Part of KDI Kenya’s new blog series on the changing face of Kibera.
The Need for a New Sewer in Kibera
Sewers are one of those things that once tucked away neatly underground most people don’t want or have to think about too much. The benefits of convenience and a sanitary and safe environment are in some places taken for granted. However when a big sewerage project is underway it can cause quite a lot of disruption at the surface. Residents in Kibera are experiencing this currently as a new 900mm trunk sewer line is beginning to wind its way up the Ngong River.
The Ngong River forms the southern boundary of Kibera and is one of the three main river systems in the Nairobi River Basin. In 2012 KDI produced a baseline report on water and sanitation in Kibera that laid out the extent of the challenges. Sewerage coverage to date has been limited, with a small proportion of the settlement in the catchment of an under-capacity 350mm pipeline that serves upstream and upmarket Kilimani. The majority of human waste passes directly to the river via unlined pit latrines. Levels of organic pollution, driven by the passage of untreated human waste into the watercourse, are often akin to raw sewage. In the fall of 2013, households interviewed by KDI reported that 25% of under-5s had suffered from diarrhoea in the last two weeks. The Nairobi Dam, famous for its previous life as a place of boating and recreation, is now effectively an open sewage treatment reservoir.
Who Will be Served?
The new trunk sewerage, part of a wider African Development Bank funded project by Athi Water Services Board, has the potential to change these realities. By opening up the potential of sewerage connections to the southern side of the settlement up to a further 100,000-150,000 residents could be served (based on KDI’s population estimates). In addition new water mains provide a chance to re-imagine water supply in the settlement. As the new infrastructure comes online KDI is working with the Ministry of Environment and Athi Water to get this new data into KDI’s WATSAN Portal webtool (watsanportal.net). This user-designed technology project enables compound owners and other small project developers to make formal water and sewerage connections and increase coverage throughout the settlement.
A New Image of Kibera
As the trunk sewer line has progressed up the river from Lindi village towards Gatwekera, a new image of Kibera is emerging. As structures around the proposed sewer line are removed the river is opened up to its natural width. The riparian zone is exposed and a sense of how the river might possibly be in the future is revealed. The encasement of the sewer has become a convenient pathway for many, and for the time being a new access way is created.
The sewer line has already passed through KDI’s seventh Productive Public Space project (KPSP07), currently under construction on the riverbank of the Ngong. By working collaboratively with Athi Water and their contractors KDI was able to negotiate a re-alignment of the sewer line to pass adjacent to KPSP07 (rather than through it) and also to create a dedicated connection to a communal sanitation block currently in design. The line is also projected to pass through KPSP03 and KPSP05 (further upstream) later this year; similar challenges and opportunities await for areas that have always been off the sewer grid.
These hubs of public space and communal activity suddenly look like nodes in a larger system of networked infrastructure, not dissimilar to KDI’s vision of “building the river infrastructure” back when we started in 2006. What if the riparian zone could be reclaimed to provide an environmental buffer against flooding, while providing public space, access and underlying infrastructure (sewerage, drainage, water) in a series of linear parks? KDI is exploring these opportunities along with our partners at the Urban Rivers Rehabilitation Program in the Ministry of Environment.
Upstream Politics, Downstream Impacts
Of course challenges and complexities remain. In order to make the removal of structures acceptable to those residents living in the 10-20m clearance zone there has been acknowledgement at some level that structure owners will be allowed to return once the sewerage is complete. Already structures have started to creep back into the cleared areas. The line has also created a hard boundary which some structure owners are treating as a form of flood protection, however the high water levels in April will almost certainly bring misery to those who re-encroach on the river.
The biggest potential flash point is that the Ministry of Environment sees the opportunity to reclaim the cleared zone for the river (and the government), if the land can be formally gazetted in line with the National Environmental Management Authority’s 10m riparian zone policy for informal settlements. Creating this buffer could have significant environmental and social benefits in the longer term, but the process could potentially cause significant conflict with residents, given local people’s understanding with the contractors that they have an option to re-build.
Upstream, politics is also getting in the way. There is strong resistance to the extension of the sewer line into Gatwekera, an area hostile to initiatives of the current administration. When visiting KPSP03 (in the heart of Gatwekera) in mid-January 2015, KDI had a discussion with some residents who claimed they would raise an “army of youths” to fend off the project.
Other questions remain. Will household level connections be encouraged or will only public toilet blocks have access? Have the designers of the sewer line taken account of the high water levels during the rainy seasons? To what standard will the wastewater be treated once downstream?
Living on the Ngong
Despite these issues progress so far is impressive and the potential impact very real. While sewers may not be the most obvious place to start when thinking about Kibera’s changing face, new sewerage here has the potential to underpin wider change in public and environmental health, access, economic development, flood protection and watershed management. KDI absolutely supports the potential of networked infrastructure, such as sewerage, to transform the living conditions of many, if it’s done in an open, transparent and collaborative fashion. As the line progresses we will be keeping tabs on what the impacts and benefits will be to the thousands of people who live along the banks of the Ngong River. Stay tuned for more on the changing face of Kibera from the KDI Kenya team!
Joe Mulligan, KDI Kenya
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