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Evacuations save lives, but let’s ask where all that rubble goes

When demolitions are carried out targeting residential homes considered prone to flooding, journalists prioritise news of the affected victims and loss of property.

Subsequently, this tends to overlook other aspects such as health risks and environmental hazards.

Journalists should, in the case of the current countrywide evacuations following the April-May floods and landslides, interrogate the construction sector on the standard procedures to be followed when disposing off thousands of tonnes of waste from these demolished flats and houses.

Further, there is more that journalists should cover in news reporting, considering some of the waste being exposed into open air could be dangerous if inhaled. These include fine micro dust particles (particulate matter or PM) blown off by wind which could include crushed cement residue.

Besides loose rubble, other forms of waste could include hazardous materials used in construction and domestically such as broken glass, plastic and metal, undisposed chemicals at the time of families’ movement, all of which present some level of health and environmental risk to people and the ecosystem.

Others are industrial chemicals and fumigants associated with house-keeping hygiene such as pesticides, insecticides, rodenticides, considered to be part of greenhouse gas contributing to global warming.

Spread through the air, all these could be a risk to the residents staying in the neighbouring environment, where no demolitions are taking place. Further, the construction debris if left exposed will become the next flooding headache as it will be eroded downstream with the slightest rain, thus increasing the magnitude of drainage blockage.

Among the risk population could be infants, elderly, expectant mothers, and people with existing health risk factors such as asthma patients and those with existing respiratory diseases.

More concern should be on domestic raw sewage which dozens of bulldozers have been ripping off together with clean water supply system, likely to cause a cholera and typhoid outbreak.

Also at risk from these hazardous substances are displaced families being evacuated who normally are concentrated in one place, and their service providers such as humanitarian and frontline workers, and the technical professionals overseeing the demolitions within these habitats, such as site engineers, surveyors, environmental planners, public health, and heavy machine operators.

Those operating in such an environment are required to put on safety gears.

Journalists should therefore seek clarification from professional bodies such as the Institution of Surveyors of Kenya, the Architectural Association of Kenya, Institution of Engineers of Kenya, the National Environment Management Authority of Kenya, among others, on environmental impact mitigation and public health safety guidelines to be followed during mass demolitions, especially involving evacuation of large human populations such as from informal settlements.

Generally, when there is a plan to change land use as the government has directed be done along rivers, there are guidelines to be followed including professional audit to ascertain whether the intended activity is compatible with the land status or not. 

Here, journalists should keep a close eye in finding out whether these guidelines are followed in various places where infrastructures have been affected by flooding and landslides, including where some of the land sections have now been declared riparian.

With the government promising that such areas will be planted with trees, it would be ideal for journalists to question environment experts which trees, flower shrubs or even grasses, would be suitable for such fragile zones, to avoid courting more environmental disaster in the future.

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