A tale of two rivers: development, destruction, and despair in Ongata Rongai, Kenya

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Ongata Rongai is a rapidly growing peri-urban space in Nairobi Metropolitan, Kenya. The last 10 years have seen exponential population growth and building development leading to overcrowding and pressure on water and environmental resources.

A new research study, published in Frontiers in Public Health (August 2023), sheds light on interactions among humans, animals and this rapidly changing urban environment. It is therefore a quintessentially One Health study.

Qualitative and ethnographically informed methods were used to better understand the impact of rapid growth on the riparian environment and the effect of this on those who depend on it.

The reflexive use of archival material and a historical ethnographic approach enabled in-depth narratives to address these issues within a longitudinal context, and the use of deliberate walking alongside visual methodologies and more traditional anthropological methods make this study novel both in terms of methodological approach and findings.

The study found that people said high levels of pollution from solid waste and sewage had made the rivers almost unusable and a hazardous place for both humans and animals. Yet, in the past, these rivers played key roles in daily life.

There was frustration with structural-level actors’ moribund attitude to the environment. The poor health of the rivers and riparian environment has led to human and animal health challenges, increased pressure on water resources and economic pressure due to a loss of livelihoods.

The study contributes to what is currently a fairly small literature on urban riparian spaces globally, but one which is of growing and vital importance given the rapidly increasing percentage of humans who now reside in urban spaces.

It also contributes to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) and urban clean water knowledge as well as One Health, public health and urban growth narratives, and directly addresses challenges faced by Sustainable Development Goal 6 (clean water and sanitation for all).

Howland, O. 2023. A tale of two rivers: development, destruction, and despair in Ongata Rongai, Kenya. Frontiers in Public Health 11: 1164881.

Photo: Farm on the banks of Mbagathi River, Ongata Rongai (Olivia Howland)

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