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February 16, 2019

Garbage management in Kenya now a cash cow and not a service

In the past, defunct City Council of Nairobi, and I dare say other cities and towns as well, had garbage management regimes that worked - not perfectly - but predictably. On scheduled days we used to see the garbage trucks arrive at a set hour and collect garbage. The estates and the city centres alike were relatively clean. Nakuru was at one time declared the cleanest city in East Africa. The garbage collection expense used to be part of the water bills, and people paid. Let us fast forward to the 80s and 90s. Garbage was not being collected. Still the local authorities charged a fixed sum in the water bills. So stressing was the situation that individuals got together and formed associations and engaged private garbage collectors. The risk was at least five fold. First, the risk of spreading diseases, secondly there was a high possibility of children playing in the garbage. Third, the obnoxious smell was overbearing and could not be ignored, four the mere fact that residents had no recourse, and nowhere to lodge complaints and last because it was not known where the garbage would end up.

Moreover, the garbage trucks stink so bad that you can smell them a kilometre away. If you happen to be driving or walking or riding adjacent you are in deep trouble. I would like to believe that since all the cities and towns seek to transact business and to attract investments, image and reputation are a big deal. Mombasa City’s Kibarani is the gateway into the Island, from the airport and from the hinterland that is the rest of Kenya, and all of Uganda, Rwanda, South Sudan, DR. Congo and parts of Ethiopia. Kibarani is in a terrible condition and potentially hurts the touristic attraction that the city is famed for and the commercial activities relating to importing and exporting goods. Nairobi’s landscape is no different, and the civil aviation industry has sounded alarm that scavenger birds are a threat to aircraft flight paths.

Over the years, towns and cities have grown and their garbage output has equally grown exponentially and multiplied in composition and complexity. It is not unusual to come across radiation materials and used syringes in rubbish dumps. Sadly, some relatively modern buildings especially residential flats do not have garbage chutes or secluded areas to handle garbage. This is creating a serious waste handling challenge. In Chinese language, threats such as the garbage menace mean opportunities for the discerning. I have been to cities in faraway places like Helsingborg in Sweden and Brisbane in Australia, where the authorities have devised ways of harnessing their solid and liquid waste and sorting it into recyclable, reusable and reduced categories. They have further used the waste to produce fuel for use by the respective city transportation bus systems. Given Kenya’s celebrated brainpower, I do not see why we cannot do the same. It may mean several counties, cities and towns partnering to make it more economical to invest in such ventures. It would be a brilliant form of synergy by our devolved leaderships to get together for common good. If on the other hand we do not have ‘in-house’ resources, we should not shy away from seeking help, which I am certain would be forthcoming.

In our country, waste management has had a lot of politics associated with it, just as there was a lot of politics over public toilets. Both are needed services for public use and are a way of controlling disease while promoting good public health. It is not clear to me what role politics can play other than to distort the truth and risk the life of a whole nation. The laws of our country are quite clear but then again we are notorious for ignoring them, without fear of sanctions. Such is our national reputation that we have to live with, where things happen contrary to statute and the perpetrators get away with it. Impunity has crept into our national psyche and appears here to stay. It is not unheard of to hear politicians asking politicians to keep off this or the other, in some instances politics enters to replace fairness and goodwill.



Wafula Nabutola Is a building surveyor, who until recently was the consultant-in-chief at MyRita Consultants, Inc.

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