Insights from the world: The Chinese-built modern railway in Kenya is praised for its green ethos

When construction of the 480km Mombasa-Nairobi Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) began in 2014, Ali Mohamed was impressed by the Chinese contractor’s care to protect local habitats from damage.

The 44-year-old resident of a quiet village overlooking a mangrove swamp on the north-western edge of Kenya‘s coastal city of Mombasa is proud of the modern railway project because of the high importance it attaches to protecting marine life.

The Mombasa-Nairobi SGR – connecting Mombasa, East Africa’s largest port, and Nairobi, the capital of Kenya – is Kenya’s largest infrastructure project since independence in 1963.

MANGROVE FORESTS WELL PROTECTED

Mohamed, also the founder of Bidii Creek Conservancy, a Mombasa-based green lobby, said in a recent interview with Xinhua that the SGR has provided best practices linking conservation and infrastructure development.

“I visited the SGR when construction started and witnessed the recovery of the previously degraded parts of the mangrove forest in our area,” said Mohamed.

“The installation of flyovers and culverts ensured minimal disturbance to the mangrove forest, which is an important fish hatchery, and regulated coastal weather,” he added.

Next to Mohamed’s ancestral village, tall concrete pillars support an overpass that meanders through pristine beaches and mangrove swamps to allow seamless movement of SGR passengers and freight trains.

Mohamed and his conservation colleagues commended the efforts of the China Road and Bridge Corporation, the Mombasa-Nairobi SGR contractor, to ensure the ecological integrity of marine ecosystems, including mangrove forests and estuaries, is not compromised by the infrastructure project.

Five years after its inception, the SGR has received awards from local officials and conservationists for prioritizing environmental protection along its corridor.

Philip Jamuhuri Mainga, chief executive of Kenya Railways Corporation, said the green ethos has been placed at the heart of SGR operations, bringing benefits to local communities in terms of clean air and serene landscapes.

“We did very well in environmental protection. The SGR corridor has reduced CO2 emissions, the trains are well maintained and produce no waste,” Mainga said.

Unlike trucks, the SGR trains traveling down the corridor have not emitted smoke into the atmosphere, fueling Kenya’s quest for improved air quality, said Cosmas Makewa, station manager at Mombasa SGR Terminus.

According to Makewa, the planning and execution of the modern railway project complied with local environmental protection laws, ensuring a healthy relationship between the contractor and local communities.

“The project had a positive impact on the environment. It neither cut through the sea nor disturbed mangroves. We built temporary culverts to ensure water flows from the sea to the other side,” Makewa said.

He added that SGR bridges have minimal disruption to the ground, even as the contractor strengthens partnership with coastal communities to restore depleted portions of the mangrove forest.

GOOD CARE OF WILDLIFE

Across the idyllic plains that dot the Tsavo National Park, Kenya’s oldest and largest wildlife sanctuary, iconic species such as elephants, giraffes and zebras are consistently sighted traversing underpasses installed by the SGR contractor to ensure they are safe can walk continuously.

The Mombasa-Nairobi SGR meanders through Tsavo National Park, a world famous tourist destination.

To increase wildlife safety, the SGR contractor erected electric fences on both sides of the route and installed wide underpasses at short intervals to facilitate the movement of both large and small animals.

Nancy Githaiga, country director for Kenya at the Nairobi-based African Wildlife Foundation, said the construction of bridges and underpasses has helped protect iconic wildlife species in Tsavo National Park.

Initial fears that the SGR could harm biodiversity, including wildlife, have been allayed thanks to the contractor’s establishment of safe passageways, Githaiga said.

The wildlife conservation measures initiated by the SGR contractor should inform future efforts to develop mega-infrastructure projects while protecting the integrity of Kenya’s biodiversity hotspots, she added.

CHINA’S ECOLOGICAL CIVILIZATION VISION

According to Leopold Omondi, an activist with the Nairobi-based green lobby Pan African Climate Justice Alliance, the Mombasa-Nairobi SGR project has underscored the viability of China’s vision of an ecological civilization.

“The SGR contractors were somehow trying to prevent environmental damage when they moved the rails from Mombasa to Nairobi. Wildlife habitats and the animals themselves have been maintained,” said Omondi.

By learning from China’s ecological civilization model, Kenya has a better chance of achieving nature-positive growth, he added.

Isaiah Andebe, program coordinator at the Pan-African Media Alliance for Climate Change, said the commendable protection of mangroves and wildlife indicates the achievements of the ecological protection plan adopted by the contractor.

He commended the SGR contractor for providing migratory corridors for wildlife in Tsavo and Nairobi National Parks and promoting rainwater harvesting to feed the animals.

“SGR has taken greening measures by planting grass and trees at various sections along the railway line. This not only serves to beautify the building, but also to protect the environment,” says Andebe. ■

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