The sudden arrival of the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) focuses more than ever upon a disturbing reality. Suddenly existing precious ecosystems have become easy options as convenient ‘passages’ in the frenzied rush for development. Railway overhaul is hugely welcomed. Indeed it is high time after two generations of total investment neglect, that rail should parallel road as anchor engines of infrastructure investment.
The unanswered question remains: What pre planning was done over many earlier decades for routings of major infrastructure rail and road communication, indeed all vital energy and transport corridors? In the cases of the SGR and the Southern By Pass highway, very little seems to have been done. The contentious routing of both the Southern By Pass and of SGR in Nairobi National Park and of SGR in Tsavo, where not only routing, but the so called ‘adequacy’ or otherwise of wildlife underpasses points clearly to an improvised approach that assumes precious ecosystems are of little or secondary value in the economic mix.
So we should look to the next big ecosystem challenges and urge immediate pre planning; but with factual documentation of the value of the ecosystems ahead of time. Are we going to be shown even now, the forward plans for the well overdue dual road carriageway from Mombasa to Nairobi and onwards to our neighbouring countries? Will it have adequate wildlife underpasses, overpasses if it is giraffe we are thinking about? When are some areas of public land between the two railways and the road reserve going to revert to open land where now illegal dwellings exist? Is there cohesion between road, rail, power and pipeline planners? When the dual carriageway addition completes the communications ‘highway’, the issue of ‘wildlife passage’ between the two Tsavos will be a greater challenge than SGR. Wildlife is astonishingly adaptive but the current SGR underpasses are narrow – not necessarily too narrow. But special attention by KWS and conservationists will be needed even now before trains are running to encourage animals to use them.
At the start of the hugely successful Ngare Ndare/Mt Kenya underpass in Timau, elephants had to be motivated to use it. Dung was distributed along the pass. It gave encouragement to the matriarchs that pioneered. Today camera traps record the constant movement of elephant and a variety of other game through it. In the case of the Southern By Pass, there was a longstanding opportunity to have secured a route on the existing edge of Nairobi National Park. It was drawn up in the 1950’s pre independence. In the later decades it was never actually secured by gazette notice. Instead private titles were issued, creating the recent impasse.
As we look forward, our planners can ill afford such mistakes. The 2010 Constitution gives full powers to government to compulsorily acquire land. So why has the removal of a string of low-grade housing structures not been considered as an option for the contentious three kilometers of alignment for the Southern By Pass? Parallels are many where a mix of urgent economic needs and strong political initiative has been exerted. Acquisition was used on parts of Nairobi/Thika highway, Mlolongo, and a Ruraka shopping mall to name some. At no time was the removal of these structures – indeed costly in compensation – considered as an option for the Southern By Pass routing. The Kenya Civil Aviation Authority made claims for free passage as aircraft take off space. But it is common for airports to have roads crossing take off routes. Equally, tunneling, common in airport design – could have been considered for Wilson.
So the mandarins have chosen the compromise option of easements inside the Nairobi National Park. It is to its huge credit that East African Wildlife Society with others took the issue to the Environment Tribunal – thus ensuring further due diligence was exerted. Whilst this compromise has enabled development to proceed and complying with the law, in reality the road and rail areas will reduce grazing space. The better option would have been to compulsorily acquire the private buildings that sprawl along the park edge. It cannot be overstated that it is of prime need now to prepare specific valuations of our precious parks and reserves so that an economic value is placed squarely in the public domain.
During the final stages of the construction of the Aberdare fence, I urged Rhino Ark’s development partners Kenya Wildlife Service and Kenya Forest Service to join an independently funded and authored: Environmental, Social and Economic Assessment of the Aberdares (2008) within the fence. Its authors, University of Nairobi academics, placed a value of ksh 39,387 million annually in goods and services alone on the area. When the biodiversity value of ksh 20 million was added, the overall gain to the Kenyan economy of the Aberdare Conservation Area within the fence, was ksh 59.387 million annually – or 2% of GDP at that time. It is much more now. Less known though hugely important in the ever present challenge to ensure good husbandry of national resources, is that the Aberdare ecosystem now secures a conservation area nearly three times the size of the Aberdares National Park (767 km2) – a total of 2000 km2. Hard on the heels of the Southern By Pass reality – we now have SGR routings that will cross Nairobi National Park by way of overhead viaducts. Again the perception here is, if it is national park it is the easy option. The Cabinet Secretary in charge of roads was quoted in the press as saying that since the SGR is a high-speed facility it will not disturb the animals in the park!
Hardly a comment in support of the park’s economic value. Why have we not heard of a non national park ‘usage of cheap land’ – such as the seemingly obvious routing south of the park and south of the Ngong Hills to Mai Mahiu? Why has the public not been told where and how the marshalling yards for container off take are to be sighted? How will it work – c/f Jebel Ali Port in Dubai – a highly computerized and large hectare area for trucks to overhead offload, in this case from trains. Five year plans for parks and forests are frequently rolled out but with no economic value written into them. The collapse of oil prices currently points clearly to the value of our national forest and wildlife reserves. Oil has been found in Kenya but its extraction will not happen any time soon. Unlike other areas of economic focus, oil does not create direct jobs. National parks do. Tourism earns 12% of GDP annually. Added to this, the perception still clings within society that parks are mainly for foreigners to enjoy. Indeed they are and many jobs created as a result; but their value to all sections of society needs constant flagging up. Nairobi is the only big city in the world that contains a substantial national park within its boundary. Creative thinking is needed urgently to add value beyond the Animal Orphanage to enable the greater majority unable to afford a car to benefit from the park and its wildlife, birdlife and vegetation.
In 2005 I first suggested that the late Anoop Shah’s hugely inspirational ‘green zone’ with its thousands of trees become a walk zone. Part of this ‘green zone’ is now being bulldozed into highway. But it is not too late or impossible to create a people park on the national park side of the Southern By Pass.It could be developed into a visiting area for walks, picnics and exercise tracks with Uhuru Park styled lakes, arboreta and other ecosystem features The wild life could be separated by a ha ha style trench and a low ‘hedgehog’ style electric fence that do not interrupt the view. So now as the road is being built, the access to such a place needs to be included in the road design. Many great cities have their park walk zones. New York’s Central Park is legion, as are the many parks – Hampstead Heath and Hyde Park being the largest in London. Paris has its Bois de Boulogne.
We owe our forefathers – the creators of National Parks and yes our city forests, City Park, Ngong and Karura– the last two championed by the late Imre Leoffler and Wangari Maathai, a huge debt of thanks for the places in and around Nairobi where the people of Nairobi can relax from work. In the hectic rush to assuage the pre-planning failures of the past, Kenyan society must ensure today’s planners evaluate our protected areas – and not just expect easy passage. We must become more vocal in what we all want.