Unplanned ‘informalisation’ to blame for the disasters that are urban slums

Tuesday September 13 2011



Oil is a dangerous business, perhaps more so to life and limb — more prone to fatalities — than nuclear power.

When you build houses made of highly inflammable materials atop an oil pipeline and close to oil depots and tankers, you are courting disaster.

But we should not blame the slum dweller of Sinai for the Monday disaster wholesale. Living in filth is not a lifestyle choice.

Yes, Sinai is a dangerous place to live. But at the end of the day, we must recognise that these people live there because they do not have an alternative.

Show me a human being who enjoys standing on a latrine queue for hours on end every day.

When it rains in Sinai, the water spills over from the drains, transporting along with it a stinking blend of human and petroleum waste and rotting garbage.

Show me a human being who enjoys living in an environment where thousands are crammed in a space of less than 10 acres without decent amenities — a place characterised by narrow lanes, dingy rooms, and open drains running outside their homes.

When we depict the slum dweller of Sinai as some zombie who is unable to appreciate the dangers of living too close to oil depots, we oversimplify a more complex dynamic.

Slum life is what unemployed and informal sector people turn to when the alternative is hopelessness and despair. Yes, the law is clear that in building houses, you have to respect the wayleave and keep some distance from the pipeline. But when the law comes into conflict with basic human needs and survival, the law is engaged in a losing struggle.

Slums have mushroomed in Kenya because we have allowed too many people to resort to what we have christened as the informal sector, but actually amounts to disguised forms of worklessness. As a phenomenon, the informal sector is something whose growth we should not be celebrating.

What do you say of an able-bodied young man who has to walk miles everyday, hopping from bar to bar hawking counterfeit watches and radios from China, or an unemployed slum dweller who ekes out a living selling pirated movies — a young adult whose only means of survival is making akala shoes from discarded tyres. Indeed, slum life is about stretching ingenuity to its very elastic limit.

The Sinai phenomenon is all part of the growing “informalisation” of the economy. We are witnessing a trend where the informal economy is growing much faster than the formal one.

That is why instead of seeking to develop an organised commuter transport service system providing scheduled services in all parts of the city at cheaper rates through ferrying large volumes everyday, we have allowed chaotic matatus to dominate Nairobi’s commuter sector.

City authorities long gave up the idea of building markets, hence the rapid growth and expansion of hawking. Kiosks are mushrooming in an unplanned manner.

Instead of growth of branded petrol stations operating with strict standards, activity in oil marketing is now concentrated around the so-called “independent” petrol stations. In the Eastlands region of Nairobi, some of the non-branded stations are located in the backyards of residential houses in heavily populated areas.

Informalisation of the economy has bred careless behaviour, indiscipline, and disorderliness. The way we drive unnecessarily aggressively and without regard to traffic regulations, our propensity to walk on the road rather than the footpath, the matatu playing loud music and making maximum noise with the horn in silence zones, are all examples of lack of discipline in contemporary society.

When the blame is apportioned, the Nairobi Water Company will have to get its full share. Yes, the accident originated from the premises of the Kenya Pipeline Company.

But with nearly all sewer lines blocked, all facilities within the Lunga Lunga area were directing all their waste to storm water drains, which end up in surrounding water bodies. Had the drainage systems been functioning properly, the scale of the disaster might have been smaller.

The National Environment Management Authority is a sleeping watchdog and the Water Resources Management Authority a toothless bulldog. The Lunga Lunga Road disaster was about ineffective regulatory authorities.

What we are dealing with here is planned failure.