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When the river changed colour - Wastewater stories from Nairobi

Levi Westerveld

Story by GRID-Arendal July 17th, 2017

A small stream runs through a green area that forms the entrance to Kibera, one of Africa’s slums. Located on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya, Kibera is home to a million residents. The water in the stream is black and full of garbage. The ground is littered with small black plastic bags filled with human waste. These plastic bags are commonly called “flying toilets” and are one of the sanitation solutions in the slum. We look further up to a boy washing his clothes in the stream.

Photo: GRID-Arendal/ Levi Westerveld

Together with Rob Barnes, I undertook fieldwork in Nairobi for a project named Wastewater Management and Sanitation Provision in Africa, funded by the African Development Bank, The Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the United Nations Environment Programme. We interviewed local residents and officials about their perspectives on water and sanitation related issues. The interviews will be edited and integrated into a story map with text and maps.

During a week long study visit to Kenya, we interviewed over 30 individuals from a diverse array of backgrounds. We spoke to government officials, large and small scale business owners, farmers, health specialists, technicians from wastewater treatment facilities, water vendors and artists. Although this interactive atlas focuses on wastewater and sanitation issues at a pan-African scale, the interviews recorded in Nairobi relate to what happens in much of Africa. The collected information will be infused into an interactive atlas with human interest stories. We hope that people, not only in Kenya but across the continent, will connect with these narratives.

The production of the interactive atlas is in its early stage but we have gathered below a snapshot of some of the water, sanitation and wastewater stories collected from Kenya.

Photo: GRID-Arendal/ Levi Westerveld

Byrones Khainga (left), a technician at the Human Needs Project, helps develop a new small scale wastewater treatment facility in Kibera to provide clean water for drinking, washing and cooking. He explains:

“The biggest issue in Kibera is water. The largest population of the slum is served by water cartels who get water connections using very weak pipes meant for electrical insulation. I grew up knowing it was ok for me to get sick, get an infection here and there, cholera, typhoid… but that should not be the case. My hope and dream for the community of Kibera is a healthy and empowered society which is aware of their rights and gets what is rightfully theirs as written in the constitution and the global legislation on human rights”

Photo: GRID-Arendal/ Rob Barnes

Violet Atiend, a high school student from the Soweto Baptist Primary and High School explains:

“Where I live there are a lot of problems related to water. Sometimes in a week we only get water delivered twice. The public toilets are very dirty, so dirty you sometimes don’t even have the heart to use the toilet. The river outside our school has brought many problems. Many people have been dying because of the river. The trash carried by the river flows into our school, into our classrooms and because there is no place to dump the waste, we cannot even come to class

Photo: GRID-Arendal/ Rob Barnes

In Dagoretti, western Nairobi, Philomena who works at catholic health facility reflects:

“During my childhood water was not as polluted as it is today. I remember there were many sources of water, there were wells and several streams flowing throughout the year. But now you will just find waste everywhere, wherever you go you will step on some human waste. That is one of the sources of contamination of water and food. That is why most waterborne diseases are prevalent here.”

Photo: GRID-Arendal/ Rob Barnes

Ramadhan Njuguna, from the Dagoretti Youth Welfare Organization, is an artist. With four friends, they maintain a small piece of land that surrounds a local stream clean from pollution. They decorate the area with artwork and use the water to maintain a tree nursery. Njuguna explains:

“Water is a gift from God. I use the water from the stream to sprinkle the area to remove the dust and for my artwork as well. We can’t drink the water because there are chemicals in the water from the hotels and hospitals upstream.”

Photo: GRID-Arendal/ Levi Westerveld

Peter Wambugu runs a public toilet facility which also has shower facilities in downtown Nairobi. In this photo, Rob and Peter listen to his interview. Peter says:

“This is one of the best types of toilets in Nairobi. We receive our water from the Nairobi Water Services, and the wastewater goes to a sewer which is managed by the Nairobi Water Services, it does not go to the river. Sometimes there is a shortage of water, and that is why we have tanks which we fill in from the main tap. As population is increasing, I hope we will have more sources of water in Nairobi, more boreholes for example.”

Photo: GRID-Arendal/ Rob Barnes

Nicholas Ambanya is the Chief Executive Officer of a flower company. Their business exports roses around the world. He explains:

“We started growing flowers in 1993. At that time there were fewer people using water for irrigation in Nairobi and we could get all our water from the river nearby. But in the last 10 years, climate change has started taking effect; water levels have gone down; there are more farmers; population has increased; and the pressures on the existing water sources has gone up significantly. Thus, we decided on a sustainable route. We invested in water collection systems on our rooftops. We also have six water holding dams which can hold a total of 200,000 cubic meters of water which can last more than 90 days when needed.”

Photo: GRID-Arendal/ Rob Barnes

Samuel Njogu (with the blue shirt) poses for a photo with his colleagues. Every day they wash cars using the water from the river nearby. He says:

“I have been here since 1996. Ever since, we have been fetching water from the river, but there came a time when it started changing colour because people started to pour different things in the river. There is a slaughterhouse somewhere in the Dagoretti market upstream that pours their wastewater into the river. You can see that my skin has changed because of this water. I must come here every day because of my children, but I know for sure that if I am taken to the hospital, there is something inside me, I am very sure. Even customers are running away because they see that we use polluted water from the river to clean their cars.”

Footnote: Header photo: GRID-Arendal/ Levi Westerveld