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Nairobi River a pale shadow of its former self

By COLLINS OMULO September 18th, 2017 4 min read

Nairobi was once known as a “place of cool waters”, derived from the Maasai word enairobe, which literally means “a stream of cold water”.

This was probably because of the existence of a water source, Nairobi River and its tributaries, which cut through the city.

The city was a place to be, a pride to behold. Combined with the tag “City in the Sun”, the capital of Kenya stood out. But not any more.

With Nairobi continuing to experience exponential population growth, heralded by rapid urbanisation and industrialisation, Nairobi River has become dirty. It reels under the weight of trash, which now threatens its existence.


Mr James Archer, a Kenya-born architect, once observed that he could drink, swim and catch fish in Nairobi River when he was a small boy living in the capital, but that is just that — a distant memory.

Choking with all manner of rubbish, the river is a pale shadow of its former self.

The river, which cuts through the city and meanders through highly populated informal settlement areas, is now polluted with all types of waste.

Industrial waste, chemicals and heavy metals, among other pollutants, have taken hold of the river.

The river — which meanders through the National Museums of Kenya, Grogan, Gikomba, down to the expansive Kiambiu slum — is now, more than ever, under renewed threat from increased discharge of industrial, commercial and domestic effluent into its system.

Other threats are from agricultural activities and car wash runoff water.

A spot check by the Nation at certain points of the river revealed a worrying situation, which, if not quickly acted upon, will see the over four million Nairobi residents soon living in a “place of no waters”.

The river — with its Ngong, Kirichwa and Mathare tributaries — has been dwindling in size day by day due to the huge amount of waste dumped into it.

Ngong River runs through Kibera slum and passes through Industrial Area to Mukuru Kaiyaba and Mukuru kwa Njenga, while Mathare River cuts through Mathare slum.


In the section between the National Museums of Kenya and the Globe Cinema flyover, water in the river is dark and murky. Beneath the facade of a smooth flow lies all types of garbage, including hair salon waste, used bottles and polythene bags.

Going downstream, in the section between the Globe Cinema flyover and the Racecourse roundabout, the same scenario is evident.

There are several makeshift structures along the banks, with a stretch occupied by motor vehicle and motorcycle garages that discharge all sorts of waste into the river.

Some of the mechanics urinate into the already dirty water, oblivious of the danger they are posing to those who use the water.

Five metres from the mechanics is a man drawing water from the river for use in cleaning shoes he sells. He says he cannot spend the little profit he gets to buy clean water to wash the shoes.

“I know the water I am using is dirty but I cannot dip into my little profit to buy water to clean these shoes as that will put me to a disadvantage,” said the trader, only identified as Mwangi.


The situation gets worse as the river moves past the Gikomba Market section. The section is in dire need of a clean-up. The water is dirty with waste from traders. They let loose their trash down the river.

Effluent from the eateries nearby and a pile of garbage in the area are washed into the river.

“It is hard for this section of the river to be clean. Waste comes from all sectors and in all shapes and forms. We have a garbage dumping site just here. We have discharge from the eateries you see here and also from us the traders,” said Ms Jackline Atieno, a trader who sells second-hand clothes on the road leading to the Gikomba Market.

Human waste from several public toilets and garbage disposal centres along the river have choked the river to a point where it can barely flow.

At the River Ngong Bridge, there are huge piles of human waste, discarded polythene bags and all sorts of household garbage.

“You can see for yourself the amount of garbage here. The once flowing river is now a stale reminder of what it used to be. We used to be served by this river but it is now slowly and painfully dying right before our eyes,” said Ms Roseline Asena, the chairperson of a residents association in informal settlements.


The biggest polluters of the rivers in Nairobi include a broken sewer system in many parts of the city, big factories that release their waste into the water bodies and settlements with no toilets.

The lack of a proper sewer system has led to the spewing of human effluent into the river. In the case where no sewer system exists, as in most informal settlements, the dwellers discharge their waste directly into the river.

In 2008, the National Environment Management Authority identified over 4,000 structures within 30 metres of the riparian reserve to be demolished.

The structures, mainly businesses and settlements, were in areas such as Kibera, Mukuru, Mathare and Kiambiu slums.

In July the same year, the Ministry of Environment presented a 10-point action plan that proposed a clean-up of the four main rivers within three years. The Sh12 billion three-year project, led by then-Environment minister John Michuki, yielded great results.

But it was not long before it went back to its former filthy state.