Nairobi’s Dilemma – Growing a Metropolis While Guarding Threatened Ecosystem

Nairobi’s Dilemma – Growing a Metropolis While Guarding Threatened Ecosystem

Posted 06 July 2011, by Kari Mutu, AllAfrica,

In the open grasslands past Athi River, it’s not unusual to spot a Kori Bustard, a bird about the size of turkey, ambling along the ground with much poise and dignity – except during the brief mating season.

Dignity aside, the puffed-up male dashes madly after his intended, oblivious of the loud rumbling from a nearby cement factory that roils 24 hours a day. The bustards flit unashamedly past sombre wildebeest before traversing the driveway of an extensive, private ranch.

Local school children walking home carrying plastic water jerricans barely give the birds a second glance. The feathered lovers eventually disappear down a tree-lined water hole to share a drink with Maasai cattle.

Welcome to the plains of Athi-Kapiti-Kaputei. A century ago, the area teamed with more wildlife (in numbers and variety) than the Maasai Mara and was often the battle ground between Maasai and Kamba warriors. Then, Nairobi was hardly more than a swampy, mosquito-infested train depot en route to the ‘Pearl of Africa’, Uganda.

One hundred years later and Nairobi – indeed Kenya – is the economic powerhouse of East Africa. The city is bursting at the seams with almost four million people.

Kitengela and Ongata, once considered rural areas, are now part of Nairobi in all but name. Now it’s the turn of Athi-Kapiti and the signs are all there.

Grazing cattle and wildebeest, new factories belching dust and din, small-holder farms adjacent to thousand-acre ranches, mud-walled houses neighbouring gated residential estates, cheetahs hunting besides a Chinese-refurbished highway. One phrase describes this hodgepodge growth – unplanned development.

Kenya urgently needs to implement sustainable urban environmental plans to support a growing economy and population while ensuring the preservation and best utilisation of natural ecosystems. Otherwise, ever more Kenyans will be living in low-quality housing situated in overcrowded, crime-ridden, environmentally degraded, municipalities with poor or non-existent infrastructure.

As the city creeps ever closer, Athi-Kapiti’s landowners, ranchers and impoverished pastoralists are under immense pressure to sell to developers offering sweet prices. But hardly has the ink dried and the grasslands are subdivided and resold.

It begs the question of what regulations are in place for the inevitable urbanisation. West of the railway track, miles of barbed wire already criss-cross the savannah, demarcating hundreds of smallholder plots.

Will the whims of individual owners prevail, giving rise to multi-storeyed flats next to a school without playground, opposite polluting factories beside a nyama choma bar that opens onto a makeshift bus stage?

A resident of the area points out to me recently a parcel of grassland supposedly earmarked for developing low-cost, subsidised housing for Nairobi’s slum residents. It’s a laudable effort.

However, many slum tenants walk to work daily, unable to afford public transportation. It’s a 50-km hike to the Athi Plains. Do the plans for subsidised housing cater for affordable mass transportation to the city?

The Ministry of Environment’s ‘National Climate Change Response Strategy’ (NCCRS) of April 2010 calls for the promotion of low-cost mass public transport models. India, Columbia and South Africa, countries with large, low-income populations, have successfully introduced mass city transport through buses or light rail.

Thailand has recently approved Public-Private-Partnership whereby private developers tender for lucrative light-rail contracts in Bangkok city, but the government subsidises the fares to keep transportation affordable for low-income commuters.

The average Kenyan would benefit greatly from a properly managed mass transport system through safer, low-cost travel and reduced commuting time on less congested roads. Furthermore, environmental preservation would be achieved from decreased vehicle emissions that are so damaging to climate systems.

On the other end of the development spectrum, the Athi-Kapiti is ideally suited to up-market estates. South Africa has successfully developed ‘wildlife residential estates’ which comprise high-end housing, golf courses and recreational facilities alongside untouched wilderness.

The developments respect the wildlife and ecosystems while giving residents exclusive living quarters in serene environments, within easy access of a major metropolis. Nairobi, through Athi-Kapiti, is ideal for similar property investments.

But the rich biodiversity of the plains needs to be actively managed for its long term survival. The Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) administers the national parks. Yet over 75% of wildlife lives in non-gazetted areas such as the Athi-Kitengela-Kaputei plains that are listed by KWS as an endangered ecosystem.

Wildlife, to some, is a non-issue as it cannot be raised, hunted or culled for revenue. However, tourism, Kenya’s third largest foreign exchange earner, still heavily relies on wilderness attractions. Vision 2030 acknowledges that ‘continued reduction in wildlife and critical habitats can undermine sustained growth in the tourism sector and reduce competitiveness with other countries.’

Just as human populations have their patterns of living and labouring, so does wildlife. Africa’s large herbivores migrate long distances in search of rain-induced pastures. Wildebeest and antelope travel from as far as the Tanzanian borders to calve in Athi-Kapiti.

Knock out the latter ecology and what becomes of herbivores in Amboseli and Chuylu, the carnivores that feed on them and all those tourism jobs and dollars? Establishing a community-managed wildlife sanctuary seems a necessity rather than a ‘perhaps’.

The NCCRS dossier urges wildlife and tourism intervention by ‘creating community wildlife conservancies to help in the conservation of wildlife.’

To this end, Athi-Kapiti landowners and private enterprises are already deliberating ways of collaborating to form a community wildlife conservancy. Ideas include setting up wildlife research centres for species such as cheetah and wild dog, as well as environmental education institutions for local and international students. Additionally, ways are being explored to construct buildings using sustainable, low-cost solar electrification.

As an example, the new UN office block in Nairobi is completely powered by solar panels, independent of the national grid. This is welcome news for fast developing economy with expensive hydro-electricity, increasingly inconsistent weather patterns and continued destruction of water catchment areas. Similar solar technology can be adapted for residential and commercial developments.

Located just 30 minutes from the airport, Athi-Kapiti’s would be convenient for the traveller wishing to avoid the busy city, for conference tourism, or city residents looking for a quick weekend getaway. Opportunity exists for controlled tourism development in terms of eco-friendly hotels that maintain the ecology’s balance while bringing jobs and revenue to the locals.

Kenya has many commendable urban development dossiers that are facing fast- approaching deadlines with little to show for them on the ground. Kenya’s enterprising, hard-working people and its pristine wildernesses deserve a far better future than the current approach of come-what-may.

Last thing we need is for the ‘powers that be’ waking up five years hence and hurriedly re-charting an Athi landscape that’s dense with human populations and vibrant (albeit unplanned) industries. Now is the time for action.

Taking cue from the mating dance of the Kori bustard, sometimes nature gives us just a small window of opportunity to secure the wellbeing of future generations. Now is the time for Kenya to waltz into sustainable urban development.


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