Kenya has made remarkable achievements in developing places that no one wants to live in – shanties.
Nairobi alone has 183 slums, according to a census done by Pamoja trust nearly 10 years ago.
Our urban areas are ailing and it is about time we begin to notice omissions in section 184 of the Constitution on the management of urban areas and cities.
County governments that had been given the mandate to develop such places to our liking, have no interest in doing so. There isn’t any discourse on the future of urban areas, the planning and how to achieve a clean environment that we all like.
There are consequences for this failed responsibility around the future of urban areas and cities. Each year of failed obligation leading to piles up cost. More often than not, it is the tax payer who will underwrite this cost of ignorance.
If we ever bothered to plan for services like sewerage, solid waste management, zoning, and other resources like water and energy, we could reduce incidences of diseases and perhaps stop the expansion of slums in the country. Most infectious diseases come as a result of failed plans for preventive measures.
Poor sanitation causes opportunistic diseases like cholera, typhoid, hepatitis, polio, schistosomiasis and trachoma. Inhalation of toxic fumes and chemicals from poorly planned transportation system and congested housing brings many diseases including chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases, respiratory system diseases, lung cancer, chronic bronchitis, fibrosis, emphysema, and decreased oxygen supply in the blood. More than 70 percent of deaths is as a result of infectious diseases.
Deplorable living conditions directly impacts on healthcare and although the spending on health in Kenya is not quantified, it is obvious that we are now spending more resources in curative measures (both locally and internationally) than we need to boost the economy and reduce income inequalities.
Many families have been reduced to abject poverty by the cost of treating a loved one, but rarely do we attribute such cost to our failure to plan for a conducive living environment.
While many countries have eliminated diseases like cholera and polio, we still have incidences of these diseases in the 21st century.
It is not difficult to change the fortunes of Kenya’s crumbling urban centers, which are set to host in excess of 40 percent of the national population by 2030. For a start, each town, municipal and city should have a good master plan based on smart cities concept that will align current and future development.
The coming census should trigger us to start upgrading trading centers into towns, towns into municipalities and municipalities into cities as stipulated in the often-ignored Urban Areas and Cities Act.
However, the weakest link in the governance of urban areas is the fact that the boards that are supposed to run these urban areas are appointed by the county executives. The citizens have no power to appoint those who represent their interest in places they call home.
More often than not, county executives ignore the governance structures in the law and appoint their own cronies. There are no checks and balances at that level and it is perhaps why residents of such towns and municipalities have no expectation that the boards would serve their interest.
The law spells out clear a mechanism or criteria for the upgrading of trading centers, but county governments have either not understood what they need to do or have not fully grasped their responsibilities of upgrading different urban centers to what they deserve to be and raise the necessary revenues to build the required infrastructure. Instead, virtually all counties look up to the national government for resources. Yet there are certain things they must do to make more money at the emerging urban centers.
A recent visit to Nakuru revealed the misery of neglecting growing towns. Subukia, for example, has now outgrown trading centre and village status. But it has no sewer, no garbage dump or system of solid waste management, no zoning, nothing. It is just being allowed to grow on its own, – on autopilot.
Many towns in Kenya, especially the emerging satellite towns like Ngong, Kitengela, Kiserian, Kiambu and Kikuyu are like that. Most of these towns need their own dedicated water reservoirs/dams and sewerage systems. The governors are only thinking of the county headquarters.
An interview with county executive from four counties revealed that the neglect is deliberate and that the governors will fight any attempt to bring back another level of governance like the re-introduction of mayors as they could be seen as potential political threats.
This indeed confirms that what is in the politician’s mind is largely self-interest and not the interest of the people. To change this, the senate must change the law or a change must occur in the Constitution to replace the management boards with volunteer representatives of the people similar to volunteer neighbourhood groups that have been very successful.
This is not a new proposition. Some advanced countries ran their local towns through part-time volunteer groups. The voluntary governance system is what managed virtually all city estates and can be an expounded model to manage small urban areas until they attain a sustainable size.
In order to ensure that future cities will address future challenges, planning must start now and incorporate the emerging concept of smart cities. Without forward thinking it will be expensive to deal with inefficient systems and the disease burden resulting from failure to provide services.
The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s School of Business.