We need to innovate a low-cost way out of Nairobi’s sanitation problems


Effluent finds its way into Nairobi River passing through the Arboretum after a sewer line burst in Kileleshwa, Nairobi in this picture taken on February 6, 2022. PHOTO | DENNIS ONSONGO | NMG

In London, amidst project cancellations and policy changes to save money made tight by Covid debt and a post-Brexit downturn, one huge project is close to completion: a new sewer.

London has lived for 150 years on a sewage system that saw sewage from nearly nine million people regularly reach the city’s central river, the Thames, creating a waterway so toxic that for years little could live in it. The new sewer will stop the overflows.

More than that, it has been built to stop overflows caused by flooding, as climate change, and our drying soils with their inability to absorb new and heavy rainfalls lead to a surge in floods globally.

Yet this new catch-up for a system built for fewer, in a cooler and less flooded era, has cost $5.5 billion to build, equivalent to over Sh800 billion, which is a heavy price in the human endeavour to clean one river on our planet and protect less than one-thousandth of the world’s population from sewage overflows and a poisonous river.

In Nairobi, by contrast, the World Bank declared in 2019, after six years of support for the Nairobi Sanitation Project, that just 40 percent of the city’s 4.5 million population was connected to a sewer at all.

The 137,243 who gained sewage during the 2012-2018 project, equivalent to a further 3.0 percent of the population, reported healthier children and a lot of sicknesses saved.

For the other 60 percent, excluding those with their own septic tanks, the sickness must still be tolerated.

Yet, the core problem is funds. The World Bank’s $4.3 million was less than 0.1 percent of London’s spend.

Moreover, public spending in the West is coming under increasing strain, even as it starts to grapple with its own concerns on climate change.

The President’s initiative to achieve a global climate tax may bring new funds, but, unless these create a new and massive flow, we just aren't going to make the 2030 targets.

We aren’t going to cap the temperature rises that are moving the dial against us at 2.0 degrees. And just talking about these targets and the SDGs is an illusion that staves off vital action.

We need a new Plan A. From the tin-roof heat islands creating huge radiation heaters in our cities to the absence of trenches and pipes to water recycling plants, we can either devine the low-cost, self-help avenues open to us: or substantially go without.

We can suffer incrementally more, waiting for $5.5 billion for our own sewers, or we can start rethinking our way around billion-dollar needs. For, in the face of a dead end, only radical innovation is likely to be enough.

The writer is a development communication specialist.

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