Kenya threatened by new urban disaster

Kenya is facing a new urban timebomb, with millions of Nairobi residents suffering a daily struggle for food and water as the divide between rich and poor widens, international aid agency Oxfam warned in a new report today. A combination of falling household income, rising prices, and poor governance is making life a misery for the poor majority in Kenya’s capital, the report on ‘Urban Poverty and Vulnerability in Kenya’ said.

Rapid urbanization is changing the face of poverty in Kenya. Nairobi’s population is set to nearly double to almost six million by 2025, and 60% of residents live in slums with no or limited access to even the most basic services such as clean water, sanitation, housing, education and healthcare. Whereas the starkest poverty has previously been found in remote rural areas, within the next ten years half of all poor Kenyans will be in towns and cities.

“An increasingly disenfranchised and poverty-stricken urban underclass is set to be the country’s defining crisis over the next decade, unless the Kenyan government and international donors act urgently to address it. Nairobi is fast becoming a divided society where the gap between rich and poor is now similar to the levels of inequality in Johannesburg at the end of apartheid. It is a city of a small minority of ‘haves’ and millions of ‘have nothings’,” said Philippa Crosland Taylor, head of Oxfam GB in Kenya.

Children in Nairobi slums are now some of the least healthy in the country, the report found. In some parts of the city, infant mortality rates are double those of poor rural areas, and half of young children suffer from acute respiratory infections and stunted growth. Acute child malnutrition is a growing concern.

The urban crisis has intensified over the past year, with people now earning less but having to pay more to survive. Household incomes have fallen due to the global economic crisis, with casual and long-term work harder to find as companies scale down. Meanwhile, the price of staple foods such as maize has more than doubled in the past year, with 90% of poor families forced to reduce the amount of food they eat as a result.

With drought devastating much of Kenya, the water crisis in Nairobi is one of the most severe in the country. Cholera cases have recently been reported and are expected to increase as almost 90% of slum dwellers have no piped clean water. Forced to buy from commercial street vendors, the poorest people often have to pay the highest prices – the report found that some poor communities pay eight times as much for water as wealthier communities in the same city.

Oxfam said the Kenyan government has repeatedly ignored the growing magnitude of the urban crisis, and urged it to invest more funds and resources in improving life for the most vulnerable residents of Nairobi’s slums. Projects that improve access to clean water and sanitation, and boost people’s income, are most urgently needed. International donors, who have tended to focus exclusively on rural poverty, also need to recognize the scale of the urban problem, the agency said.

“Just a few miles away from the country’s parliament and State House, poor families are living in breathtaking poverty, scouring the streets for scraps of food and queuing for hours for water they can barely afford. If the government does not acknowledge this crisis, it will get even worse. Failure to address this now will leave Kenya paying for generations to come,” said Crosland-Taylor.

The report warned that the rising urban inequality is creating a huge underclass with serious consequences for the country’s security and social fabric. The struggle to survive has forced some of the most vulnerable people into crime and high-risk occupations such as prostitution. Frustrated youth are increasingly turning to violence, and with Kenya still extremely politically volatile following the 2007/08 post-election violence, the risk of ethnically-linked clashes in Nairobi’s slums is being exacerbated by the growing resentment over inequality and desperate living conditions.

“Having enough food to eat and clean, safe water is one of the most basic human rights, yet in Nairobi it is increasingly only for the rich minority. Nairobi is one of the biggest and most prestigious cities in East Africa, yet it is crumbling before our eyes,” said Crosland-Taylor.

Notes to editors

Kenya’s urbanization is occurring for a number of reasons. Rising birth rates and natural growth of the urban population accounts for approximately 55% of urban growth. Rural-urban migration due to factors including drought, conflict and rural poverty accounts for an estimated 25% of urban growth.

Oxfam is working with local Kenyan partner organizations to establish new projects in Nairobi aiming to address the urban crisis. These include improving access to affordable water and sanitation for 3,000 people in Mukuru and Kibera, harnessing bio-gas from human waste, improving waste management in Kayole, and providing cash transfers and cash for work projects to improve people’s ability to afford food in Kibera, Korogocho and Mukuru.

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