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Nairobi Dam: daunting task to rehabilitate water reservoir

By Douglas Namale:

Frosty smell, plastic bag heaps, pigs, aquatic weeds, arrow-roots and sukuma wiki plantains, describe the status of Nairobi Dam. The sixty-year old water reservoir whose objective was to provide potable and emergency water supply for the city populace is now a health hazard.  The once acclaimed water sport resort where Nairobi’s elite converged to merry in early 1990s sailing, diving and fishing, is now a marshy farmland.

Water hyacinth cover on the dam. Efforts to rehabilitate it are thwarted by economic and other social economic interests

Invasive aquatic weeds and solid waste deposits emanating from tributaries that pass through Kibera slum have completely altered the aquatic ecology and flow regime of the dam. “Porch suburbs like Karen have equally contributed to the mess”, said Laini Saba District Officer Hesbon Kayetsi. Kayetsi says most homes in Karen use septic tanks, when full the affluent is released to the Ngong and Mutomoini River, the main tributary to the dam. Environmentalist Josiah Omoto, who is also Umande Trust Chief executive, agrees with Kayetsi. Omoto says sucking a full septic tank costs Ksh. 13 000, a figure most people would not want to part with, if draining the affluent into the river is almost free.

Solid waste deposits to the dam have transformed the water reservoir into a fertile farm, feeding 62 per cent of the Nairobi’s population who reside in slums. According to Francis Mulando, a farmer owning several plantains in the dam, their produce feed thousands of people in Kibera, Kawanguare, Kangemi and even some suburbs in Nairobi. As we walk with him through the sprawling wetland, Mulando points at his green sukuma wiki, arrowroots, tomatoes, nepia grass, and sugarcane, all growing healthy in the once acclaimed fishing park. Marijuana farming has also taken root at the dam.

A survey contacted by Map Kibera Trust in 2010 indicated open drainage, open defecation and lack of enough toilets in Kibera and surrounding market places were the main causes of the filthy. Cleaning up the dam and the water sources of Nairobi presents a particular problem. The project will require a commitment by all stakeholders to slum upgrading, providing decent shelter, adequate sanitation and clean water to the poor, especially those living in Kibera.

Water samples from the dam have consistently registered very high degree of sewage contamination.Aquatic weeds, especially water hyacinth and parrot feathers, flowing into the water body since 1998, has curtailed recreational activities. Pollutants have rendered the water in the river system and the dam totally unusable and hazardous to human health. Other problems of the dam have been as a result of lack of proper management of solid and liquid, and industrial waste.

March this year; Nairobi Rivers Basin Rehabilitation Programme (NRBRP) organized a community forum in Kibera to launch the rehabilitation of the Ngong and Mutomuine River. In the forum, NRBRP Director Mr. Erick Akotsi told the Community leaders that the dam can only be fully rehabilitated permanently if communities living adjacent to the rivers flowing into the dam are clean. Community leaders agreed to lead the process of relocating residents living next to the river. One of the leaders said, “It is compulsory for anyone living on the banks of the river to move since the river, as it is now, is a health hazard”.

People dumping sludge into the Ngong River/ Photo: Namale

Facts about Nairobi Dam

  • The Nairobi Dam is shallow. Average depth is 2.76m 
  • It has a surface area of about 356,179 m2 and a volume of 98,422 m3
  • The dam inlet is about 1700m.
  • Dam crest is about 1680m above sea level
  • Geological formation on which the dam rests comprises the Middle and Upper Kerichwa Valley Tuffs
  • Inflow is constituted of tributary runoff, over-dam precipitation and waste water from the non-sewered Kibera settlement
  • Outflow is composed of dam evapotranspiration,
  • Inflow from the river channel through the spillway and groundwater flow from the dam
  • The total contribution of rainfall to the dam is 311,656m3 per year.
  • The total water loss as a result of evapotranspiration is about 711,289m3 per annum.
  • Evapotranspiration from the Water Hyacinth may be higher than potential evaporation
  • The dam is heavily silted by sediments from erosion and solid waste dumped at various places to reclaim land for agriculture
  • Water Hyacinth has infested the water body disrupting fisheries and recreation 

Akotsi, said the rehabilitation of the Ngong river section between Nairobi Dam and Jamhuri Show Ground was possible, referring to other rehabilitation success clean up stories on other sections of the river basins especially the National Museums and Globe roundabout section of Nairobi River.

Community leaders accepted it was illegal to dump affluent into the river, saying residents need a solution to solid waste management problem. Nairobi city council was put on the spotlight over its reluctance in dealing with garbage in slums. Human rights activists Ochwacho Ojango accused the city council officials for their laxity in garbage collection, saying they were the reason why the affluent found itself in the streams.

Currently Nairobi city council has five garbage collection points all located in the western side of Kibera. Youth groups collect garbage from the households to collection points at a fee.  Their efforts are thwarted when city hall demands KSh. 1500 per month from the youth groups for them to transport the garbage from collection points to dumpsites. City council solid waste management assistant manager Kibra district admitted in a separate meeting that the council was experiencing inadequate staff and vehicles.

Ibrahim Maina, the founder of the New Nairobi Dam Initiative is of the idea that the dam has become a cash cow in the name of rehabilitation. According to him, efforts like garbage collection, recycling and tree planting around the dam area is the beginning of controlling the effluents. He points at a recycling center managed by their organization and the trees planted by them as a classical example of what needs to be done.

Environmentalist Josiah Omoto believes communities living around the river should be educated on the value of the river. He adds the colonial mentality that people should be relocated six meters from both sides of the river bank as claimed by Laini Saba district officer should be ignored.  He says there are many examples in the world, like Egypt, Ireland, and India among other places where people live along riverbanks and protect it from aversive effluents. He adds, different stakeholders should work together to realize any meaningful change on the rehabilitation project. Akotsi agrees with Josiah’s argument, and adds, rehabilitation of the river will only succeed if its community driven.

Maina, who works for a Swiss NGO Kancou Design Initiative, agrees with Josiah’s sentiments, arguing that there is need for the high profile boardroom meetings to cease and start new and simple initiatives that works.

The government and other development partners have spent millions of dollars on this project, but little can be pointed at on the ground. In 2004, the Kenyan government approved $ 1.4 million USD for the rehabilitation of Nairobi Dam and Nairobi river projects, through Nairobi Dam Trust initiative. The trust fund also attracted $400,000 from the Government of Belgium and $65,000 from the Government of France.

According to Josiah Omoto, the Nairobi Dam Trust has played a key role in mobilization of funds, but there is less to be seen as happening on the ground, apart from the little effort done along Nairobi River next to global cinema roundabout. Josiah says there is need to review the trust funds strategy to “lost cost, high impact model” because the current one “high cost low impact model” seems to have failed.hhj

nairobi dam 1

But the NRBRP Director says “The Ministry of Environment and Mineral Resources have already purchased 25,000 Bamboo seedlings and 150 other different kinds of seedlings to be planted on the river banks once the residents move”. According to the director, reclaiming and conservation of the Ngong River will be led by youth groups and community based organization to plant trees and collect garbage.   He added his office will provide facilities to collect and dispose the garbage collected.

Laini Saba District officer Mr. Hesbon Kayetsi emphasized on the importance of planting trees and urged all community leaders to support the government efforts to reclaim and conserve the water bodies. He added community leaders need to set up a committee to identify locations suitable for construction of 50 toilets blocks supported by the Ministry of Environment and Athi Water Board to stop open defecation in Kibera.

Umande trust CEO is opposed to construction of ablution toilet
blocks because they are later offloaded to the rivers, since Kibera has no adequate sewer.  He proposes construction of bio digesters type of toilets, because the sludge has extra value, generating electricity and cooking gas, which contributes to the green economy.

Water scarcity in Kenya is due to an increase in population, an increase in pollution, imprudent management of the water resources and degradation of river catchment areas as a result of such factors as illegal and unsustainable logging of forests. As rehabilitation of Ngong river efforts grows, Mutomuine River, one of the tributaries feeding Ngong River is already dry as a result of deforestation at Langata forest.  It is estimated that this poor water management is costing the Kenyan economy almost US$ 50 million annually.

From a national perspective, Kenya is classified as a chronically water-scarce country with only 650 cubic meters per inhabitant per year representing only 24% of the water that is available to a Ugandan, and 22% of the water available to a Tanzanian.

The Nairobi Dam is 356,179 square meters (3,834,000 square feet) with a total water holding capacity of 98,422 cubic meters (3,477,800 cubic feet) when completely full.


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