Dirty work: Who is blocking the relocation of EA’s largest dumpsite?

Saturday May 12 2012

At least 2,500 people eke out a living from the 32-acre garbage site in Nairobi, which was declared full over a decade ago; the chain of stakeholders is also long and every time a date is set to relocate, vested interests block the move

Dressed in a tattered pair of jeans, plastic sandals and a torn sisal sack, Samson Ngugi trudges through the filth at the Dandora dumpsite, some 10 kilometres from Nairobi’s central business district. He cares little about any hidden pieces of broken glass or nails as he rummages through the muck bare handed, in search of plastics which he sells to recycling firms.

In his left hand is a polythene bag full of muguka, a variety of  miraa (Khat) that is reputed to be more potent than conventional varieties. The 32-year-old father of two enjoys munching the stems and leaves, which he says are invigorating.

“Muguka is good. It keeps you busy and increases your sexual energy,” he says.

Ngugi has lived at the Dandora informal settlement since he was 10.

Wanjiku Watoro, 70, has stayed there longer. “I came here in 1982 and have reared my children using the money I get from collecting used plastic bags for recycling,” she says as she munches a piece of bread that an airport waste disposal vehicle has just dumped.

There’s something peculiar about the bond between the Dandora families. One minute they will be laughing together, and the next, exchanging blows; then in no time, they will be talking animatedly again like nothing happened.


Marabou stocks and several other large birds hover above the garbage.

All manner of waste is dumped at the site — from plastics to broken utensils and metals. Each collector specialises in a particular type.

James Kasemba Mutuku, 30, rears pigs for a living and feeds them at the dumpsite. He has 30 animals aged two to three months.

Mutuku lost his only child to meningitis but doctors also linked the death to a lung problem caused by inhaling harmful gases at the site.

Another risk is the high levels of lead in the soils at the dumpsite. A study conducted  by the United Nations Environmental Programme in 2007 found that about half of the 330 children living near the dumpsite suffered from respiratory illnesses.

“The children have a high concentration of lead in their blood,” noted the report.

But the garbage collectors stay put, hoping that their situation will improve one day.

“Jobless millionaires,” screams the graffiti on the last house before the dumpsite in Dandora’s phase IV. Another states: “Kula maembe leo, kesho ule samaki (Eat mangoes today and tomorrow you will get fish).

Located on a 32-acre piece of land, the site is East Africa’s largest dumpsite and the single most hazardous environment in Kenya.

The first batch of garbage is said to have been dumped in Dandora in 1975; after 26 years in 2001, the City Council of Nairobi declared it full. But the city continues to empty its waste at the site, a situation that is aggravated by the rapidly growing urban population.

In 1979, four years after the site was opened, Nairobi’s population stood at 827,000, growing to 3.2 million people by 2010.

“We have broken environmental laws; the site has been full for more than 10 years and a new one is urgently needed,” said Patrick Ngatia, the director of Song Consulting, a conservation and environmental impact assessment firm based in Nairobi.

At least 2,500 people eke out a living from the dumpsite and the mere suggestion that the site be closed down and moved has drawn sharp opposition from stakeholders.

According to the Nairobi City Council, the chain of beneficiaries from the status quo is long.
“There are garbage transporters, recyclers and handcart pushers who rely on the site for survival,” says Mr Ngatia.

Several studies have been carried out on the need to move the site but every time, vested interests block the way.

According to the City Council acting director of environment Isaac Muraya, it will require at least 300 acres of land to put up a new dumpsite.

Aviation industry players are opposed to a site identified in Ruai in Embakasi, almost 20 kilometres from the CBD, because birds which are attracted to dumpsites are a risk to aeroplanes — the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport lies within the same locality.
Now, the City Council is holding talks with the Japanese International Development Agency (JICA) that will see the Japanese government finance a new waste management plan.

JICA will finance key action areas in the Preparatory Survey for the Integrated Solid Waste Management in Nairobi City  carried out by Jica last year.

“Part of the actions is commissioning a landfill in Ruai, which will be a venue for gas and electricity generation,” says Mr Muraya.

An environmental impact assessment  on the relocation of the dumpsite conducted by City Hall last year showed that key among the concerns were social risks, which will include proposals to mitigate the loss of livelihoods of the people who eke out a living from the dumpsite.

According to the yet to be released report, City Hall called for the recognition of such groups.

“If they came up with a formal association and formalise their activities, then they will have bargaining power,” says Mr Muraya.

Recently, JICA and the City Council released to stakeholders key action plans they hope will be part of the broader waste management project, set to run until 2030, beginning this year.

The stakeholders were also told of shorter action areas expected to kick off any time. The most immediate was the capacity building at the council in collecting and transporting solid waste.

Others are the reduce, reuse and recycle plan, the final disposal plan, organisational and human resource plan, the private sector promotion plan and the community involvement plan.

JICA has promised to mobilise resources and technical assistance towards the projects.

If implemented, the projects will raise revenues for the council.