Waste management, air, soil, and water pollution are major challenges in Kenya .
Kenya suffers from both high levels of outdoor and indoor air pollution. According to available data, air pollution in Nairobi consistently exceeds the World Health Organisation's guideline limits for PM2.5 . Ambient air pollution was responsible for around 5,000 premature deaths in Kenya in 2019 alone, as reported by the State of the Global Air 2020. In addition, the National Economic Survey 2017 estimated that 19.9 million Kenyans suffer from respiratory ailments that are exacerbated by poor air quality .
Water pollution is becoming a major concern in Kenya. For instance, severe pollution in the Kenyan side of Lake Victoria has been documented. Microbiological analysis showed levels of bacteria that indicated faecal contamination, while chemical analysis showed contamination with seven heavy metals (including mercury, lead and arsenic) and levels above the recommendation for drinking water. Additionally, 21-33 types of pesticides were detected in the different samples, some of which have been forbidden for several years . Water pollution leads to the spread of water-borne and water-related diseases and reduces the availability of safe water. In addition, pollution causes the death of fish, which negatively affects people’s livelihoods .
Soil pollution in Kenya is leading to productivity decline. It is estimated that one-sixth of total arable land in Kenya has been polluted by contaminants. Various studies in the country have also confirmed the presence of Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) in the environment, which can cause cancer and other diseases .
Currently, Kenya is also facing the increasing challenge of solid waste management, particularly in its urban centers. Most urban centers are characterized by many illegal dumpsites that form major sources of environmental pollution . According to NEMA’s National Solid Waste Management Strategy , in Nairobi, an estimated 2,400 tons of solid waste is generated every day, 20% of which is in plastic form. Of the waste generated by the city, only 45% is recycled, reused, or transformed into a form which can yield an economic or ecological benefit, far from the 80% target set by NEMA . Kenya has long struggled with plastic waste, which pollutes its Indian Ocean coast and often abounds in its lakes . In Mombasa, the country’s second-largest city with some 2 million residents, 3.7 kilos of plastic per capita leach into bodies of water annually, according to an assessment using UN-Habitat’s Waste Wise Cities Tool (WaCT) , .
Air pollution in Kenya is mainly caused by motor vehicles, industries, the use of traditional fuels and kerosene for cooking and heating, and the indiscriminate burning of solid waste . Poverty, poor enforcement of pollution standards for air quality, and lack of awareness of the health risks associated with pollution also contribute to air pollution in Kenya.
The key sources of pollution affecting coastal and marine environments in Kenya include municipal and industrial discharge, surface run-off, leachates, dumping of solid wastes and oil spills, while sewage discharge and agricultural activities lead to nutrient enrichment of the country’s water bodies . Kenya’s groundwater quality is affected by natural influences and human activities including unsewered domestic sanitation, and disposal of urban and industrial wastes (solid and liquid) .
Soil pollution in the country is largely caused by pesticides and other agrochemicals. Kenya's demand for agrochemicals has been increasing as the result of a rapid expansion of the agricultural sector. According to Kenya’s Sixth National Report to the CBD, 400 tonnes of pesticides and fertilizers are released every year to the environment from farming activities. These include Agricultural activities (use of organic fertilizers) and Flower Farm and Influx of municipal effluents .
Rapid population growth and urbanization in Kenya has continued to increase waste generation leading to unsustainable disposal .
Key policies and governance approach
Article 42 of the Constitution of Kenya (2010) guarantees every person a right to a clean and healthy environment, including the right to have the environment protected for the benefit of present and future generations. Various policies and Acts have been developed in Kenya aimed at regulating or reducing pollution. These include, among others, the Environment Management and Coordination Act 2015, Agriculture Act 2013, Polluter pays principle, Water Act 2016, Fisheries Management and Development Act, 2016 (No. 35 of 2016), Wetlands Policy 2013, Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Act, 2013 (No. 17 of 2013), and Agriculture, Fisheries and Food Authority Act, 2013 (No. 13 of 2013) .
Several laws exist related to air pollution including, among others, the Environmental Policy, 2013, Air Quality Regulations, 2014, Kenya Standards Act, (Cap 496), Public Health Act, (Cap 242), and the National Transport and Safety Act, 2012 . The Air Quality Regulations provide for the prevention, control, and abatement of air pollution to ensure clean and healthy ambient air. It provides for the establishment of emission standards for various sources such as mobile sources (e.g., motor vehicles) and stationary sources (e.g., industries) as outlined in the Environmental Management and Coordination Act, 1999. Emission limits for various areas and facilities have been set. The regulations provide the procedure for designating controlled areas, and the objectives of air quality management plans for these areas .
Kenya has also developed Water Quality Regulations, 2006, which apply to water used for domestic, industrial, agricultural, and recreational purposes, water used for fisheries and wildlife purposes, and water used for any other purposes. The objective of the regulations is to prohibit discharge of effluent into the environment contrary to the established standards. The regulation provides guidelines and standards for the discharge of poisons, toxins, noxious, radioactive waste or other pollutants into the environment, and standards for discharge of effluent into the sewer and aquatic environment .
Under Kenya’s Vision 2030, the Municipal and Industrial effluent standards within the Lake Victoria Basin have been harmonized, and sewerage treatment plants in Kisumu, Homa Bay, and Bomet Towns have been constructed. In addition, in 2015, Kenya developed the National Solid Waste Management Strategy , and action plans on waste management and pollution levels have also been established for five major cities and towns: Mombasa, Thika, Nakuru, Eldoret and Kisumu , . The main guiding principle of the National Solid Waste Management Strategy is the ‘Zero Waste Principle’ whereby waste is a resource that can be harnessed to create wealth, employment and reduce pollution of the environment. Through the Strategy, NEMA developed minimum requirement points, on waste collection, transportation, disposal and licensing, for the management of existing facilities so as to continuously promote compliance with the waste management regulations within the counties . Further, in 2017 Kenya implemented the Plastic Bags Initiative . This was followed by the banning of plastic bottles, cups, and cutlery in its national parks in 2020 .
Successes and remaining challenges
Despite Kenya’s significant efforts to develop a comprehensive policy and legislative framework, there seems to have been slow progress in its implementation and in curbing environmental pollution. In fact, Kenya has seen an increase in environmental pollution, which threatens the environment, livelihoods, and people’s health. This has been attributed to factors including weak enforcement of regulations, inadequate funding for pollution control, and a lack of consumer awareness, among others. If the Vision 2030, which seeks to ensure that Kenya achieves a newly industrialised state by 2030 through sustainable means of production and manufacturing is to be achieved, environmental pollution in Kenya needs to receive more attention than it is currently receiving .
Initiatives and Development Plans
The Lake Victoria Environmental Management Programme (LVEMP) is a regional project under the East African Community implemented in phases by partner states and coordinated by the Lake Victoria Basin Commission. The project seeks to improve collaborative management of the trans-boundary natural resources of the Lake Victoria Basin. It also aims to improve environmental management of targeted pollution hotspots and selected degraded sub-catchments for the benefit of communities that depend on the natural resources of the Basin. LVEMP I and II are complete whereas preparations for LVEMP III are on-going .
Working closely with communities and in partnership with the private sector as well as UNEP, Kenya’s national and devolved county-level governments are establishing a plastic waste management programme – one that could be scaled and replicated across the East African community and beyond .
Moreover, for over a decade, universities around the country have focused on greening their campuses, while enhancing student engagement and learning. Higher education offerings in environmental science, management and policy are available at both public and private institutions .
Goals and Ambitions
Kenya signed on to the Clean Seas initiative, making it one of the first African nations to commit to limiting plastic in its waterways .
- Fully operationalize and implement NEMA's standards that already exist: General prohibitions, Permissible levels, Controlled areas, Stationary sources, Mobile sources, and Occupational air quality limits.
- There is need for strict enforcement of compliance with the emission standards for various sources such as mobile sources (e.g. motor vehicles) and stationary sources (e.g. industries).
- It is recommended that authorities continue to enforce the country-wide prohibition on plastic bags and the ban on plastic bottles, cups, and cutlery in its national parks. In addition to protecting the environment, the ban creates awareness among the general population that protection of the environment requires local participation.
- Investing in technology that will enable government agencies to achieve real time air pollution monitoring can go a long way in ensuing that pollutants are kept within acceptable levels as defined by the World Health Organisation standards.
- Concentrate air pollution efforts in major cities and towns, due to their high susceptibility and the high population living in these areas.
- There is a need to invest in pollution prevention technologies like emission controls especially for factories and heavy industries with strict enforcement to ensure that people living in such areas do not pay the heavy cost of air pollution.
- There are other regulatory approaches that can be used to promote and attain environmental protection and public health that are not rights-based. These include economic incentives and disincentives, criminal law, and private liability regimes.
- The Government should also invest more in modern modes of transport that emit fewer polluting gases through offering relevant tax breaks/exemptions to encourage investment in the sector.
- Creating awareness on the harmful effects of the various forms of pollution as well as creating incentives for the public to desist from activities that cause pollution is necessary.
- Environmental education and ethics should be promoted in the country.
- There is also a need to put in place a working public/citizen complaint mechanism that provides the opportunity for citizens to lodge complaints and grievances about the violation/infringement of their right to a clean and healthy environment by companies polluting the environment.
- There is a need to put in place effective spatial planning management systems as well as a working system for monitoring development activities.
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