A Nairobi slum vulnerable to flooding is engineering its own climate solutions and not waiting for the West

In one of Africa's largest slums, the Kibera district of Nairobi, climate change brings unenviable tasks such as clearing waste and sludge out of drainage paths in order to make the community more resilient against flooding. Activists there say the West has a moral obligation to do more to protect their communities.

In Kenya, climate change has brought deadly flooding to impoverished city neighbourhoods and drought elsewhere

A volunteer with Weather Mtaani clears a drain in the Nairobi slum of Kibera during a weekend cleanup session. The group's efforts to keep drainage paths clear helps protect the neighbourhood from floods linked to climate change, which are happening more and more. (Jean-François Bisson/CBC)

Our planet is changing. So is our journalism. This story is part of a CBC News initiative entitled Our Changing Planet to show and explain the effects of climate change and what is being done about it.

It's not how many would want to spend a Saturday morning: digging deep into piles of wet sludge, garbage and human waste clogging the drainage paths that snake through the narrow streets and alleyways of a Nairobi slum called Kibera.

But that's what a group of volunteers united under the banner of Weather Mtaani — Village Weather — do each weekend. They are a band of climate warriors trying to make the impoverished slum more resilient when the floods linked to climate change come, as they do more and more.

"When it rains and there is a lot of flooding, the water level sometimes reaches here," said Faith Ondieki, one of the group's team leaders, pointing to just above her waist.

It is difficult work. The smell is hard to bear, and protective gloves and rubber boots are scarce. When the plastic gloves the volunteers have brought run out, some of the women use the bags they came in to cover their hands as they scoop waste onto the shovels and rakes used to hoist the sludge into wheelbarrows.

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If they don't do it, the water turns stagnant and finds alternative pathways, often seeping into fragile tin shacks that make up the shantytown, which stands little chance of surviving a flood.

Faith Ondieki is a team leader and secretary of Weather Mtaani, a community initiative in Kibera. Volunteers translate weather forecasts into Swahili and Sheng, a local slang, so residents can clear the drains and keep their children away from a nearby river. (Jean-François Bisson/CBC)

"People [have died], especially in this area that we're standing in," said Ondieki, pointing to a small river nearby.

Four people in Kibera lost their lives in torrential floods last spring. Hundreds of people lost homes or saw them inundated with water.

Rains can 'sweep you off your feet'

Weather Mtaani began as a pilot project called DARAJA run by the Weather and Climate Information Services for Africa with U.K. funding. 

It paired the Kenyan Meteorological Society with activists who learned how to interpret weather forecasts so they could translate them into Swahili and Sheng, a local slang, before texting them out to residents.

"When we send the messages that there's going to be rain, we emphasize clearing the drains so to avoid flooding to the houses," said Ondieki. The volunteers also remind parents to keep their children away from drains and the river.

Kibera is one of the largest slums, or informal settlements, in Africa. There are an estimated 250,000 people living in an area of just under three square kilometres.

Kibera is one of the largest slums or informal settlements in Africa and home to an estimated 250,000 people. Four residents lost their lives in torrential floods last spring and hundreds lost homes or saw them inundated with water. (Jean-François Bisson/CBC)

Ondieki says the rains coming through are both more frequent and more powerful.

"It can even sweep you off your feet," she said.

The group decided to keep it up even after the project ended, adding in their weekly clearing sessions. They believe it's making a difference in the community.

Support for those already affected

The idea is simple, but effective. It's also the kind of project many African aid groups watching the UN's recently concluded COP26 climate summit in Glasgow say they could benefit from — if better and more transparent financing mechanisms were in place.

"I was expecting to hear a lot more in terms of support to people that are already affected by the impacts of climate change," said Asha Mohammed, secretary general of the Kenya Red Cross, who attended the conference.

Volunteers clear a drainage path in Kibera. Developed nations have not fully delivered on a 2009 pledge to provide $100 billion US in climate financing for poorer countries suffering the most from the effects of climate change. (Jean-Francois Bisson/CBC)

Developed nations have already failed to fully deliver on a 2009 pledge to provide $100 billion US a year in climate financing for poorer countries suffering the most from the effects of climate change while having contributed the least to it in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.

In a speech to vulnerable nations in July, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said 21 per cent of climate financing went toward adaptation and resilience. 

"Yet current adaptation costs for developing countries are $70 billion US a year," he said. "And this could rise to as much as $300 billion US a year by 2030."

The Glasgow deal struck over the weekend offers to double financing earmarked for adaptation by 2025 compared to 2019 levels. It also promises to report on progress toward delivering the overall undelivered funds.

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Mohammed is concerned about the details and implementation.

"So what are those mechanisms that are going to be used?" she said. 

"It's also a question of can we ensure that local actors, local organizations, are also included in some of these mechanisms to ensure that resources actually can be channelled much closer to the communities that are affected."

In addition to experiencing heavier flooding in both urban and rural Kenya, other parts of the country are also enduring severe drought.

"There are more than two million people that are affected, and they need food," said Mohammed. "They need water. They need pasture for their animals. Children are malnourished and need supplements and all this kind of issue. So, how quickly can this support get to this kind of people?"

Climate financing a 'neo-colonial tool'

Mithika Mwenda, executive director of the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance, a consortium of more than 1,000 organizations from 48 African countries, accuses the developed world of turning climate financing into a "neo-colonial tool."

"More community access to green climate fund money is like a camel passing through a needle hole," he said.

"It is not aid to Africa. You know, it is not a favour to Africa. It is what we need as the global community solving the climate crisis."

'More community access to green climate fund money is like a camel passing through a needle hole,' said Mithika Mwenda, executive director of the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance. (Jean-François Bisson/CBC)

PACJA sent more than 40 climate activists from across Africa to Glasgow. But both Mwenda and Mohammed of the Kenyan Red Cross say they don't feel their voices were heard. 

Another disappointment for developing nations at COP26 was the failure to agree on a fund for climate-related losses and damages. 

A 'moral responsibility'

Many Kenyans, young and old, see it as another refusal of Western nations to acknowledge liability for years of unbridled emissions. 

"We have [developed nation] global leaders who have taken a stand on global warming in a conversation right now and yet they are the biggest contributors," said Patrice Ajwan Otieno, a 22-year-old student at the University of Nairobi. 

Otieno was one of a group of students who met with CBC News to talk about climate change. 

"It begs the question, should a country let its citizenship be poor or, you know, [go hungry] because of global warming?"

Students at the University of Nairobi told CBC News they think developed nations have a moral obligation to help front-line countries like Kenya cope with climate change given Africa accounts for less than four per cent of global emissions. Patrice Ajwang Otieno is third from left and Grace Kamau is second from left. (Jean-François Bisson/CBC)

That reflects concern that Kenya might be less inclined to continue down an already well-developed path toward renewable energy sources if developed nations can't agree on meaningful emissions cuts scientists say are necessary to stop the planet from warming. 

About 70 per cent of Kenya's connected energy supply comes from renewable sources, including hydroelectricity and geothermal power generation. Kenya has also built Africa's largest wind power farm at Lake Turkana in the Northern Rift Valley. 

Off the grid, individualized solar power kits are increasingly found in remote villages. 

But many in Kenya will argue that that's not enough for the country to develop industry to its full potential and pull people living in slums such as Kibera out of poverty.

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Kenya at a crossroads

At a recent Africa Oil Week conference in Dubai, Kenya's petroleum and mining minister said the country should be able to develop its resources just like countries in the West have done.

"Much of Kenya is renewables. We just want to tap into what God has given us: hydrocarbons," said John Munyes. 

For some, Kenya is at a crossroads. And it's a worry for the generation that will be expected to inherit the results of decisions being made today. 

Some in Kenya say renewable energy isn’t enough to develop industry and pull people living in slums such as Kibera out of poverty. They say they should be given the same opportunities to develop as Western nations that have been using fossil fuels for their own development for decades. (Jean-François Bisson/CBC)

Engineering student Grace Kamau says it's frightening. But she also says the failure of developed nations to understand the urgency of the climate crisis shouldn't let countries such as Kenya off the hook. 

"When we as African countries complain that we feel the impact yet we do not set aside enough funds or research into renewable energy, we are at the greatest risk for experiencing more of those troubles," she said.

Kamau also believes individuals can make a difference. 

"You don't have to study engineering to be an engineer," she said. "In Kenya, I think there's lots to be done, and perhaps I'd appeal for us as young people to start looking for smaller strategies and to just make ourselves engineers."

A little like the Weather Mtaani volunteers in Kibera.


Margaret Evans

Europe correspondent

Margaret Evans is a correspondent based in the CBC News London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.

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