First published Saturday Standard, August 11, 2018. Kindly reproduced here with permission from the Standard Group
The public conversation following the demolition of restaurants, high-end apartment blocks and malls has exposed our ethical flexibility on matters that we need to be more intentional about. According to the National Environmental Management Agency, no less than 4,000 buildings have encroached on the riparian reserves of the Nairobi river ecosystem and must be brought down. Both our Government agencies and the public must now reflect on how Nairobi got to this situation and how to stop it in future.
The Nairobi river eco-system defines Nairobi. The Maasai gave our city the name Enkare Nyrobi, the place of water. However, a century of human contamination has left the Ngong, Nairobi, Mathare and Mbagathi rivers so polluted, that Nairobi residents can be forgiven for thinking the river is in fact an open sewage system. Farms, industries and neighborhoods without solid waste collection or sanitation daily empty garbage and sewage into the Nairobi river.
Demonstrating a rare common sense of misjudgment, both our rich and poor neighborhoods from Runda to Dandora have also sprawled onto its riverbanks. In many cases, they have even built on the river. With this encroachment, we have endangered not only the environment but our very lives. The loss of many lives and injuries that horrified us in the 2016 Huruma building collapse and numerous flooding incidents are literally events of our own making.
This week’s demolitions translate from the Presidency’s declaration to regenerate the Nairobi river in 2017. For most of this year, fact-finding teams have been combing the river to map and mark all buildings and structures built on the riparian reserves. Ironically, even those who swore an oath to enforce our laws and bylaws own buildings marked with the infamous red X. Among them is the former Governor of Nairobi, Members of Parliament, County Assembly members and other State Officers. The net is so wide that we have to stop and reflect how did we get here?
Putting it politely, we have exercised a degree of ethical flexibility that has just been called out. While poor professionalism is a factor, the biggest two factors are greed and corruption. Building construction is a complex and a lucrative process. Registered architects, physical planners, developers and environment impact assessment experts are required. Licenses and permits signed and stamped by officials from NEMA and Nairobi County and in some cases, transport, health and water and sewage officials are also required. We must now look through the dust of falling buildings to the chain of participation, regulation and oversight.
NEMA maintains a list of certified environmental experts on its website. Could we see an updated database that excludes all those experts that sanctioned the now condemned buildings? Perhaps it is also time to overhaul the approval process. 15 officials from NEMA and Nairobi receive 10,000 environment impact assessments and building approval requests annually. There is simply no time to go to the ground and confirm what is on paper is also on the ground. Is it now time for local neighborhood and community associations to have representatives on all building approval committees? Is it time for County Governments to further delegate authority and empower ward level administrators to have a greater say and be more accountable for what happens locally?
Could Nairobi County publicly list all the officers that approved these buildings, interdict and prosecute a few? Perhaps the County Government could take all the money it received in payments for licenses and approvals and deposit it in a fund to regenerate the river or fund community whistle-blowers?
Public spaces have been under attack for a century and, we the current generation is also complicit. Most of us have eaten, shopped and lived in buildings that clearly sit within the 6 to 30 meter radius of the Nairobi river. If we haven’t, we have watched the erection of these buildings and said nothing powerfully. Watching the South End Mall go down, I was struck by the bizarre sight of another excavator building on the riparian next to it. Demolishing private property may be necessary to restore order to the city and our environment but it is not sufficient to eradicate future impunity.
Past calls from communities to review building licenses, EIAs and approvals have often been ignored. A current case in point is the proposed triple 35 storey Cytonn Towers in Kilimani, Nairobi. As presently designed, the building threatens to outstrip the infrastructure and environment of a largely residential neighborhood. Perhaps our authorities could relook at this case as well.