The massive Chinese railway project in Kenya will have serious environmental consequences

Many Impalas walk near the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) in Nairobi National Park, Kenya. ASUYOSHI CHIBA / AFP via Getty Images

Kenya is building a railway linking the coastal port of Mombasa with the interior of the country. It is due to terminate in Malaba, a border town with Uganda, and link it to other railways under construction in East Africa. It is known locally as Standard Rail (SGR).

The passenger and freight railway is one of the largest infrastructure investments in Kenya’s history. Construction began in 2014 at an estimated cost of $3.8 billion, 90% of which came from a loan from the Export-Import Bank (Exim) of China. and 10% of the Kenyan government.

Although the actual area affected by the railroads is small, there are elevated portions and they cross a wide range of fragile and important ecosystems in the country. For example, the railway passes through the Tsavo Conservation Area (which is home to about 40% of Kenya’s elephant population) and Nairobi National Park. It also runs through the grasslands of southern Kenya, which are vulnerable to the effects of climate and changes in land use.

My colleagues and I conducted a study to find out all the effects of the railway on the environment.

The construction of the railway is carried out in three stages. The first two (already completed) cover 610 kilometers, and the third is still under construction. Our study focused on the entire span of the first two phases, which spanned eight districts from Mombasa to Narok.

Railroad corridor map.  (conversation credit)
Railroad corridor map. (conversation credit)

The project involves many stakeholders, including various levels of government (such as the Kenya National Environment Management Authority and the Kenya Wildlife Service), local communities, civil society organizations and the private sector. For our study, we organized group interviews and meetings with 54 key informants from all these sectors.

We found that the construction and operation of railways has resulted in the degradation, fragmentation and destruction of key ecosystems. Increased soil erosion, land degradation, floods and habitat destruction. They also affected the bodies of water and the movement of animals.

Railway environmental impact assessments have been conducted in accordance with international standards. The final reports, which included recommendations, were written to facilitate licensing by the national environmental management body, the government’s regulatory body.

However, it turned out that the recommendations were not fully implemented. Many observers have cited a lack of funding, technical capacity, and political interference as some of the obstacles.

Project proponents should develop measures that appropriately mitigate key ecosystem challenges and ensure their compliance.

Impact on the soil

The participants in our study noticed that The railway had an impact on soil, water and air pollution during the construction and operation of the line.

During construction, the earth was compacted and excavated. He also moved from place to place to build dams. This has many effects on the environment. for example, Officials from the Community Forestry Association (around the coastal mangrove forests of Mombasa) noted that the sediment, eroded by road dams, affected streams and vegetation. Not only did it affect the growth and self-germination of mangrove seeds, they said, it also blocked waterways and reduced their volume.

Another challenge was the construction of tunnels to allow circulation under the railways. This is due to the height of the railway line. But these tunnels have redirected surface water and rain corridors. Participants from Narok County noted that this led to erosion, leading to the deposition of water sources, including Lake Majadi, a unique alkaline and saline lake surrounded by wildlife that is a major source of trona, the sodium carbonate compound that turns into soda ash. or baking soda.

Another effect was the bombing of the ground to obtain building materials. Communities across Nairobi said this caused tremors that sometimes caused buildings to crack.


The floods were a huge challenge. To avoid cutting railroad bridges, contractors diverted natural surface water flows (such as streams) into tunnels.

But this caused the volume and speed of water flow to increase, causing flooding and soil erosion. In addition, the surrounding vegetation that previously prevented water has been removed.

In Voi, county officials explained how rainwater inundated low-lying homes and farms during heavy rain.

In addition, sediments from construction have blocked or dried up the rivers, especially the Embakashi and Mbagathi rivers, around Nairobi. Most communities in these areas depend on rivers for domestic consumption, livestock watering, and irrigated agriculture.

A blocked river in Kitengila.  (credit conversation)
A blocked river in Kitengila. (credit conversation)


Another cause for concern was the oil leak. These occurred due to fuel transportation accidents and due to train and railway maintenance activities.

For example, local officials in Kibwezi prefecture said an oil spill polluted the Tang River. Now the river cannot be used for irrigation or for domestic purposes. The land in the affected area is still not safe for cultivation.

Noise pollution has also been reported during the construction and operation of the railway, especially in the Nairobi and Foy areas. Some communities were unable to sleep and school classes were disrupted due to noise levels. Dust pollution was an added challenge. Cough and chest pain were reported.

Communities that depend on wetlands and rivers in the Voi, Kibwezi, Tuala and Narok regions have lost access to some of these vital resources, and long-term prospects are unclear.

An additional impact of the railways was the emergence of illegal activities, such as grazing in protected areas.

Kenya Wildlife Service officials indicated that local communities were using the tunnels to transport their livestock to Tsavo National Park, particularly around Bochoma Gate.

Cattle raids caused severe soil degradation in the southern part of Tsavo East.

the animals

Wildlife was also affected. About 120 km of the line passes through the main wildlife area, Tsavo National Park, in Kenya.

We observed that elephants showed early signs of behavior modification. Among them, aggressiveness and avoidance of the railroad area.

This is consistent with the behavioral adaptations observed in other species that change their ranges or change their movement patterns due to superstructures.

What to do?

Linear infrastructure projects such as railways must implement sustainable and environmentally sensitive measures to mitigate these impacts.

For example, the lower roads should be of appropriate density and size. Currently, the underpasses are rare and are located in areas not normally used by wildlife.

Additionally, streams must be routed and redirected to avoid flooding.

Furthermore, a further comprehensive assessment, with the participation of all stakeholders, of the environmental impacts of the railways is required. This is essential to designing a sustainable railway. It should ensure that the benefits of development are maximized and the impacts of the ecosystem are minimized.


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