How long must we hold our breath? Air pollution in Nairobi’s informal settlements

The German thinker Peter Sloterdijk (2009) describes how humans ‘manufacture’ their own air – air that is of existential value for “a species which expires without air in two or three minutes” (p. 32). How humans’ air is manufactured is thus of incalculable value for us to survive (Graham, 2015). Nowadays, it is uncontested that air pollution affects everyone of us, whether we are comparing a highly ‘developed’ city such as London, or the relatively less ‘developed’ city of Nairobi. However, while air pollution does not have any boundaries, it impacts some populations more than others.

When conducting my dissertation research amongst others in the informal settlement Mukuru, I could experience the polluted air literally everywhere: in the narrow alleys, when taking ‘Matatus’ (public buses) or in peoples’ private housings.  During my stay in Nairobi, the polluted air led to severe headaches. It turned out to be the factor I most disliked about my otherwise pleasant stay in Nairobi. Situations arose in which I almost threw up from the stench of burning rubbish. Hygienic cloths which I had in the deepest pockets of my jacket and which I held in front of my nose helped me out of these situations. I often felt caught between either holding my breath or inhaling carcinogenic substances. So, what must it be like for people who don’t have a choice but to breathe this polluted air every day?

Well, in the dense urban informal settlements of Nairobi, particulate matter which is one of the air pollutants of primary concern for human health depicts a major health hazard for the marginalised communities. Air pollution arises from outdoor air pollution through industries, agriculture or traffic as well as indoor air pollution resulting from cooking and using solid fuels, including wood and charcoal.

There is a correlation between poverty levels and the level of air pollution. For instance, reasons for the high levels of air pollution in Nairobi’s informal settlements are their location close to busy roads. Informal settlements are further often located next to dumpsites. The video below by UN-Habitat points out how the burning of e-waste pollutes the air with mercury, harming the nervous system. The video shows Dandora dumpsite located in the heart of the informal settlements Korogocho, Baba Ndogo, Mathare and Dandora, covering over 30 acres.

The close proximity of informal settlements to industrial areas where people work furthermore impacts high levels of air pollution. The map below highlights the close proximity of Nairobi’s main industrial area to the informal settlements that are referred to as high-density habitation here.  

Map of Nairobi County showing Meteorological Stations, Road Network and Land use patterns. The city is the major commercial and industrial centre of the country and the East African community region. It serves as the regional and international headquarter for several commercial and public institutions that include multinational companies and United Nations agencies (Ottichilo, 2010). 
Air pollution in Nairobi’s informal settlements: Weche, 2019

Sources of indoor air pollution in Nairobi’s informal settlements are housing features and individual behaviours. Informal settlements are coined by a high intensity of buildings. Households are generally single rooms with a door and a window eventually. Hence, households are the kitchen, living room and bedroom simultaneously. Most inhabitants rely on charcoal and wood for cooking as well as kerosene (paraffin) for cooking and lighting. The poorest of the poor further use plastic, cloth rags or other unconventional fuels. The use of these fuels leads to high concentrations of harmful air pollutants in the households of Nairobi’s informal settlements (Dianati et al., 2019).

UPE research has pointed out the importance of participatory modelling for inhabitants to gain information about certain issues and feel like being part and responsible for a community. An argument put forward by advocates of participatory environmental modelling is that people living in democratic states simply have a right to a participatory role in society (Yearley et al., 2003). The following video demonstrates research conducted by the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) through citizen science in the informal settlement Mukuru. Here, the location of Mukuru close to the particularly crowded Mombasa Raod as well as to Nairobi’s industrial zone leads to high levels of air pollution that cause respiratory diseases like asthma and deteriorate chronic diseases such as tuberculosis. The video demonstrates that inhabitants of Mukuru often did not know about the quality of air surrounding them. Only through SEI’s project, the participants have gained more information about air pollution.

Participatory methods do not stop with participants of the projects obtaining more information. It is also the sharing of information with neighbours that is of crucial importance for the community. This is often done through street art as just mentioned by Joseph Waweru in the video as well as through community songs like the one you can listen to below. Enjoy the song and until next time!

757 words


Graham, S. (2015). Life support: The political ecology of urban air. City19(2-3), 192-215.

Sloterdijk, P. (2009). Terror from the Air, trans. Amy Patten and Steve Corcoran.(Los Angeles: Semiotext (e).

Yearley, S., Cinderby, S., Forrester, J., Bailey, P., & Rosen, P. (2003). Participatory modelling and the local governance of the politics of UK air pollution: a three-city case study. Environmental Values12(2), 247-262.

Weche, D. (2019). Air pollution in Nairobi’s informal settlements. Retrieved from

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