Don’t you know that you’re toxic? Water pollution in Nairobi’s informal settlements

Water and Air, the two most essential fluids on which all life depends, have become global garbage cans

~Jacques-Yves Cousteau

Welcome to this week, in which I will post some blogs surrounding water in Nairobi’s informal settlements. It will get exciting, unhygienic, and probably unbelievable for us in Europe!

Walking through Nairobi’s informal settlements myself, the biggest shock for me was to see the amount of pollution there was in the rivers. The following picture is a picture I took myself in Kibera, indicating the level of the river’s pollution.

Bildergebnis für Nairobi slums map
Kibera informal settlement. Source: Author

Below I have inserted the map again from the very first blog post, showing Nairobi’s informal settlements and the distribution of the main rivers in the city.

Distribution of rivers in Nairobi’s informal settlements. Source: UN, 2009

Given the pollution of the rivers in Nairobi’s informal settlements, the water quality of Nairobi’s river is deficient.

There are high levels of harmful materials found in Nairobi’s rivers and its tributaries, far beyond the levels allowed by the WHO. These materials include chromium, lead, zinc, copper, and manganese. Furthermore, there are excessively high levels of harmful bacteria, such as E.coli found in water. The harmful bacteria leads to outbreaks of water-borne diseases including cholera, typhoid, and dysentery. Reasons for the excessively high numbers of harmful pollutants and bacteria are the industries neighbouring Nairobi’s informal settlements, as well as human waste, including excrements. I will explore the latter in the next blog entry. The waste occurring can be ultimately traced back to Kenya’s non-existent disposal system.

Have a look at the video below which exemplifies the pollution of the Nairobi river.

As indicated in one of the very first blog entries on air pollution, waste management is a central concern for Nairobi. Some policies govern wastewater purification; however, they are not followed correctly, thus causing the high levels of heavy metals. Given the industries’ close proximity to informal settlements, the concentrations of heavy metals are particularly high in these areas of the most marginalised.

Pollution impact

The inhabitants of Nairobi’s informal settlements suffer the most from the pollutants in Nairobi’s river and its tributaries. People who rely on the river are particularly exposed to health hazards, including farmers and people living very close to the rivers who use the polluted water and sewage flows for irrigation. Lead, for example, affects the mental development of children, compounds like chromium are carcinogenic, and cadmium damages kidneys.

A lot needs to be done!

Improving the water quality of Nairobi’s river goes hand in hand with a lot more tasks that need to be done! The government needs to put in place a waste disposal system, that includes fines for companies’ industrial waste. There is a further need for an adequate sanitation system, as well as the need for more wastewater treatment plants, handling the waste produced.

471 words


Featured image: Pinterest (n.d.) Water Pollution in Nairobi’s informal settlements. Retrieved from

United Nations Environmental Programme (2009). Nairobi’s informal settlements. Retrieved from

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