In drought stricken Kenya, Nairobi residents recycle polluted dam water

In an effort to preserve drinking water, residents of Kibera, Nairobi's largest slum, have started to clean up the polluted city dam to prepare its water for industrial uses.

Ben Curtis/AP
A man fills plastic water containers from a tanker in the drought-affected village of Bandarero, near Moyale town on the Ethiopian border, in northern Kenya on March 3, 2017. Residents in urban areas have begun efforts to prepare polluted water for use in factories and direct clean water toward drought-affected areas.

As residents of Nairobi's largest slum look for new sources of water amid lingering drought, they have seized on an unlikely one: An old 88-acre water reservoir full of sewage and trash, draped in water hyacinth.

The Nairobi dam has been the capital's spare water reservoir in times of drought since the 1950s, but not a drop of it is usable now, as a result of heavy pollution.

“The dam is situated on the edges of Kibera, yet we cannot even use it for our car wash businesses,” said Mathew Mbuvi who lives in the sprawling Nairobi slum.

But residents of Kibera, backed by a Kenyan business firm, are now trying to clean the fetid dam, to make its water available for use in businesses – even if it won't ever be drinkable.

Mr. Mbuvi, who has collected rubbish in Kibera for four years, is one of about 300 young people in the slum who have been offered contracts to help clean up the dam.

They have begun collecting plastics and paper around the dam, ready to sell to a new recycling plant which is expected to open in August.

Ultimately, the aim of the recycling project will be to clean the dam's water enough so it can be used by the slum's laundries, public toilets, car washes, and other businesses.

“The recycled water can also be used in the city’s growing industrial sector and reduce the use of clean water in factories,” said John Paul Malawi, the Nairobi County environmental officer.

Kenya’s drought has left at least 2.6 million people in need of food aid across the country, and caused a drop in water volumes in reservoirs serving the capital, Nairobi.

The city needs about 740,000 cubic meters of water a day, which is normally met by the Ndakaini reservoir in central Kenya. Now, however, only 462,000 cubic meters of water are being pumped from the reservoir each day, according to the Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company.

Businesses have been forced to hire private companies to supply them with supplemental water, and some have sunk boreholes on their property in an effort to find underground water supplies.

In Kibera slum, and in other poor neighborhoods across Nairobi, many people lack public water supplies and rely on private sellers. Drought has pushed up the price of water and a 20 liter drum now costs 50 Kenyan shillings (about 50 cents), compared with 10 Kenyan shillings (10 cents) last year.

The Nairobi dam, if improved, could supply some 98,000 cubic meters of the city's demand, according to Leah Tsuma, the chief executive officer for the Agency for Science and Technology Information Communication, the Kenyan company building the recycling plant in Kibera.

The plant will recycle trash and produce biogas from solid and liquid waste, producing as much as 32 megawatts of biogas energy a year, Ms. Tsuma predicted.

Mbuvi said he and others were being contracted to collect trash as part of the recycling process.

Mohamed Ahmed, who has lived 67 years in Kibera, remembers catching fish from the dam as a child in the 1950s, as well as washing his clothes and bathing in it.

At weekends, the dam was a popular recreation spot where people went to unwind, he said.

“Life was good,” he said. “We even used water from the dam for cooking and drinking.”

But in the late 1990s the dam was abandoned because of worsening pollution, he said.

Auyb Shaka, the assistant director of the Kenya Meteorological Department, said he believes the dam can be rehabilitated, as the Nairobi River was about a decade ago.

But it is the jobs – and other potential social and economic benefits of cleaning up the Nairobi dam – that have attracted supporters like Mbuvi to the project.

As part of the cleanup effort, youth groups in Kibera, hired by the recycling company, also will remove the water hyacinth choking the dam and process it into products such as mats and baskets, Tsuma said.

Mr. Malawi, the Nairobi County environmental officer, said cleaning the Nairobi dam will improve the environment in Kibera and help reduce the threat of cholera and other waterborne diseases.

However, he said the recycled water will not be fit for human consumption or to irrigate fruit and vegetable plots in the city.

“It may have harmful substances like lead which are not easy to remove because of accumulation over the years,” Malawi said.

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