- To restore the lost glory, efforts should be channelled towards providing solutions to housing, traffic congestion and air pollution, waste handling and waterways conservation and management.
Kenya has a lot going for it environmental-wise. It is among a handful of nations worldwide generating and consuming electricity almost completely from renewable sources.
The country’s capital Nairobi is home to the UN Environment. Moreover, it boasts the only wildlife park located in a capital city, where tourists can be driven around and sightsee roaming wild beasts with the city’s concrete jungle rising in the background within a striking distance.
Yet despite all these gems, the country is far from spotless. Urban centres grapple with poor garbage handling and disposal, air pollution, traffic congestion and poor housing and sanitation.
It is, therefore, no surprise that Kenya ranks among bottom 50 countries in the Environmental Performance Index (EPI) – a biennial scorecard of countries on a range of sustainability issues. Released last week and compiled by researchers at Yale and Columbia universities, the EPI index ranks nations based on key performance indicators around environmental health and ecosystem vitality. The metrics include air quality, sanitation and drinking water, waste management, forest cover, biodiversity and habitat, air pollution emissions and climate and energy.
Globally, Denmark takes the top spot, reflecting its hands-on approach in protecting the environment and mitigating climate change while the Indian Ocean archipelago of Seychelles is the best performer in Africa.
In East Africa, Uganda leads at position 127 globally, ahead of Kenya’s 132, Ethiopia (134) while Rwanda comes in at position 137. Tanzania is ranked 150.
South Africa and Nigeria, the biggest economies on the continent, are ranked at position 98 and 151 respectively.
Kenya slid two positions from the 2018 rankings.
Several factors have conspired to dampen Kenya’s environmental and livability profile, despite boasting unique features such as the Nairobi National Park and a nearly 100 percent green energy generation mix. Kenya’s generation mix stood at 94.7 percent green last month, comprising geothermal, hydro-power and solar with thermal plants (heavy fuel generators) accounting for less than five percent.
So what exactly is stealing the thunder from the country’s otherwise green reputation?
To begin with, Kenya’s population is young and urbanising rapidly, putting strong pressure on housing needs amid a recent explosion in rural-urban migration. Three quarters of the population is aged below 35 and the country is urbanising at a rate of 4.3 percent per year, yet housing stock has not kept pace. As a result, urban centres face a shortage of 200,000 housing units annually whereas only 50,000 new residential units are being constructed every year. This has in effect pushed a majority of the urban population into informal settlements, where poor living conditions and sanitation is the order of the day as families fight to survive. Also, most low-income households lack access to clean drinking water and rely on dirty fuels – charcoal, kerosene and wood fuel – whose smoke not only pollute the environment but puts families at risk.
Next, Nairobi’s public transport is rickety. Besides the daily chaos and traffic, city commuters are forced to put up with the din of engine noise and plumes of exhaust fumes from millions of tailpipes, most of which lack catalytic converters. This carries the risk of exposing city residents to respiratory diseases, especially because most matatus are notorious for engine idling, even when parked, unnecessarily emitting nitrogen dioxide and other noxious gases.
Solid waste handling is yet another damper, with most street alleys being littered eyesores. The picture is much worse in urban estates. Granted, the government should be credited with banning single-use plastic bags. But clearly much more needs to be done. Plastic packages including bread and milk wrappers continue to be thrown around with reckless abandon, most of which end up in water bodies, putting marine life in danger.
Once regarded as the ‘green city under the sun,’ Nairobi’s shine has been dimming over the years, with the tree cover along motorways cleared for road expansion. Nairobi River, instead of being treated as a gift from nature, has instead been turned into a flowing dump site.
To restore the lost glory, efforts should be channelled towards providing solutions to the above-mentioned areas– housing, traffic congestion and air pollution, waste handling and waterways conservation and management.
Besides mobilising resources and crafting transformative policies, the government should join hands with the private sector to unlock innovative expertise and capital and implement projects that would turn around the society’s fortunes.
Additionally, Kenya could learn and apply best practices from top performing countries such as Denmark.
According to Yale University researchers, high-scoring countries in the environmental index like Denmark generally exhibit long-standing commitments and carefully constructed programmes to protect public health, conserve natural resources, and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
Denmark excels in almost every indicator of environmental health, having long made significant commitments to air quality, advanced sanitation and safe drinking water. The European nation also stands out in solid waste management, with virtually all its waste being recycled, composted, or incinerated.
Equally, the country has reduced carbon dioxide emission by more than half since peaking in 1996, helped by a transition towards cleaner energy alternatives and policies.
Denmark has a feebate system in which buyers of environmentally friendly cars such as electric vehicles alongside newer brands that pollute less are offered rebates. On the other hand, owners of cars with carbon emissions in excess of a set limit are penalised. At the same time, the country is encouraging a shift towards non-motorised transport by dedicating safe infrastructure to cyclists and pedestrians.
The EPI index provides a way to spot problems, set targets, track trends, understand outcomes, and identify best policy practices towards a sustainable future.
Such fact-based analysis alongside data can also help government officials refine their policy agendas, facilitate communications with key stakeholders, and maximise the return on environmental investments. Lastly, the rankings offer a powerful policy tool in support of efforts to meet the targets of the UN sustainable development goals (SDGs) and to move the society toward a sustainable future.
Key takeaways from the 2020 EPI rankings and indicators include:
Good policy results are associated with wealth (GDP per capita)
This means that the more economic prosperous a country is, the more likely it is likely to invest in policies and programmes that lead to desirable sustainable outcomes, ensuring quality citizenry well-being. This trend is especially true for issues such as building the necessary infrastructure to provide clean drinking water and sanitation, reduce ambient air pollution, control hazardous waste, and respond to public health crises.
Pursuit of economic prosperity – manifested in industrialisation and urbanisation – often means more pollution and other strains on ecosystem vitality, especially in the developing world.
However, there are exceptions. The data and trends suggest that countries don’t have to sacrifice sustainability for economic security or vice versa.
Policymakers and other stakeholders in the exception countries demonstrate that focused attention can mobilise communities to protect natural resources and human well-being despite the strains associated with economic growth. In this regard, indicators of good governance – including commitment to the rule of law, a vibrant press, and even-handed enforcement of regulations – have strong relationships with top-tier EPI scores.
While top EPI performers pay attention to all areas of sustainability, their lagging peers tend to have uneven performance. Denmark, which ranks position one, has strong results across most issues. In general, high scorers exhibit long-standing policies and programmes to protect public health, preserve natural resources, and decrease greenhouse gas emissions. The data further suggest that countries making concerted efforts to de-carbonise their electricity sectors have made the greatest gains in combating climate change, with associated benefits for ecosystems and human health. It is important to note, however, that every country – including those at the top of the EPI rankings – still has issues to improve upon. No country can claim to be on a fully sustainable trajectory.
Laggards must redouble national sustainability efforts along all fronts. A number of important countries in the global South, including India and Nigeria, come out near the bottom of the rankings. Their low EPI scores indicate the need for greater attention to the spectrum of sustainability requirements, with a high-priority focus on critical issues such as air and water quality, biodiversity, and climate change.
Some of the other laggards, including Nepal and Afghanistan, face broader challenges such as civil unrest, and their low scores can almost all be attributed to weak governance.
Mungai is the CEO of the Kenya Climate Innovation Centre.