Why Nairobi's floods menace won't go away soon

Tuesday May 03 2016

Vehicles are parked next to a heap of garbage in Nairobi on May 2, 2016. PHOTO | ROBERT NGUGI | NATION MEDIA GROUP


Long before Nairobi’s name was changed to Nairobbery by pop culturists, it was fondly known as the green city in the sun.

Today, the ongoing rains have exposed the capital’s drainage system’s underbelly, making Nairobi look more like the city in the muck.

Videos of a wall collapsing on Lenana Road due to heavy rains that have pounded the capital over the last one week, cars being washed away or sinking on major roads and the many perils faced by city residents who are stuck between their homes and their work places because roads are flooded have gone viral and have now become a running joke.

Indeed, the Nairobi County on Sunday published a list of “roads to avoid” during the rainy season.

Some of these — Jogoo, Lenana, Lang’ata and James Gichuru roads — are key transport arteries and asking residents to avoid them would be enough to cause logistical nightmares, for, how is one expected to avoid the road to one’s house or work place?

“I am saddened by the scenes, pictures and videos,” Governor Evans Kidero said in a message dated April 30 and which has been widely circulated to residents through WhatsApp.


According to him, the city received 80mm of rainfall in three days, although only 12mm had been expected.

That is close to seven times more water than the county authorities had anticipated.

What this means is that the city’s drainage system, which has not shown signs of coping very well in the last one week, is likely to be further severely tested if the rains persist into May.


A man struggles to cross a road in Nairobi on May 2, 2016 after heavy downpour in the city. PHOTO | ROBERT NGUGI | NATION MEDIA GROUP


As a stop-gap measure, the county government on Monday announced that it would waive permit fees for building owners seeking to renovate their storm drain systems.

Ordinarily, building owners are required to seek approval and pay Sh4,000 to the county before undertaking any repairs on storm drains.

The waiver announced on Monday is meant to enable emergency repairs and upgrades as a way of coping with ongoing heavy rains.

Last week, Dr Kidero highlighted what, in his view, are 11 causes of the serious challenge posed by floods in the city, including encroachment of buildings and settlements on water ways, indiscriminate disposal of solid waste and poorly constructed and undersized storm water drainage infrastructure.

His 11th reason for the flooding is the most curios: “Landscaping on frontages which hinders discharge of storm water into the drain.”

A spot check on Monday revealed that the problem is much bigger than Dr Kidero acknowledged.


For instance, hawkers on Kirinyaga road told the Nation team that the garbage — mostly plastic bags — has not been collected in over two years.

It took courage to inhale in some places such as Nyati Lane where garbage is over two feet deep.

“A doctor came here and warned that we were at risk of contracting disease,” said a hawker who requested to remain anonymous because he was operating from a disputed space.

On Kirinyaga Road, the road infrastructure collapsed a long time ago. Only vestiges of tarmac remain here and there.

The water running the length of the road is black, but not as black the oil from the multitude of cars being repaired there that floats as though piggy-riding on the dirty water.

Less than 20 metres away, the water of the Nairobi River roars on. It is evident from the lay of the grass that the levels have receded. But its power is still evident.

Large sections of lose soil have been carried away. The banks look like a giant took large bites off them.

Some of the trees that former Environment minister John Michuki planted have been uprooted but the water was not strong enough to wash them downstream.

“This water will wash us away,” a mechanic shouts at the Nation team without stopping to give his name. “Kidero should come and fix this.”

Not far from the river is Voi Close, part of which has been sealed off because there is a building under construction further ahead. It is the only area without plastic bag litter.

A group of men sit at the mouth of the street which is badly in need of paving. The loaders who operate here sit in a group.

“Come and take a picture,” their leader, Samson Ojwang, said proudly. He and his team, tired of the plastic waste, had taken it upon themselves to clean up their work station. The owners of the buildings reciprocated by hiring guards to stop people from littering.

“We decided to do something about it. That is why we are sitting here (to prevent others from littering),” said Ojwang. His friends were calling him Ole Kapara. According to him, the plastic garbage there had remained uncollected for over two years.

Is it a wonder then that when it rains in the city, it pours plastic?

Closer to the CBD, mounds of garbage, mucky water and pot holes large enough to bury half a matatu wheel characterise Moi Lane, which runs parallel to Moi Avenue and Tom Mboya Street.

“Moi Lane has been like this since Moi days,” said John Njoroge, a trolley pusher.

According to him, the street served as a home for street families until they were rehabilitated by the Kibaki administration.

However, the muck remains and the large pools of rain water have turned an unsightly black. A stench hangs in the air like a bad omen.

“It is the job of the county to collect trash,” said James Kirui, also a trolley pusher. “This trash has been here two weeks.”

In his statement, Dr Kidero acknowledged that “indiscriminate disposal of solid waste, consisting of excavated soils, construction debris and garbage onto water courses, road reserves and sewerage system” had restricted proper functioning of the system.

In places like Kirinyaga Road, however, there is little to show that such a system existed in the first place.

And if the hawkers who operate from there are to be believed, it has been more than 724 days since they last saw a garbage truck.

If they are prone to hyperbole, they did not show it. It is difficult to smile while you are working from atop a mound of dirty plastic paper with dirty water running past your second-hand clothes shed.