Land and Water – Resolving the Tensions of Climate Change and Urbanisation in Nairobi’s Largest Slum
The following post was published in the July 2015 issue of BuilDesign magazine, a Kenyan architectural review publication. The article was the last of such articles that I contributed to as the director of Kounkuey Design Initiative’s Kenya office. This one in particular outlines our work on flood risk assessment which will continue throughout 2016.
During the April just before writing this article, Nairobi and Kenya as a nation endured flooding on an unprecedented scale. Families and businesses rural and urban, formal and informal were affected. It was with these events fresh in the mind of Kenyans that the entire July issue was dedicated to the challenges of flooding facing architects and planners in Kenya. Our article below was presented as a special feature.
In the last couple of months heavy rains have brought the issue of flooding to the forefront of many Kenyans’ minds. Traditionally, flooding has been a problem associated with rural areas and places like Narok that have developed in floodplains. However, the recent floods in Nairobi and Mombasa have highlighted the issue as an urban problem, raising questions about how Kenyan cities are designed to face the environmental challenges of the 21st century; including climate change, increased variability in weather patterns, and the subsequent threat of natural disasters. There is a need for our cities to grow resilient to the risks that threaten the lives and livelihoods of city dwellers. Particular attention is needed to address the risks that affect the poorest and most vulnerable citizens that not only make up a huge proportion of cities’ population, but who also often live in the most hazardous locations.
Urban Flooding in Kibera
In rapidly urbanizing cities informal settlements are consistently located along natural drainage paths. In many cases, residents’ housing encroaches on the adjacent waterways, exposing residents to regular (and dangerous) flooding. Nairobi is no different.
Nearly all of Nairobi’s informal settlements are located along one of Nairobi’s three major river systems (the Motoine-Ngong, Nairobi, and Mathare rivers) that make up the Nairobi River Basin. As the city continues to experience exponential growth (most of which occurs in informal settlements) and global climate change increases rainfall variability, flood risk in the city’s informal settlements will continue to rise.
Kibera is an example of one such informal settlement. Kibera is situated along the Motoine-Ngong River in Nairobi and it has an estimated population of several hundred thousand people living in single-storey dwellings in a space two-thirds the size of New York’s Central Park. The inhabitants of Kibera face many challenges including high levels of economic poverty, high population densities that result in a lack of public spaces within the settlement, and insufficient sanitation infrastructure. Solid waste management is also a problem. With nowhere to dispose of their rubbish, residents resort to using any available open spaces as dumping grounds or to throwing their trash into the Ngong River. Informal drainage systems also lead into the river, and as a result, the river and the Nairobi Dam to which it flows into are heavily polluted.
In Kibera, the cheapest dwellings are found along the Ngong river and its main tributaries; attracting the poorest residents who are willing to risk their lives and assets to live in the city. Bridges, access ways and other essential infrastructure can be found in these flood zones which, during the heavy rains, are often dangerous and impassable. The localized flooding of pathways and drainage systems is aggravated by the high level of impervious roofing and the erasure of natural water retention zones caused by human disturbance. Flooding can destroy the limited assets of poor households, halt economic activity, contaminate water supply, and lead to outbreaks of disease and displacement.
The only way to mitigate the hazards of flooding is through the enforcement of effective flood risk reduction policies. The only concrete policy for flood protection that exists in Nairobi is the designation of a blanket riparian zone for flood management, within which all structures are deemed illegal. The policy has proved difficult to enforce as city dwellers from every strata of society encroach on the Nairobi River Basin riparian zone. In Kibera (and other informal settlements) this has created tensions between residents and implementing agencies. Many observers have advocated for a more nuanced approach to avoid the costs and mass evictions that would ensue should the policy be fully implemented.
Public Space as Flood Protection
The Kibera Public Space Project was initiated by Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI) in 2006 as a means of addressing some of the challenges mentioned above. KDI is a design and community development organization that partners with communities living in extreme poverty to physically transform degraded environments, grow economic resilience, and build social cohesion. At its inception KDI developed a conceptual strategy for addressing Kibera’s macro-scale challenges like economic opportunity and watershed remediation through the development of micro-scale Productive Public Spaces (PPS) in key locations along the waterways.
The premise of the concept is to create a network of active, attractive community-hubs along the Motoine-Ngong river and its tributaries as a means of; (1) building the river infrastructure to ameliorate resilience to flooding, (2) retaining and re-introducing much needed ecological buffer zones, (3) protecting the riparian zones along the river, (4) reducing point pollution subsequently contributing to the remediation of the river,Nairobi Dam and downstream areas, (5) introducing much needed water and sanitation facilities and recreational public space into Kibera to serve the most vulnerable residents.
To date, KDI has completed six PPS projects and is currently working on its seventh. These projects have achieved a level of support, appreciation and endorsement from Kibera residents not only because it is the residents themselves that propose the projects in the first place, but also because KDI adheres to strict principles that prevent them as an organization from demolishing any structures. This sensitivity and intimate understanding of the Kibera context has enabled KDI to operate within the extremely complex environment.
The Future of the Waterways
Over the last decade KDI has gained a wealth of experience building PPS in Kibera that integrate physical and social solutions while building the resilience of local communities to flooding along the settlement’s waterways. This year the team has embarked upon a program focused on urban flooding to further understand flood risk in Kibera. The project aims to quantify the vulnerabilities of affected persons and to work with them to build the resilience of communities to both adapt and respond to flooding. The overall objective of this project is to create a “toolkit” that can be used to implement flood risk reduction strategies in Kibera (and in the future – other informal settlements) by incorporating local perspectives. The toolkit will comprise of a digital flood map developed through hydrological modeling and physical surveying, flood risk assessment which incorporates community perspectives on risk, and policy prescriptions for applying the tools in Kibera and elsewhere.
Ultimately, the development of the toolkit will address the need to protect riparian zones and negotiate the realities of residents living in flood zones. The project aims to pave the way for a more nuanced approach to planning by helping define where different structural (physical) and nonstructural (social resilience) measures might be most appropriate. Overall it represents an opportunity to re-imagine the identity of Nairobi’s waterways. What if the riparian zone could be reclaimed to provide an environmental buffer against flooding, while providing public space, access ways and underlying infrastructure (sewerage drainage, water) in a series of linear parks?
For KDI it is the next step in building the vision of the Kibera Public Space Project to consider this possibility. By continuing to build Productive Public Spaces that demonstrate the potential of integrated and participatory approaches while providing settlement-scale data to inform larger planning decisions, we hope to influence the development of the Ngong River and the wider waterways of Nairobi towards a sustainable, equitable and resilient future.