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  • Writer's pictureCecilia Wandiga

Kenya Sustainable Cities - Increasing Awareness on Good Water Quality

Clean water has many benefits of which the most important is reduction of diseases and ailments. Clean water also has important esthetic values because when we see clean environments we remember to preserve what is good. In a country like Kenya where tourism generated 120 billion shillings ($1.2 billion) to the economy in 2017, clean water is also a critical source of blue economy jobs (tourism, fishing and recreation).

Unfortunately, within Nairobi, many Kenyan cities and rural areas, the vast majority of residents, especially young residents, have never seen what a clean river or lake looks like. They have no mental model or awareness of what clean fresh water is. 

Let us start with a view of Athi River around the 14 Falls area in Thika

You can enjoy viewing more spectacular scenery along with information on the pollution challenges through this 2 minute film by Thoroughbred Films Production

Now we can move to lessons learned from clean up efforts. The Nairobi River Basin has been a focal point for intervention efforts. The reason is not just that Nairobi is a capital city. The Nairobi River Basin is a geographical watershed with 10 major tributaries, including the Nairobi River itself. 

Ruiru River

Kamiti River

Kasarani River (aka Gathara-ini)

Ruaraka (aka Rui Ruaka)

Karura River

Gitathuru River (aka Getathuru)

Mathare River

Nairobi River (the main channel)


Motoine-Ngong River

More details

The lessons learned regarding impediments to successful clean up are

Poor involvement of residents in riverside communities 

Lack of data and technical complexity of available data

Lack of enforcement to prevent littering and dumping of waste 


Lack of awareness of effective mechanisms for integrating waste as economic value

The challenge of downscaling technical data in order to enhance community awareness and involvement is not insurmountable. 

First is the need to inform the public that any garbage piled up anywhere that water (including rain) will flow is garbage that will end up in our fresh water systems. Think of pouring garbage into tap water as you are filling your glass to drink. Garbage on the streets does the same thing. Nature does not have a filter for human garbage and toxic chemicals. You end up drinking what you see littering the streets around you. We call this nonpoint source pollution because it comes from everywhere instead of a single location.

Second is an understanding of how garbage and chemicals in our water make us sick. We often think of obvious diseases like cholera. However, we can also get diseases like diabetes, obesity and cancer. Slow learning, slow growth and loss of fertility are additional problems. You can view this CSTI presentation on the chemicals found in our water systems that are linked to these diseases. 

You don't need to learn the chemicals. What you do need to learn is that by keeping garbage out of our water we can reduce and eliminate water related illnesses. 

A third point of intervention that can take place at the community level is waste value addition. By this we do not mean people should hoard garbage and try to sell it as if it were a scarce raw material. Garbage is worthless without value addition. The economic value and money comes from what you do with the garbage and not from the garbage itself. 

Organic matter (food, vegetable peelings etc) in houses can be used for homebiogas systems just like we are doing with sewage. The use and re-use of biological materials is what we call the bio-economy. 

Metals can be remanufactured and the industrial value of the metal waste itself is not high because it must first be purified before it can be re-used. Hence, nobody will get rich on waste metal because the way to get rich is by developing a supply chain that purifies the metal and sells it back to the mobile phone manufacturers or the computer manufacturers, etc. This type of activity is what we call circular economy.

Plastic and paper we can re-use if we keep the garbage clean. This means no food or oils or other garbage gets to touch our paper and plastic waste. If other garbage touches paper or plastic they cost more to purify which means manufacturers end up with less material and pay less because what they are getting is poor quality that cannot be used to make new things. Separation of waste and keeping separated waste clean is crucial for value addition of waste.

We can also change our habits and our thinking about how we manage waste. Leading cities across the world are becoming zero landfill communities. By banning landfills, we are forced to find alternative ways to deal with garbage and the production chains that turn waste into economic value start to emerge. Here are 5 cities that have transformed

While we work on effective systems for behavioural change at the city level and national level, there are community level activities that can make a positive impact. 

In Nairobi you can familiarize yourself with the Master Plan for the rehabilitation and restoration of the Nairobi River Basin. This is not just a report to be read, the activities listed are issues around which communities can mobilise (e.g. create awareness, stop dumping, improve landscaping and beautification).

Universities across Kenya have staff that can advise communities on how to manage clean up efforts. 

University of Nairobi


You can also send in recommendations on how to improve existing efforts such as resettlement and relocation of illegal structures.

Remember the goal of clean up efforts is not to destroy anybody's life but rather to create cleaner, healthier and safer communities we can all enjoy. No one individual, institution, ministry, community group or company can solve the whole problem. We must come together with solutions and contributions that accelerate progress. 

Feel free to email suggestions on how to improve existing efforts to 

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