Nairobi’s Long Rains: A failure in Urban Resilience?

Lack of resilience or poor planning?

Nairobi’s Long Rains season traditionally brings several urban challenges. A year ago, during the same season, a school bus was trapped in flooded waters and pupils had to wait for over 10 hours to be rescued. Unconfirmed reports indicate that on the same day and along the same road, one motorist died while trapped in his personal vehicle.

Amid promises by both local and central governments, little has changed and this year the city has been hit by a bigger tragedy with the collapse of a 7- storey residential building during the recent heavy rains. At the time of writing, several bodies were yet to be found, 33 people had been confirmed dead and rescue efforts were still on going. More recently, a leading supermarket had to temporarily close down after it over-flooded (investigations indicate that the shopping mall that hosts the supermarket is built on top of a river!).

Towards the end of 2015, the central government allocated about Ksh 5 billion (50 million USD) towards resilience and disaster management in preparation for the forecasted El-Nino rains. It took  concerted efforts by resident associations and interest groups to pressure both county and  central government into getting some work done in this regard. Some sincere efforts were made in realigning roads and re-designing some drainage systems. Clearly, however, what was done was not enough as evidenced by press reports indicating mismanagement of most of the allocated funds.

Urban resilience refers to the capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses and systems within a city to survive, adapt and grow, no matter what kinds of chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience. Such ‘acute shocks’ range from earthquakes, sudden floods and disease outbreaks to heatwaves and other disasters.

For a city to be resilient, certain fundamental parameters must exist including Leadership, Health, Economy and Infrastructure.  Nairobi’s long rains occur every year around April-May and this begs the question as to whether they come as an acute shock or  whether the city is just not well managed.

Lack of resilience or poor planning

A resilient City is expected to provide infrastructure that ensures reliable communication and mobility in a time of crisis, continuity of critical services as well as enhancing  the utility of man-made assets.

There are 7 general characteristics of urban resiliency that can be used to define an area or locality’s resilience.

Characteristic: Description: Review with Respect to Nairobi:
Reflective Using past experience to inform future decisions Have Nairobians used past flood related tragedies to inform decision making
Resourceful Recognizing alternative ways to use resources. How can Nairobians use their resources like rainwater better?
Inclusive Prioritizing broad consultation to create a sense of shared ownership in decision making. Do residents feel that they are part of the decision making process as regards responding to flooding?
Integrated Bringing together a range of distinct systems and institutions. Are all County Departments – Roads, Environment, Planning etc all involved in the decision making process, do they share ideas?
Robust Well-conceived and managed systems. Will most city systems continue working in spite of heavy rains or flooding?
Redundant Space capacity purposefully to accommodate disruption. How can the heavy rain disruption in the city be appreciated?
Flexible Willingness and ability to adopt alternative strategies in response to changing circumstances. Are the people ready to make radical changes as a response to flooding?

Characteristics and descriptions from 100 Resilient Cities

Examining Nairobi as a case study with reference to these imperatives leaves a lot to be desired when disruptions emerge.

Lack of resilience or poor planning?

Practically, Nairobi’s long rains tragedies are avoidable if  normal urban planning procedures are followed. The building that recently collapsed was located in a riparian reserve, right next to a river (such that rescue efforts on one side have been hampered). Evidence suggests that the flooded roads during the 2015 long rains were caused by building construction along other riparian reserves and resultant overflowing of flood water onto the roads.

Kenya has legislation and policies to ensure that such tragedies are avoided; however, a culture of impunity has ensured that little is implemented. There have been several commissions and studies involving development control, building quality and environmental protection. The most recent was a study that revealed that about 75% of the buildings in Nairobi did not meet the legislated  building standards.

If the city cannot handle the effects of its own annual climatic cycle, what would be the scenario if an ‘acute shock’ were to occur? How should Nairobi prepare for its annual long rains? How does your city prepare annual climatic challenges?

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