Nairobi River was now an open sewer. It is a toilet for many estates, including Lavington, as well as Kibera and Mukuru slums.

Somewhere deep inside it, the river also carried dead people. I knew it had dangerous toxins, but I did not know which ones.

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SEEK ANSWERS

Could the spike in cancer and respiratory diseases have anything to do with it? Could the pollution explain the spike in cases of anaemia, kidney and liver damage?

Some poisons can also damage almost every organ and the immune system. Some can hamper mental and physical development in children. Were these poisons finding their way onto dinner tables?

Heavy metal poisoning has a huge impact on lungs. Cholera, pneumonia, diarrhoea and stomach infections that have shot up in recent years can also be explained by pollution. There was also a deadly disease corridor shaping up along the river.

I wanted answers, and fast. Only scientists had the capacity to provide some answers. I was here to find one who would help.

Scientists take their time to make a straightforward decision. They like to be thorough. Their name means everything. They hate to be rushed, especially by the media.

TEST KITS

To some scientists, journalists are some of the most unpleasant people to work with as they often misinterpret or misunderstand years of hard scientific research. I was prepared to deal with this perception. But I was not prepared for the scientific rigour, long days of fieldwork, the harsh weather, and just how long it would take to get the results.

After weeks of planning and finding a middle ground with the dons, we finally packed our test kits, gumboots, raincoats and gloves and left for Ondiri Swamp in Kikuyu, the source of Nairobi River on June 19.

We were a large team of 11 people, each carefully selected depending on their talent and skills. We had only been together for a few weeks and as we assembled to start the project, we were hardly a team. We were just three small groups doing one project.

TWO MONTHS

Very few projects have been as strenuous and expensive as following Nairobi River from its source through its entire journey to the Indian Ocean, in our two-month river pollution investigative project “Toxic Flow”.

Tomorrow: The Journey to River Sabaki.