By Sophie Mbugua, Climate Home News
Dirty flood waters, impassable roads and submerged slums have become the norm every time it rains in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital city.
In August, the authorities took drastic action, bulldozing around
2,000 buildings in the flood plain, including shopping malls worth
millions of dollars. After a lull, they are due to resume demolitions
this month, national media reports.
The ongoing October-December rainy season is on track to bring –
mercifully – average volumes of water. Yet the city’s flood risk is
rising, as climate change brings more extremes of rainfall. Experts tell
Climate Home News better waste management, urban planning and warning
systems are needed to protect its growing population.
Numerous informal and formal settlements without adequate sewerage and sanitation services edge onto the three Nairobi Rivers: Mathare, Ngong and Nairobi.
At Hazina village, one of 22 villages in south B division along the
Ngong, the river chokes with refuse, making the water hardly visible.
“It’s the village’s dumping site,” Anne Keli, a 46-year-old mother of
12 tells Climate Home News. She has lived in the village for two
decades and says flooding has been particularly bad in the past two
“The water reaches the village at a high force compared to previous
years but gets stuck due to the plastics, paper bags and assorted waste
in the river, blocking its flow,” Keli says. “Since we are on a lower
area, the run-off from higher areas headed to the river has no place to
go as the river is full. So, where else does it go? Into our houses.”
During the long rains in April, Keli’s family left their flooded home
and camped in the county commissioner’s grounds. She lost around 30,000
Kenyan shillings ($290) worth of goods from the shop she runs less than
a kilometre from the river.
The provincial administration made some efforts to clean the river during the flooding, but as soon as the rainy season ended it clogged up again, Keli says. “People keep building close to the river, reducing its size by day. People are asked to remove the structures with every flood but after the rains, everything moves back to normal.”
Kenya Meteorological Department (KMD) has installed more than 72
monitoring stations across the country in a bid to provide more timely
and precise information.
Brian Chunguli, a county disaster management official, says a
UK-funded programme will allow them to monitor live flooding levels from
satellites and alert residents as waters rise.
“We hope to respond before flooding happens, and collected data will
inform the disaster policy and interventions as we will compare long
term data showing at what rainfall levels has certain areas flooded,”
Long-term projections of East African rainfall vary, with most climate models predicting heavier inundations as temperatures rise.
Mary Kilavi, the Nairobi County director of meteorological services,
is mapping the areas likely to flood in Nairobi given a specific amount
of rainfall. South B and South C on the Ngong river are hotspots, along
with Mathare by the Nairobi river.
“We are using a model that simulates surface water flooding using
previous city flooding data corrected over time,” she explains. “We want
to find out with a specific amount of rainfall, which areas will
This will help the authorities to move beyond a reactive approach to
systematic preparation, she says. “Since weather is given in
probabilistic terms, systems don’t act fast. We will establish the
probability of achieving the estimated flood causing rainfall, then with
stakeholders, agree at what point to act, the actions to take and funds
to be set aside for the actions.”
The solutions range from cleaning up waste to creating green urban
spaces and changing land management upriver. Many of these face
political, as well as practical, obstacles.
There is a directive against building within 30 metres of the
riverside, for example, but it is haphazardly enforced. Many owners of
the recently demolished structures insisted they had permits to build
“It requires funds and land to relocate and rebuild the structures amid political interference, as area politicians incite the residents not to move,” says Barre Ahmed, assistant county commissioner for Starehe sub county.
Dr Lawrence Esho, chair of the Kenya Institute of Planners, calls for
a drainage master plan to cover the entire metropolitan area.
“We have a flooding crisis but the issue is bigger than the illegal
buildings. It is more of the uphill destruction of land which we are
doing nothing about, too much concrete pavements aggregating the run off
flow, blocked drains and climate change,” says Esho. “Over the last 20
to 25 years the city has also gone through the change from bungalows
built over a huge area to high-rise apartment blocks… without a drainage
city master plan change.”
Builders should leave gaps between pavements for grass “to allow the water sip under when it rains,” he advises.
In the meantime, Keli can only make sure she has a quick exit
strategy ready. She says: “I worry at every drizzle. But this time, I am
prepared with a bag packed for any eventuality to rescue my children.
As for the shop, there is little I can do. Until the river is cleaned, I
still believe this village will flood if the rain keeps coming as they
did these two years.”
This article originally appeared on Climate Home News and is shared under Creative Commons license. This article was produced as part of an African reporting fellowship supported by Future Climate for Africa.
Cover photo by Sophie Mbuaga: The Ngong river is choked with garbage as it passes through Hazina village.