Kenya: Why Nature Had to Give Way to Sh59 Billion Nairobi Expressway

A group of young men prepare to transfer an uprooted tree (file photo).
2 November 2020

A large tree trunk lies beside the road just outside Davis and Ghalay Vet clinic. Another one five metres away.

Further across the road, from Oracle Towers, several stumps stick out like a sore thumb. Some are large tree stumps indicating a lifespan of not less than 20 years.

Counting the aftermath of the wanton felling is not a walk in the park as one quickly loses count as minutes turn to hours. This is the Waiyaki Way stretch.

The last month's destruction is substantial with Grevillea and Nandi Flame species of trees worst affected. The destruction stretches many kilometres after the luxurious Kempinski Hotel just before Waiyaki Way connects with Uhuru Highway.

Close to one thousand tree stumps stick out as the only remaining relics of what used to be a lush green expanse of collection of green scenery.

One here, two there struggle to "resurrect" through outgrowths but that seems to be a daunting task as the China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) machines are sure to snuff life out of them.

Many of these trees were reportedly planted by the Nairobi City Council on completion of Waiyaki Way in the 1990s.

Some semblance of calm meets the eye as one navigates Uhuru Highway but that feeling quickly turns nostalgic as one snakes his way past Nyayo Stadium to join Mombasa Road.

The massive destruction witnessed along Waiyaki Way once again plays before the eyes as the scenic beauty of tall, lush green trees that once dotted the stretch leading to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport is replaced with tall and huge pillars of concrete.

The scenic beauty offered by the trees now seems like a distant past with most of them falling by the wayside to give way to the construction of the Sh59 billion expressway, running from Mlolongo connecting the JKIA to the city centre before terminating at James Gichuru Road in Westlands.

The stretch between Sameer Park and the airport is one that environmentalists will wish to be just a dream. Levelling work is ongoing in the stretch while further afield, the 27-km expressway has started taking shape.

Protests by Kenyans on social media

Despite protests by Kenyans on social media and other platforms expressing their disappointment over the manner of the felling of the trees and even a petition to stop the destruction, the government seems undeterred.

Even cries from environmental conservationists who had vowed to go to court to challenge the mega project's design, which effectively cuts a section of Uhuru Park and wildlife conservation spaces in the capital, fell on deaf ears.

One such environmentalist was Green Generation Initiative founder and head of campaigns at Wangari Maathai Foundation Elizabeth Wathuti.

She warned that future generations will pay for the destruction of trees -- which provided good scenery and shade in addition to their environmental benefits -- to pave way for development.

"Those trees that we are cutting down now to replace with concrete take up carbon dioxide from the air, they act as windbreakers, help in retaining rainwater, reduce urban heat, and also improve our health and wellbeing. So when I see trees being cleared along the highways to pave way for any construction, I feel the pain that my generation and future generations will feel every day following the consequences," said Ms Wathuti in an interview with a local news site.

But speaking to Nation.Africa, Kenya National Highways Authority (KeNHA) corporate communications director Charles Njogu was blunt in his response, saying the trees had to be felled as "there is no road that has ever been built on top of a tree".

"We have a policy of planting four trees for every one cut down and this will also apply in this instance. I will not comment further on the issue," said Mr Njogu.

In March, months after the commissioning of the road by President Uhuru Kenyatta, the national government said that the Chinese contractor will plant trees in all affected public places, including the Nairobi National Park, Uhuru Park and the Arboretum.

The State has backed construction of the multi-billion-shilling expressway saying it will alleviate traffic gridlocks experienced along Mombasa Road, Uhuru Highway and Waiyaki Way.

The expressway will have a four-lane and six-lane dual carriageway within the existing median of Mombasa Road, Uhuru Highway, and Waiyaki Way as well as 10 interchanges.

The section between the Eastern and Southern bypasses will be a six-lane dual carriageway while the section from the Eastern Bypass and that from the Southern Bypass to James Gichuru will be a four-lane dual carriageway.

The elevated highway will begin near Ole Sereni Hotel and run through the CBD along Uhuru Highway up to James Gichuru junction with Haile Selassie Road, Kenyatta Avenue and University Way below the elevated road.

When complete, more than 25,000 motorists are expected to use the expressway daily at a fee of Sh300 per day.

Payments will be done at exit points of the major roads where both manual and electronic toll stations will be erected.

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