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Nairobi’s cool waters: A river of resistance  

Written by Simon Kihu, Programs Coordinator and Mary Opiyo, Research Scientist – Aquaculture

October 6, 2020

Nairobi River defines Nairobi City. Its Maasai name, “enkare nairobi”– meaning cool waters – has given Nairobi its name. People who live nearby depend on the river for farming and for domestic, industrial and recreational activities. The quality of the water is essential for people’s health and livelihoods. But Nairobi River has been ranked among the top ten global waterways in terms of pharmaceutical contamination. A ground-breaking project – led by the Royal Veterinary College and implemented in collaboration with its project partners – aims to filter out this type of pollution in Nairobi River.


Heavy population and a banana arrowroots garden along the Mathare river, Huruma estate. Credit: Vetworks Eastern Africa

‘Our project aims to directly support local communities in dealing with antimicrobial pollution. Working with the many stakeholders involved, we hope to use innovative interdisciplinary research to develop a solution to this problem for the many users of river water in Nairobi’, says Principal Investigator Professor Claire Heffernan.


Co-Investigator, Professor Kenneth Grattan OBE FREng comments ‘success in tackling the aims of this project requires close synergy of the interdisciplinary skills of the team involved, working with stakeholders to apply new science and engineering methods to identify and filter out pollution that blights the lives of the local communities.  It is an excellent challenge to rise to and to show how new technologies can really benefit the life and livelihoods of people who use the water for all sorts of purposes’


A close look at Nairobi River

Nairobi River’s source is at Ondiri swamp in Kikuyu, west of Nairobi. The river meanders through the city’s neighbourhoods, including the Central Business District and Kibera, Kenya’s largest informal settlement. On its way, it is used as a source of water for irrigation of crops and livestock farming, car washes, light industry and for domestic use. The river is also used for recreational tourism at the Dandora Water Falls in Nairobi East and the Fourteen Falls in Thika.


Nairobi river in the CBD – an informal car wash using water from the river. Credit: Vetworks Eastern Africa


As it flows through the city – home to nearly 5 million people – toxic material seeps into the water. The river is heavily polluted by domestic and agricultural waste and sewage, pharmaceutical waste, chemicals and heavy metals, as well as industrial pollution stemming from the commercial and industrial activities taking place along its banks. Tests undertaken to determine the presence of different antibiotics revealed they were present in up to 100% of water samples collected from different sites along the river. Contamination of the water with antimicrobials and heavy metals drives the emergence of antimicrobial resistance (AMR), which is when bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites develop the ability to resist being killed by the drugs used to treat them.


Filtering out antimicrobial waste

Addressing Livestock-derived Antimicrobial pollution in the Nairobi River in Kenya’ is a UKRI-funded project to improve the water quality of Nairobi River. The project aims to raise awareness of environmental AMR and decrease the hazards associated with producing and consuming heavily contaminated animal source foods. The project is directly engaging with local livestock-keeping communities and fish farmers, to facilitate the use of innovative filters aimed at stopping antibiotic residues and drug-resistant bacteria from entering the river.


The filters are designed to be low-cost, environmentally friendly, and potentially locally-sourced from materials available in Kenya. Therefore, they represent a sustainable solution to reduce environmental AMR pollution from the waste discharges of livestock production and fish farming. If successful, this approach could be scaled up to other settings across the Global South.


The direct benefits of the project for these communities relate to improved public health via improvements to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) and food security. Livelihood benefits are also likely to accrue as livestock health is improved. In this manner, the project aims to improve the lives and livelihoods of some of the most marginalised communities on the planet.


The project runs for an initial period of 12 months from May 2020 and has been made possible thanks to a grant from UKRI’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.


Gross discolouration and presence of trash at the Mathare River. Credits: Vetworks Eastern Africa

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