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Why campaigns to clean up rivers bear little fruit

Sunday August 18 2019

Nairobi River cleanup

Nairobi Governor Mike Sonko inspects the clean-up of Nairobi River on May 24, 2019. PHOTO | POOL | NAIROBI COUNTY 

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Despite numerous efforts to clean Nairobi River and River Athi over the years, the state of the two water sources remains sorry.

The Nairobi County government is still continuing with cleaning of Nairobi River. Although the amount of garbage in the river has reduced significantly, industrial and sewage effluent still continues to be discharged in the river.


In 2017, President Uhuru Kenyatta launched the Nairobi Regeneration Campaign, whose focus was on housing, settlement, infrastructure, transport, energy, water resources, environment, solid waste, youth, women and persons with disability. It was expected that the campaign would address pollution of Nairobi River, one of the tributaries of River Athi.

Just like previous efforts, the campaign fizzled out without much achievement. A government official who was contacted by the Sunday Nation on the state of the campaign said it had been halted until further notice.

In May, the National Environment Management Authority (Nema) launched a rapid results initiative.


In 2015, the Athi River Restoration Programme by Water Resources Authority was launched but it did not last. The five-year programme intended to end up with a well-conserved River Athi died as well due to lack of finances, according to WRA.

The Athi River Restoration Programme under “A clean Athi River: My responsibility” campaign aimed at improving the quality of water in the river.

Water quality

But four years later, the quality of water has worsened. Instead of giving the river a new lease of life and protecting water resources from pollution, the river has become a source of worry to millions of users.

In the same year, members of the Parliamentary Committee on Environment and Natural Resources visited the river, spoke with residents on the state of pollution of the river and made some recommendations.


“Due to poor management of solid and liquid waste from urban areas as well as farmlands, the water resources are being impacted negatively in regard to quality,” said Fred Nyongesa from WRA.

During an interview, Mr Nyongesa affirmed the state of the river is bad and as such, concerted efforts are needed to clean it.

Without naming any, he lamented that some industries release effluent into rivers at night.

“We have an effluent discharge control plan. Every waste generator must adhere to permit conditions,” he said, adding that enforcement of the various regulations was weak and the punishment for offenders  too lenient.

With the various efforts to clean the river having failed before, Mr Henry Ochieng’, the Kenya Alliance of Residents Associations (KARA) chief executive officer said the approach being used to clean the river is wrong. According to Mr Ochieng', concerned government agencies do not involve critical people in the exercise.

“We need to actively and deliberately involve the community, particularly the people living along the river corridor,” he said during an interview.

There is need for a clear and a sustainable programme that will ensure that the river is constantly and continuously clean and is being put into good use, he said.

But WRA has formed Water Resources Users Associations (WRUAs) in the different catchment areas as part of a participatory approach involving stakeholders at community, regional and national levels, said Mr Nyongesa.


He urged county governments to forge sustainable ways of protecting, conserving and ensuring equitable use of water resources.

But that is not enough, said Mr Ochieng, “We can have an ‘adopt a river’ or ‘adopt a mile’ campaign for maintenance and cleanness of the river,” he said.

He said public awareness regarding river pollution is paramount, and for the campaign to work it is necessary to have a policy. “We have to make people see the need  to be actively involved in the initiative,” he said.

While the county governments and the Ministry of Environment are trying to clean the river, they are doing it from a top-bottom approach, he added.

Nairobi governor Gideon Mbuvi has also launched efforts to clean the river but he has not involved communities.

The sewage problem is both a policy and planning issue, he said, adding that there is need to pay attention to sanitation.

According to Mr Ochieng’, sanitation is just an appendage in the bigger water picture. “We need a stand-alone policy that gives a very clear framework and guidelines on how we are going to deal with sanitation as a city.”