Nairobi’s Double Disaster: Floods and Forced Evictions

Nora Yunes Elafifi

Nora Yunes Elafifi is a master’s student in Urban Management and Development at the Institute for Housing and Urban Development Studies. She conducts research on forced evictions in Nairobi, Kenya. Having recently visited Mathare, a Nairobi neighbourhood significantly impacted by recent floods and subsequent evictions, she now shares her firsthand observations of the aftermath and the experiences of local residents and NGOs.

Experiencing the Evictions: A First-Hand Account of Displacement in Mathare 

Nora's journey to Nairobi began after the devastating floods that swept through Nairobi’s Mathare area. At the time, the death toll had risen to 15, and a relentless search for missing individuals was underway. Notably, despite the president’s promise of aid from the National Youth Service and other government agencies, only local communities were actively involved in these rescue efforts. Adding to the tragedy, reports indicated that over 1,500 learners at Mathare North Primary School faced an uncertain future. Floodwaters tore apart classrooms and learning materials. With government aid nowhere in sight, local youth tirelessly scoured the rivers with their bare hands. The only form of government intervention at the time came from police, who arrived to collect recovered bodies. 

Demolishing work in informal settlements in Mathare
Demolishing work in Mathare, 2024
Nora Yunes Elafifi

Power Dynamics and Broken Promises

Following the disaster, Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua and Nairobi Government spokesperson Isaac Mwaura visited the flood-affected area of Mathare. They assured residents that the government, under President William Samoei Ruto’s leadership, would "do whatever it takes" and dedicate all necessary resources to ensure lives were saved and people protected. Residents were told they would be evacuated from the riverbank by 30 meters for safety reasons, and that they would have time to relocate. 

However, the following morning, bulldozers arrived, demolishing everything within 60 meters of the riverbank. Left with nowhere to go, residents were forced onto the streets, their homes and livelihoods destroyed by the very government that had promised them support. This experience exemplifies the complex power dynamics at play during disasters. While government officials make public pronouncements, the reality on the ground can be extremely different. Here, the local community’s immediate response contrasted sharply with the delayed and inadequate government intervention. The devastating consequences for residents highlight the urgent need for effective disaster response strategies that prioritize the safety and well-being of the most vulnerable populations.

The Ongoing Evictions from Riparian Land in Nairobi: A Question of Fairness 

The Kenyan government is conducting a programme of demolishing structures and relocating residents of riparian land in Nairobi with the stated goal of mitigating flood risks and landslides. However, the project’s implementation appears to excessively target informal settlements ("slums") like Mathare, where over 300 families have reportedly been affected. The residents of Mathare express concerns about the resettlement process, with some resorting to temporary solutions like storing belongings on trucks while others seek refuge in government shelters. This urgency contrasts sharply with the situation in Nairobi's upmarket estates. Here, residential buildings constructed on riparian land remain untouched. This apparent variation in enforcement raises questions about the integrity and equal treatment of the eviction process.

While informal settlements bear the effect of these evictions, luxury estates like Gigiri and Runda appear untouched. This difference is evident in Gigiri, where a prestigious hotel built on riparian land now resembles an island surrounded by the streams of the Nairobi River. While the hotel staff navigate the flooded grounds by boat, demolition crews work nearby, apparently constructing a bridge rather than demolishing structures. The comparison of struggling residents in Mathare with seemingly unaffected residents in wealthy areas creates a sense of unequal treatment. The sight of laundry hanging on balconies and children playing in open spaces within these upmarket riparian residences reinforces the perception that the threat of eviction primarily targets residents of informal settlements. This perception undermines the government’s stated aim of non-discriminatory action and fuels concerns about the project’s fairness.

A resident’s home damaged by the flood, Mathare, 2024
Nora Yunes Elafifi

Hopelessness and uncertainty among residents: a call for equitable and sustainable solutions

Following the devastating floods and subsequent forced evictions in Nairobi, a deep sense of hopelessness and loss could be felt among Mathare residents. Witnessing their homes demolished after barely escaping the floodwaters left many feeling like they had reached their lowest point.

"The water came so fast... Now I have nothing. How are we supposed to start over?" - a resident who lost her home in the eviction 

The government’s early promises of assistance are seen as empty words by the displaced citizens. The demolitions are viewed as an added burden rather than a way out.

"The government promised to help us rebuild, but all they’ve done is tear down our homes." - evicted resident of Mathare

The lack of proper relocation plans leaves residents uncertain about their future and struggling to rebuild their lives. These evictions go beyond the loss of physical structures; they represent the uprooting of a community. Elders who have experienced repeated floods understand the need for safety measures but feel disillusioned by the government’s approach.

The situation in Mathare highlights the human impact of unaddressed disasters and inadequate planning. Residents' responses underscore the need for more equitable solutions, urging authorities to prioritize the well-being of vulnerable communities and ensure a fair and sustainable path to recovery.

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