Slum dwellers grappling with challenges of the Riparian and Urban Reserves

By Nyasani Mbaka, Muungano Support Trust

The adoption of the Millennium Declaration and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by the United Nations Assembly in September 2000 was a laudable initiative by the international community to fight poverty, accelerate human development, and facilitate the gradual, but more effective Integration of the developing world, especially Africa, into the global economy.

The re-affirmation of the MDGs in subsequent international Conferences was an additional indication of the commitment of the international community to attack poverty and inequality, and to end the marginalization and exclusion of the poor and disadvantaged.

The world is rapidly witnessing the growth of slums, and so far most urban planners across the globe have acknowledged that indeed an ultimate urban planning challenge exists. The provision of immediate access to basic and essential services such as drinking water, toilets, electricity, waste collection, and safe housing, while generating long-term strategies to ensure land and political rights for slum dwellers is a fact that cannot be easily wished away.


According to the English dictionary, the term riparian is frequently used to mean the interface between land and a flowing surface water body.

Over the last couple of years, the Nairobi riparian reserves have come under intense pressure from various sources, which include human settlements, industrial activity, and urban agriculture. The main causes of degradation of the riparian reserves in Nairobi have been noted as habitat loss, solid waste, liquid waste, and raw sewage.


The Conservation of the riparian and urban reserves has been a major priority for the Muungano Wa Wanavijiji and conserving the environment is held dear by the Federation. However, slum dwellers have faced numerous challenges that have pushed them to encroach on these reserves;

i. Land issues: This mainly focuses on the access to usable land and security of tenure especially by slum dwellers. The distribution of land is highly skewed that has seen 65% of the total city population crammed in about 5% of urban land, mainly occupied by informal settlements.

Muungano Wa Wanavijiji has been successful in engaging The government to explored various options like drawing memoranda with communities squatting on government land (case study of Kambi Moto) as well as land sharing with communities squatting on private land (Mukuru) in order to regularize security of tenure.

ii. Land use planning and development control:

for some time now, these two components have been the responsibility of the Ministry of Lands and the Local  Municipal Authority . Recently (2008), the Ministry of Nairobi metropolitan Development was established to handle strategic issues. Since the year 2000 that saw the expiry of the poorly implemented Nairobi Metropolitan Growth strategy, the city has not had a comprehensive plan, and most planning and development control activities have been ad hoc and disjointed, living it to support NGOs to come up with innovative ways of mobilizing communities into saving schemes that has seen them save money to buy land so as to improve their standards of housing. This, coupled with low institutional capacity, has seen difficulties in controlling development in riparian areas.

iii. Housing and shelter improvement:

Similar to access to land, housing delivery has been skewed with 79% of new housing going towards middle and high income category. The average demand-supply as at now stands at about 67%; this totally leaves out the urban poor, thus, dense and unserviced shacks continue to infest riparian and urban reserves.

In Nairobi, approximately three million people reside in over 185 different slum settlements, and many are under the constant threat of eviction by private land holders and the government. In most cases Slum dwellers have been accused of courting danger by encroaching on public land set aside for future expansions and development of infrastructure.

Two of the MDG goals dictate that by 2015 a government should have put adequate structures to assist its people fight poverty and Hunger as well as ensure Environmental sustainability. Slum dwellers live in dire poverty and their quest to survive drives them to occupy public land. But overtime Government overtime has always reacted to this by evicting slum dwellers by not necessarily considering where its people will be relocated in order for it to claim it’s riparian and reserves (railway, pipeline and airport reserves).

Fast rewind, In 2008, the Ministry of Environment and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) announced the latest phase of the Nairobi River Basin Programme, which included a plan to clean up the river by razing all informal structures within a 30 meter ‘riparian reserve’ along the Nairobi River, likely displacing over 127,000 slum dwellers from their homes, businesses and destroying schools, health centers, and urban agriculture.

Muungano wa Wanjivivi with support from Muungano Support Trust have partnered with students and faculty of  University of Nairobi’s Department of Urban and Regional Planning, and local water companies to build on Water, Sanitation and Infrastructure  in the city. The team hopes to develop physical and social plans that will ensure the following:

  avoid widespread displacement;

  Outline a strategy for granting land tenure to slum residents, and

  draft strategies for upgrading sanitary infrastructure, roads and other basic services.

Comprehensive social, physical, and environmental plans can help residents build political power, avoid evictions, and begin to address widespread discrimination, insecurity, and marginalization that slum dwellers often experience. The project has so far attracted international attention, Amnesty International visited the slums of Nairobi in June 2009 and issued a report, “The Unseen Majority: Nairobi’s Two Million Slum Dwellers” (1), calling on the government to cease all eviction plans that maybe in the pipeline, and instead engage residents in the planning process, and ensure adequate access for all slum residents of essential services, particularly housing, water and sanitation.

Muungano wa wanavijiji, the Kenyan Homeless People’s Federation, have got the capacity and mechanisms of assisting the urban poor living on riparian and reserves to accurately enumerate themselves. The aftermath of the enumeration process would give a figure of the exact number of people who would be affected in case of evictions. It is this data that the Government requires to calculate the impact of the planned evictions.

Muungano Wa Wanjivivi has over the last decade come up with strategies aimed at empowering slum dwellers, this builds on the existing strategies and contribute to the on-going social and economic activities of neighborhood saving schemes. The savings federations organize residents and tap local knowledge about what types of interventions that will work and be sustainable in specific communities over the long-term.

Governments are therefore entitled to provide resources that facilitate and steer development. However, they must ultimately recognize the primacy of the priorities and capabilities of organized, ordinary poor people. Such organized communities, working in hand with the facilitating power of the state, will put an end to the all-too-present specter of the cruel hand of  evictions from riparian and any other urban reserves, and engage the poor as full citizens of the places where they live and work.

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