Nairobi Slum Disaster

By Janaki Blum, AHI staff

AHI was privileged to work in the recent past with Slum Dwellers International (SDI) and organizations in the Sinai area of Nairobi, Kenya, to help residents structure a plan to buy land so that they could gain security of tenure and the ability to improve their homes.

Our sympathies go out to the people affected by the fire tragedy.

The Sinai slum sits on either side of a Kenya Pipeline Company (KPC) pipeline that feeds a fuel depot off Lunga Lunga road in Nairobi’s Industrial Area, about one kilometer from the company’s headquarters in Pipeline Estate in Embakasi, and three miles from Kenya’s main international airport. The settlement sprang up to serve this industrial quarter.

Witnesses say that fuel from a leak in the pipe poured into the sewer ditches that cut through the slum, attracting crowds of slum residents hoping to decant oil into containers. Many of these men, women and children were among the nearly 100 people who died after the fuel burst into flames some hours later. The explosion, whose origins are unclear, occured during the morning rush hour and spread rapidly through the settlement’s tin shacks to cover a wide area.

Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka appealed to Kenyans to be calm,  saying investigations into the fire have been launched, and urged Kenyans to support the affected families. Hundreds are being treated for injuries and the final death toll could be much higher. At least 112 people were admitted to hospitals with severe burns. Kenyatta National Hospital has sent out appeals for blood donations to save their lives.

Prime Minister Raila Odinga has said that the Government would cover medical expenses for the injured and compensation to victims’ families. He stated that the accident was the worst tragedy to occur in the history of the country in the energy sector. The Kenyan government has declared two days of national mourning.

According to state-owned KPC, the fuel leak was caused when a gasket burst due to pressure buildup in the pipe.  The Standard reports that the affected 33-year old Mombasa-Nairobi pipeline had been declared obsolete and in need of replacement as early as 1999. Slum residents say that leaks are commonplace.

In 2006, the company had singled out the 300,000 residents of Sinai-Lunga Lunga and Mukuru in Embakasi slums as being at particular risk due to pipeline vandalism and expanding shanties, saying that they were “sitting on a time bomb and in case of an oil spill, the effects will be unimaginable in the crowded slums.” However,  the very poor have no option but to squat wherever they can, usually on precarious land.

In 2008, KPC issued the slum dwellers with an eviction notice in order to expand the pipeline. The residents maintained that insufficient time had been given to relocate their community, so that the forced eviction would destroy the local economy and leave them destitute. They requested compensation and a relocation plan, but are still awaiting both. The Business Daily notes that a resettlement action plan funded by the World Bank is currently being prepared.

There has been ongoing criticism of the City Council for its failure to follow through on its policy of relocating people out of slums on unsafe land, and of the National Government for the non-implementation of the National Policy for Disaster Management in Kenya. In 2009, about 120 people were killed in Western Kenya when people rushed to collect fuel from a crashed tanker that then exploded.

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