RESIDENTS of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, are grappling with flooded roads, homes and offices in some of the heaviest rains the country has seen in recent times. Lives have been lost, walls collapsed and electricity substations submerged causing outages across the city of over three million. There were also incidences of commuters spending nights in their cars early in the week.
Much-criticised Nairobi County governor Evans Kidero apologised to residents, saying that the amount of rainfall experienced recently was unprecedented and that this year’s rainfall is 10% more than last year and “worse than the 1997 El Niño”, which caused extensive damage.
But official explanations are finding few takers as the destructive effects of the floods continue to be felt. Nowhere is this more keenly felt than in Kibera, the country’s largest informal settlement, where there is little escape from the wrath of storms.
Mail & Guardian Africa went there a day after heavy rains, and found grim evidence of a city unable to anticipate the worst effect of the annual rains:
Plastic bags are strewn all over the sidewalks and alongside houses. Little pathways between the houses are slick, a mix of human waste, mud and thin plastic bags, while drainage ditches are clogged with waste.
Diddy Vitalis, a Kibera resident, laughs at the notion of refuse collection. Current total waste collection levels in Nairobi are estimated at 50% at best, with studies finding that over half of Nairobi’s residents have no waste collection service. Those living in slums are even less considered and for many dwellers, effective refuse disposal is not a priority.
They are not alone.
There is evidence of huge amounts of plastic waste deposit all along the Ngong river banks, which runs through Kibera. This is fresh plastic that has been brought downstream as a result of inefficient waste disposal by city government and Nairobians. After all, as of 2005 the level of re-use and recycling of post-consumer plastic in Nairobi was very low, with approximately only 1% recycled.
Kibera residents already have a particularly tough time during the annual rains which typically occur in and around March, April and May, but as more people are moving into the city, and into the slum, the flooding there is set to get worse.
Its geography plays a huge role: the settlement is cropped up on a slope, by a river, and spread over a hilly area which is intersected by streams. Today, a combination of runoff and storm water flowing from the upper parts (or villages), and the construction of houses in the flood plain, has led to extreme flooding almost every year. The plastic waste however exacerbates as it is widely recognised that it degrades the environment and clogs drains, while trapping flood water.
Another resident said that as a result, is the poorer residents of the settlement who suffer the most. Landlords have also made the cheapest rents those along the rivers where the risk of flooding is highest.
Several houses have been washed away.
The house seen above for example started to collapse on Tuesday, and down the river bank it went as the soil beneath it was eroded by the powerful river gushing past. Despite the risks, residents cannot move and will seek to reinforce their river-side structures in whatever way possible, hoping to ride out the coming weeks of rain:
For those living along pathways strewn in refuse, the water has no other place to escape into other than their homes. They have even taken to constructing a higher wall of mud, which acts as a dam of sorts, in front of their doors to prevent the water from seeping in:
But when there is particularly heavy rain, and the water collects in the street, not even sandbags are enough to keep it away and quick repair works on the sides of mud houses are needed.
Flooded homes and collapsing structures are just one of the problems Kibera residents will have to deal with. Everyone in the settlement faces the health risks that localised flooding can bring. In 2013 for example, a survey on access to water and sanitation of over 1,300 households in two areas of Kibera discovered that one in five households reported children that had experienced diarrhoea within a timeframe of two weeks. Diarrhoea poses a huge risk for Kibera slum dwellers because of the lack of proper sanitation and hygiene.
This is made worse by the floods which further contaminate water systems with human waste. There are no sewered toilets in Kibera and most of the households have traditional pit latrines. These are inadequate and fill up quickly. Kibera is also known for its “flying toilets” - people will often dispose of their faecal matter in plastic bags which are then thrown away.
So while floating cars and long traffic jams are the highlights on social media, the recent flooding in Kibera is what really hits the nail on the head, bringing to light the ticking environmental time bomb that the Kenyan capital is facing.
Considering these floods are a yearly event, one can only hope that the city is better prepared the next time round.