In Summary
  • In colonial logic, as long as the health of Europeans was not affected, the emerging sanitation and hygiene problem of Nairobi River was inconsequential.
  • Because of drinking poisoned waters, dysentery accounted for more than 16 per cent of all deaths of Africans in Nairobi.

Fish and other aquatic life used to thrive here. Not anymore.

Today, the smelly sludge that is the Nairobi River would hardly pass for water. It is dark, oily, putrid and the most abused water system in the region.

How Nairobi River was deliberately poisoned is contained in reports on the early sanitation of the emerging town — with warnings that a bad precedent was being set by allowing raw sewage into the crystal waters close to the emerging city.

By then, Nairobi relied on a small dam near Chiromo which supplied water by gravity to the railway station and its quarters.

Nairobi started on an inauspicious note and, like all colonial cities, had no drainage.

The reasoning then was that nobody thought that a town would emerge in such a dry terrain which had no minerals.

Emerging cities such as Cairo and Johannesburg were all strategic. They were either ports or had minerals. Nairobi had none of these.


Thus, Nairobi started with no sewers and drains and, when it rained, the storm water turned it into a “sea of mud” as one writer described it.

“Much of the soil was black cotton, which didn't drain well in the rains.” There was adequate water supply from the nearby Nairobi River and the Mbagathi River.

Railway engineer Sir Joseph Whitehouse had selected this site because it had water but, more importantly, it was the last flat space for the railway engineers as they prepared to climb up the Kikuyu Escarpment and down the Rift Valley.

It was thus ideal for base camps and other engineering needs. Soon, the railway tents morphed into buildings.

“The site Whitehouse identified was actually miserable, in the rainy seasons the soils turned into a spongy, black cotton-like substance that formed part of the embryonic Nairobi,” as vividly described by Richard Modlin in his book Malachite Lion.


So bad was the situation that in 1912, the Nairobi Sanitation Commission was appointed to look into the matter because, when the mud dried, it left a fine dusty powder responsible for a respiratory tract infection then known as “Nairobi Throat”.

By that time, a medical officer, Glasgow University-trained Henry Albert Boedeker, had been appointed to look at the Nairobi problem.

Nairobi was having another challenge: Papyrus swamps marked the area around Museums Bridge, modern-day University of Nairobi grounds, Kijabe Street and the entire Kirinyaga Road valley.

While the papyrus swamps were overcome by digging trenches and planting eucalyptus trees by then-administrator John Ainsworth — the man who planted blue gum trees in Nairobi — the problem of drainage was not resolved.

It was these problems that led to the appointment of the Sanitation Commission but, by then, pollution of the Nairobi River — including rats and the plague — was seen as an Indian problem.


In colonial logic, as long as the health of Europeans was not affected, the emerging sanitation and hygiene problem of Nairobi River was inconsequential.

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