Lets talk Wastewater

The concern over rising levels of wastewater pollution experienced in urban areas due to the poor state of treatment facilities is real. Evidence has been collected by the Water Resources Management Authority (WRMA) and National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) attesting to this.

There are high levels of sewer pollution negatively impacting on water quality. Investigations reveal that pollution is mainly due to dysfunctional wastewater treatment plants operated by licenced water and sewerage companies. A number of wastewater treatment works are in a poor state due to lack of proper maintenance with the situation aggravated by a rapidly expanding population yet very little or no effort taken to expand the wastewater infrastructure.

As we reflect on this year’s World Water Day themed ‘Water and Wastewater’, it’s important to consider the negative impact wastewater has on our water resources and our role as good water stewards in being part of the solution. We may have heard the stories of old, as unbelievable as they sound, about how people used to go sailing in Nairobi Dam or how people used to go fishing or swimming in some of our urban rivers. The sight of some of these so-called urban rivers is disturbing because they appear to be part of the sewerage collection system. The awful stench from these rivers coupled with the black and green colouration of the water speaks of the sad state of affairs in how we manage wastewater. The environmental and socio-economic impacts of our unresponsiveness is yet to be measured and will be fully felt by the future generations if the status-quo is maintained.

As an example, previous studies conducted by WRMA show that pollution of Athi River is on the rise and has negatively impacted the downstream communities for whom the river is a lifeline. One of the main sources of pollution is from partially treated or raw effluents from municipal sewage and industrial treatment facilities. If you are a Nairobi resident, you must have encountered the pitiful sight of the once glorious Nairobi River. A tributary of Athi River, Nairobi River is polluted with uncollected garbage, human waste from informal settlements, industrial wastes in the form of gaseous emissions, liquid effluents, agro-chemicals, petro-chemicals, metals and over-flowing sewers.
Nairobi River’s riparian zone, the area bordering close to the river, is encroached by informal settlements who discharge raw sewage into the water. Water resources professionals will tell you that riparian buffers are important for ensuring good water quality, yet Nairobi River’s riparian zone is a buzz of activities filled with industrial buildings, markets, and “Jua Kali’’ commercial enterprises who discharge their wastes into the rivers.

The result of this is spread of water-borne diseases, loss of livelihoods, loss of natural biodiversity, reduced availability and reduced potential of the river becoming a source of safe potable water and the insidious effects of toxic substances and heavy metal poisoning which affects human productivity.
The major effluent dischargers in Nairobi River are actually over-utilised sewerage treatment plants operated by the water and sewerage companies. Due to inadequate investment taken by the government to expand the capacity of sewerage treatment plants, these facilities have become a major source of pollution to the rivers they are discharging into. Efforts have been undertaken by Athi Water Services Board to extend the treatment works to accommodate increased flow to serve the growing population of the city.

Several sewerage plants are facing challenges in managing the effluent discharge and discharge effluent directly into Athi River or indirectly through their tributaries. Due to the quality of effluent being discharged into the rivers, the water quality deterioration is quite high especially during low flows in the river when the self-cleansing capacity of the river is compromised.

The impact of our poor wastewater management is not only felt on the ecosystem but also on people’s livelihoods. A real case of this is evidenced by communities who hitherto benefited from the tourist attraction offered by Fourteen Falls in Kiambu County. Due to the pollution occurring upstream of the water falls, there has been a decline of tourists visiting the area. This has led to a loss of income by communities who benefited from this tourist site. Economically, rivers that once provided a source of income for fish farmers have disappeared due to our own negligence or presumption in managing wastewater. The lost revenues and government taxes lost due to the poor wastewater management would be interesting for the exchequer if he did the maths.

Needless to say, the importance of safeguarding water quality in our rivers due to the ecosystem services it provides cannot be over-emphasised. Rivers provide us with provision services such as water for drinking, irrigation and commercial use; regulating services such as aquifer recharge system, erosion control and flood prevention; and ecosystem cultural services such as scientific knowledge, leisure activities, cultural identity, landscape, environment, education and artistic inspiration etc. It is important to safeguard them from declining water quality resulting from our poor management of wastewater.
So as we celebrate World Water Day, let’s talk about Wastewater as well!

Article by Jennifer Musyoki
GIZ Technical Advisor to KEWASNET on Water Resource Management

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