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The Waterkeepers: Communities all over the world cleaning up their rivers so that they can be drinkable, fishable and swimmable, again.

Above: Women wash carrier bags in Nairobi River for reuse in Korogocho slum, Nairobi. Copyright Rupi Mangat

Published: 9-13 Dec 2019 The Outlook, East African Nation media

The river, Nairobi, is in spate. Under an overcast sky on a chilly November morning, a group of Waterkeeper Alliance from across the world are clad in green waterproof overalls, gloves and gumboots to join Komb Clean Solution, a community-based organization from Korogocho slum to clean a two-kilometre stretch of the river that flows through the capital from its source in the Ngong Hills to the Indian Ocean, 500 kilometres south.

Slum kids playig in Korogocho Peoles Park in Korogocho slum, Nairobi. Copyright Rupi Mangat (800x600)

Kids playing in Korogocho Peooles Park by Nairobi River in Korogocho slum, Nairobi. Copyright Rupi Mangat

Across the river, is Dandora dumpsite by Dandora slum. On our side, the slum is a maze of narrow alleys through mabati shacks, vegetable plots and a playground built by Komb Clean Solution which stretches to a well-tended park, aptly named Korogocho People’s Park. It reaches the bridge connecting Dandora and Korogocho. It’s the bridge that changed the story of the slum people.

There’s a stark difference on either side of the bridge over Nairobi River. On one side, it’s full of discarded trash like electronic waste, computer discs and plastic bags. But along the people’s park, it’s devoid of all this. The river is cleaned everyday including the open sewer drains that flow into the river from the slum. Women wash plastic bags in the water to sell to the recycling firms. Sometimes a foetus or a dead person floats by. A few are buried in stone-marked graves by the river. “Slum life is not easy,” tells Deborah Ogolla, a former sex-worker and now a member of Komb Green Solution.

Graves of foetuses from Nairobi River in Korogocho slum, Nairobi. given a dent burial Copyright Rupi Mangat (800x600)

Graves of foetuses from Nairobi River in Korogocho slum, Nairobi. given a decent burial Copyright Rupi Mangat

The phenomenal change in this poorest of slums started in 2016 when an Italian firm needed labour to build the new bridge. “The contractors employed a group of us as watchmen and labourers paying each Ksh 300 a day. We had to sign a contract that if anything was stolen we could end up in jail,” tells Daniel Ndungu a reformed criminal.

Nothing went missing after the bridge was finished.

Meantime the crime rate went down. “But once the project ended, we asked what next?” continues Ndungu.

Most had led a life as criminals and sex workers. The old bridge running along the new was where people were mugged and knifed, sometimes gunned down. Standing on the new bridge, Ndungu points to the ‘den’ where they hid their stolen goods. It’s the people’s park now.

the-old-bridge-across-nairoi-river-once-a-criminal-den-in-korogocho-slum-nairobi.-copyright-rupi-mangat-800x600-1.jpg

The ‘old’ bridge across Nairobi River, once a criminal den in Korogocho slum, Nairobi. Copyright Rupi Mangat

“We did not want to return to crime,” tells Fredrick Okinda, the chairman who has lost many friends killed by police, mob justice or just wasted away from drugs and alcohol. “You don’t choose to become a criminal,” he states. “You just find yourself in it.”

“Building the bridge, we learned to work hard and earn money,” continues Ndungu.

“Okinda started talking to the youth that we can transform ourselves,” says the beautiful Ogollah who worked as a sex worker for three years earning Ksh 100 from each ‘client’ and sometimes beaten. A mother of one, she doesn’t want her child to lead the life she one did.

They began by building gabions from the rubble left by the construction company along the river. It caught the attention of Leonard Akwany of Lake Victoria Waterkeeper now mentoring the group. Kenya Lake Victoria Waterkeeper was looking for a social enterprise for the International Region Waterkeepers meeting in Nairobi. Sam Dindi of Mazingira Yetu magazine introduced us to Komb Green Solutions. “We did an internet search and met with the group.

Debora Ogollah and Daniel Ndungu in the vegetable polt to feed the kids in Korogocho slum, Nairobi. Copyright Rupi Mangat (800x600)

Debora Ogollah and Daniel Ndungu in the vegetable plot to feed the kids in Korogocho slum, Nairobi. Copyright Rupi Mangat

“These were people who were representing the ideals of Waterkeepers without knowing it.”

Komb Green Solution

“When the group started in 2017, everybody was against it,” tells Akwany. “It was because of their criminal past. There was a lot of speculation about why they were forming a group. Was it to lead to organized crime?

“But with time they have proven themselves.”

In the beginning, it was very hard. “They had no resources and little organization skills,” continues Akwany.

But they had a dream. It was to get rid of their horrific past, seeing mates killed in running battles with the police or dying in prison. They even had nicknames for the notorious no-nonsence policemen who aimed to kill. Nicknames like Mohammed Ali.

“Their dedication and passion see them face challenges and overcome them,” states Akwany. “We are now working with them to becoming the Nairobi River Waterkeeper so that they can network with the global Waterkeeper community and get support.

Daniel Ndungu by his car wash in Korogocho slum, Nairobi. Copyright Rupi Mangat (800x600)

Daniel Ndungu by his car wash in Korogocho slum, Nairobi. Copyright Rupi Mangat

At this point, people like Ndundu operate legal businesses like the car wash he proudly shows by the bridge and kiosks selling second-hand clothes.

With 69 members from the initial 16, and being mentored by Lake Victoria Waterkeeper, the group has a committee that consists of the chairman, the secretary, treasurer. Under it is the decision making committee that plans the work and any other issues.

The group meets every Sunday. “Members put Ksh 100 towards a kitty that’s used to help members for emergency needs with the rest put in a savings account. Donations from well-wishers are trickling in including an award of Ksh 100,000 won this year from a local non-profit organization, Public Space Network in its competition for youth-led initiatives transforming public spaces around Nairobi.

By the childrens’ playground with swings and slides made from scrap metal by the members, are recently made toilets, clean and with water.

We reach a green plot planted with sukuma wiki, tomotoes, kale and a lime tree in the midst. “We have two plots like these. It’s to feed the children,” Ogollah proudly shows. The plots are tenderly cared for. They hope one day soon, they will be able to water the crops with the river water free of pollutants.

Debora Ogollah in the vegetable polt to feed the kids in Korogocho slum, Nairobi. Copyright Rupi Mangat

Debora Ogollah in the vegetable plot to feed the kids in Korogocho slum, Nairobi. Copyright Rupi Mangat.

I ask Ogollah, the what Komb means. “You know it’s the comb for your hair. We want to comb clean our lives.”

The success of their hard work is other groups along the river reaching out to them. “We are helping groups in the slum along the river,” tells Ogollah.

On the clean-up day, the slum dwellers have never had visitors from places like Kurdistan, Jordan, Senegal, Mali, Sweden or the Bahamas.

Waterkeeper Aliance members from around the world in Korogocho slum to clean airobi River, Nairobi. Copyright Rupi Mangat (800x600)

Waterkeeper Alliance members from around the world in Korogocho slum to clean Nairobi River, Nairobi. Copyright Rupi Mangat

Waterkeeper Alliance

The story begins 50 years ago along the Hudson River that drains into the Atlantic in New York state, US. Local fishermen became alarmed at a once clean river full of sturgeon becoming so polluted that the river’s iconic fish was fast decreasing. The fishermen on the Hudson were advised by a New York City sportswriter that, under the law, they could sue polluters to protect their river.

They hired the first Riverkeeper, a man named John Cronin. On his first patrol, he found an oil tanker whose crew was stealing Hudson River water to take to the Bahamas. When he pulled up, they asked who he was and he replied, ‘I’m the Riverkeeper.’ The sports journalist captured that iconic moment that caught the public eye.

It was the start of the river keepers.

“Twenty years ago,” tells Marc Yaggi, executive director of the Waterkeeper Alliance at its international regional summit held in Nairobi (11 to 14 November) – and first time in Africa -for them to network with each other and participate in training activities, “the groups came under the umbrella of Waterkeeper Alliance to set standards for quality control, monitoring, training, raising public awareness and government outreach. Five years ago, there were 150 Waterkeepers, most of them in the U.S. Now there are 350, in 46 countries. Half the Waterkeepers are outside the U.S.

“The criteria for each member is to have a boat to patrol,” he continues.

There are many success stories from around the world.

Nepal’s 600-kilometre long Bagmati River, considered holy by Buddhists and Hindus was until recently flowing with filth. Bagmati River Waterkeeper began a clean-up of 333 consecutive weeks. It’s reaching its 330th week. The group involved the national telecommunications company to text their subscribers about the river clean-up. People including the military turned up in droves to pull out tons of trash from the river. On seeing that the community has taken sense of the river’s ownership, the government has committed to build five sewerage treatments plants along the river.

“The idea is that once you mobilize people to understand this is something they own, a treasure to hold in common trust, then you can convince the government to protect it,” states Yaggi.

Waterkeeper at the Nairobi Conference 2019

Kenya Lake Victoria Waterkeeper

In 2015, Leonard Akwany heard about Waterkeeper Alliance at a conference in the US. Akwany founded Ecofinder Kenya in 1999 concerned about the degradation of the great African lake from industry, sewerage, farming and fishing. In August, he was awarded the African Ranger Award given to rangers who work to conserve wildlife and combat poaching, habitat loss and the illegal wildlife trade.

“Waterkeeper Alliance is a very good model, placing local leadership at the forefront of waterways,” explains Akwany born on Victoria’s shores. “It’s about how to empower Waterkeepers and sustain them. It’s about tapping on environmental laws and policies that exist to defend waterways.

“For example, safe and clean environment is in our constitution including the right for clean water to every citizen. We can tap on these to push for accountability.

“We have more than a 1000 volunteers around the Kenyan shores who monitor the water for E.coli and record the ph. of the water. We can use these results to advocate for change.”

Waterkeepers around the World

WaterKeepers Iraq and Kurdistan

As a child Nabil Musa swam, fished and drank the waters of the Sarchnar River in one of the world’s bedrock of civilization in the Tigris and Euphrates valley. During the devastating Iran-Iraq war in the 1970s followed by the Kurds uprising against Saddam in the 1990s, one of the things that kept Musa sane was the river and nature.  Like many young Kurds, Musa then fled Kurdistan seeking asylum in the west. Years later he returned home to find ‘his’ river destroyed. “The biggest issue is the countries surrounding Iraq like Turkey, Syria and Iran building dams,” says the activist. 80 per cent of the waterways are affected by this. In addition there’s raw sewage flowing into the rivers because of lack of sewerage plants.  A performing artist cum film maker, Musa began to perform on the streets about the rivers. In 2011 joined the Waterkeeper Iraq-Kurdistan to advocate for rivers and the communities that rely upon them.

Bargny Coast Waterkeeper, Senegal

Daouda Gueye narrates the effect of the coal plant in the city of Bargny on the Atlantic coast of Senegal. “Seventy per cent of our economy is based on fisheries,” he states. “Thousands of local women depend on fisheries.  The coal plant is polluting the air and the water. It’s killing the fish, agriculture and people. A huge population of children and the elderly have pulmonary diseases.

“Our fight is to stop the coal plant. We are asking the African Development Bank to stop financing the coal plant.

Save the Bays Waterkeeper, Bahamas

Rashema Ingraham of Save the Bays Waterkeeper, Bahamas

Rashema Ingraham of Save the Bays Waterkeeper, Bahamas checking water quality.

“Our issue is lack of environmental laws,” tells Rashema Ingraham from the Bahamas. “So developers use our islands for very slack operations in industry and tourism.

“Developers in the tourism industry are looking for the most pristine locations to build hotels and golf courses, uprooting mangroves and damaging coral reefs. Even famous Disney wants to build a cruise port on Eleuthera Island which will involve dredging the ocean.

“The mangroves and beaches will be destroyed,” says Ingraham. Despite lobbying to have the island protected in 2000 and 2011, the government did not. “Yet it’s an important transit zone for fish like sharks and mammals like whales and dolphins. We are working with other NGOs to ask Disney to consider cancelling this project.

“We are putting pressure on the government to have environmental laws.” The Bahamas has 17 inhabited islands and 700 small keys, most low lying. Without the protective barrier of the mangroves and the reefs, the islands are increasingly prone to the recent raging storm that flooded the islands, rendering thousands homeless.

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