Floods reveal Nairobi’s vulnerabilities

Everything feels damp in and around Kenya’s capital, Nairobi.

It seems like the rain has been falling non-stop for six weeks now, and the impact is devastating.

More than 120 people have lost their lives so far, including at least 50 in severe flooding in an area about 60 kilometers (37 miles) from Nairobi on Monday.

It’s rainy season now, and we’ve had much more rain than would normally be expected. El Niño phenomenon.

Rivers and sewers overflowed, roads became waterways, and houses were destroyed.

Flooding in Nairobi is not unusual, but the scale of this year’s deluge has exposed long-term problems with the way the city is developing.

“You can’t contain nature. That doesn’t work,” urban planning and environment expert Professor Alfred Omenya told the BBC.

He said most of the city is located on the floodplain of the Nairobi River, which runs through the capital. Many other rivers and streams also flow through Nairobi.

A properly developed drainage system could have helped, but as the city has grown over the past 100 years from a population of 100,000 to today’s 4.5 million, infrastructure has not kept pace.

Compounding the problem is that less than half of residents have sewer connections. Open sewers are common in slums and can overflow during floods.

On April 25, 2024, the Gitaturu River floods and ruptures its levees in the Matare slum area in Nairobi, Kenya, one day after heavy rains caused the river to overflow and rupture its levees, causing damage to surrounding areas. People will inspect damaged homes in the area.

Slum settlements are built on remote land at risk of flooding [EPA]

There are also cases where drainage pipes become clogged due to the disposal of household waste.

Open spaces disappeared as more and more buildings were constructed, both in slums and planned areas.

As more concrete covers the ground, there are fewer places to absorb water, allowing it to run off and overwhelm drains and rivers.

As a result, the road became part of the drainage system, Professor Omenya said.

He blames “ignorant leadership that dates back to the colonial era.”

Unplanned settlements are allowed to develop around rivers, sometimes disrupting their natural flow.

Many of the city’s slums, such as Mukuru and Mathare, are built on marginal land along river valleys.

Last Wednesday, authorities recovered the bodies of more than a dozen people who drowned in the Matale River after heavy rains the night before.

In the aftermath of the heavy rains, most homes in the area were flooded, with some residents trapped on their roofs.

High-end residential areas were also affected, including those that had not experienced flooding in the past.

Nairobi Governor Johnson Sakaja, who governs the city, said the rainfall was extremely high and blamed the flooding crisis on land encroachment around the river.

The governor is currently suspending building development and drilling permits.

But the bigger challenge may be clearing and improving slum areas.

The government has plans to build affordable and decent housing, but past upgrade projects have failed to meet the burgeoning demand.

Residents try to clean their homes left stranded by floodwaters after the Nairobi River embankment burst in the Matale Valley community in Nairobi, Kenya (Photo taken on April 24, 2024)Residents try to clean their homes left stranded by floodwaters after the Nairobi River embankment burst in the Matale Valley community in Nairobi, Kenya (Photo taken on April 24, 2024)

People’s homes were caked with mud as the water washed away. [Reuters]

In the meantime, residents are being asked to move to higher ground for their own safety.

President William Ruto said people living in dangerous areas across the country would be relocated to land provided by the National Youth Authority while the government planned a long-term solution.

He said the military and the national government had been mobilized in cooperation with the county to assist those in distress.

Neighboring Kiambu District, part of which is in a river basin and has been affected by flooding, also announced that it would take measures to alleviate the situation, including building inspections.

In the past, buildings in and around the city have been demolished as a way to combat irregular development, but with little effect.

Some developments in and around the city have been criticized for blocking the flow of water to other areas.

Building on wetlands is also a major problem.

In 2018, Langata’s multi-million dollar Southend Mall and Westlands’ Ukai Mall were demolished as part of a campaign to reclaim wetlands.

Nairobi County Councilor Robert Alai said: “Right now we are building a lot of houses next to the river and it is very flooded. Walls are collapsing everywhere… Don’t go against nature. Nature will fight back,” Nairobi County MP Robert Alai wrote on X (formerly Twitter).

On April 24, 2024, residents walked through floodwaters after the Nairobi River burst its embankments and destroyed homes in the Matale Valley community in Nairobi, Kenya.On April 24, 2024, residents walked through floodwaters after the Nairobi River burst its embankments and destroyed homes in the Matale Valley community in Nairobi, Kenya.

The road has turned into a waterway [Reuters]

Before the recent floods, Mr Sakaja defended the development of high-rise buildings in some residential areas, saying the only way Nairobi could develop was by building.

His stance came amid criticism that development is straining an already overwhelmed infrastructure. He has now issued an order suspending all building development permits “until we are able to review all issued and continuing permits within the city.”

Many members of Congress also criticized the governor over city management, citing the sewage and flooding crisis.

Mr Sakaja defended himself by saying the criticism was politically motivated.

Sen. Samson Chelargay, an outspoken member of the ruling coalition, said the governor was not responsible, saying, “This is a problem we started in 1963 and cannot be solved now.”

Part of the problem can be traced back to the origins of Nairobi, which means “place of cold water” in the Maasai language, and the fact that Nairobi was not considered a suitable place for large numbers of people to live.

It began as a railway depot in the late 1890s under the jurisdiction of British colonial authorities. Engineers working on the site described the area as a “swamp,” and the land was wet and in “unsanitary conditions.”

Years later, colonial official Sir Charles Elliott said that Nairobi “was in a depression with a very thin layer of earth or rock. For the greater part of the year the soil was flooded.” .

However, it has developed into an attractive city with a good climate, lots of greenery, and a national park.

However, drainage problems persist.

The first master plans by colonial authorities took into account the layout of the land and designed measures to prevent disaster. Post-independence, there were at least two other blueprints so far, but they were largely unimplemented.

Professor Omenya said this season’s flooding showed that rainfall could become even more intense as a result of climate change, and new plans were urgently needed.

However, ordinary city residents continue mopping up, hoping the rain will stop.

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