Ego spat that created flood-prone Nairobi
- Sir Whitehouse may be long dead, having successfully convinced his government why Nairobi was the best location for the construction of the railway station, but the legacy of his blunder lives on.
Have you ever wondered why Nairobi floods year in year out? This problem may be attributable to poor spatial planning of the city by authorities.
But the original sin, committed more than 120 years ago, is largely to blame for the city’s drainage woes.
So where did it all start?
In 1899, the construction of the Uganda Railway line, infamously nicknamed the 'Lunatic Express', had just reached Nairobi.
Sir George Whitehouse, the Englishman and chief engineer in charge of its construction identified Nairobi as the ideal location for the intended depot for the railway line.
In Sir Whitehouse’s wisdom, at 5889ft above sea level, Nairobi was suitably elevated, which made it the most natural location for the depository.
Its temperate climate and flatness made the perfect combination for an ideal shunting ground.
The heavy railway construction works required a dry ground, which Nairobi offered. Coming several kilometres from the escarpment at Limuru, he thought there wasn't a better location for this purpose.
Senior officials of the British East Africa Protectorate, however, had a different idea. According to them, Nairobi was too flat, poorly drained and infertile.
They were, therefore, opposed to the engineer’s choice of location for this project.
Due to its centrality, colonial government officials also feared that should this station develop into a larger settlement, its topography and wetness might pose a serious challenges in terms of drainage.
While they were concerned about possible drainage problems, the officials did not, in their remotest imagination, foresee Nairobi becoming a major town, much less Kenya’s future capital.
Meanwhile, Sir Whitehouse, a graduate of King’s College London, stuck to his guns. It was either Nairobi or nothing.
The Protectorate had the power to overrule him, even to have him sent back to England for defying the government. Only they did not.
After months of intense negotiations and counterarguments, science won over administrative whims.
Construction of the depot thus began in 1899, setting the ball rolling for a chaotic future city that would be dogged by unimaginable drainage challenges.
From a colony’s coffee, tea and tea industry epicentre, Nairobi would grow dramatically in size and influence as more European farmers settled here.
Less than seven years later in 1906, the British East Africa Protectorate would move its headquarter from the coastal town of Mombasa to Nairobi.
This then installed Nairobi as the administrative capital of the colony, and the focal point in the region.
From a tiny railroad station, Nairobi quickly established itself as the centre of colonial government operations, farmers, white settlers and traders.
In the intervening years, the city grew in leaps and bounds, surpassing earlier expectations as more and more buildings came up and thousands settled in the capital.
That the city had been built right in the middle of marshland did not seem to concern authorities of the day.
Ironically, neither the colonial government nor the Kenyan government at independence made any efforts install proper drainage infrastructure that would help prevent flooding in the city.
More than a century later, the ego of a British engineer has helped create a flood-prone capital city without proper drainage infrastructure.
But according to City Hall, encroachment and obstruction of riparian reserves and indiscriminate disposal of solid waste are the main reasons why waterways in Nairobi cannot hold rainwater.
Other factors cited for the city’s perennial flooding menace include increase of informal settlements on low-lying areas and omission of support infrastructure before putting up physical developments.
Sir Whitehouse may be long dead, having successfully convinced his government why Nairobi was the best location for the construction of the railway station, but the legacy of his blunder lives on.