Written by Lily from China House
Kenya’s first new railroad since its independence
Kenya’s natural beauty and rich wildlife resources are the country’s precious treasures. 70% of Kenya’s territory was natural reserves when the nation first gained independence in 1963. The capital city, Nairobi, is also the only capital city in the world with a nature reserve.
However, Kenya’s economic development has inevitably changed its natural environment, and the Monel Railway is a representative example.
As a benchmark project of Sino-Kenyan cooperation, the Mombasa-Nairobi Standard Gauge Railway (Monnet Railway) is about 480 km long, connecting Mombasa (the largest port city of Kenya) and Nairobi (the capital). The Monnet Railway was put into service on May 31, 2017.
Although Monet Railway has effectively shortened travel time and increased the nation’s cargo transportation capacity, it also reshaped the surrounding environment – the railroad has to cross several nature reserves such as Tsavo National Park and Nairobi National Park. Therefore, even though the railroad builders conducted a professional environmental assessment before the construction and took a series of environmental protection measures during the construction, doubts persist.
How to protect animals when building a railroad?
To the animals, the builders are “invaders”: animals disturbed by the noise from construction may flee to the villages and hurt the residents, and the new railroad will also intrude the fauna’ migration.
To minimize the impact on animals, the construction of the Monterey Railway is planned to make full use of the existing transportation facilities to avoid dividing the nature reserve again as much as possible.
To ensure that animals can migrate smoothly, the railroad builders have built animal corridors, fences, and sound screens.
There are 14 large animal corridors, 79 bridges, and more than 100 culvert-type animal corridors along the Monet Railway.
China Road and Bridge Company determined the locations and numbers of animal corridors reserved for the Monterey Railway based on the data collected at locations of animal appearance and the cases of train collisions with wild animals on the existing railways built between 2007 and 2012.
Bridge-type animal corridors were set up at various places throughout the railway. In addition, the bridges crossing large rivers were extended, and the height was also raised to help the passage of animals. At the same time, barrier fences were set on both sides of the railroad to avoid animals crawling through and reduce the probability of collision between animals and trains. Also, culvert-type animal corridors are set up in low-lying areas to facilitate zebras and other animals to drink water, and giraffes can pass through without bending down and lowering their heads.
At the same time, sound barrier beams (a type of sound barrier used for elevated bridges) were used on all of the mega bridges in Nairobi National Park, and sound screens were installed across the railroad to reduce the noise.
In addition, for the wildlife habitat that the railroad will pass through, the team also designated special areas before construction, reduced logging, and pre-built several water culverts to ensure that the seawater can flow freely and plants can grow well.
Although the project team put a lot of money and effort into animal conservation, the railroad, symbolizing the nation’s rapid economic development, remains a tragedy for wildlife.
Dr. Ben Oquita, the monitoring director of NGO Save the Elephants, has said, “The Monet Railway adopted a closed design and elevated bridge approach to avoid accidents where wild animals collide with trains. However, it still limits the number and locations of animal passages compared to the meter gauge (a narrow-gauge railroad with a gauge of 1 meter) that laid straight on the ground. “
The length of the Monet Railway crossing the reserve is 135 km, and there are six animal corridors reserved for animals in Tsavo National Park, with a total length of only 0.42 km. Many wild animals had to alter their original migration routes, which increased the probability of accidental death.
For example, after the railroad construction, part of the elephants’ migration route was changed from the flat road into higher embankments. Elephants that are not yet familiar with the animal passage will climb or bypass the embankments to continue their migration. Elephants bypassed the embankments took to the highway near the railroad, falling and crashing into cars.
Save the Elephants claimed that at least ten elephants were killed by trains during the construction of the Monet Railway. And after the railroad construction finished, at least eighteen elephants were hit and killed by trains or trucks. Before this, there were few cases of elephants dying in car accidents.
As a result, many animal protectionists in Kenya have opposed the railroad, and many wildlife protection organizations have used the term “irreversible” to describe the impact of the Monet Railway.
In 2014, the Kenyan government chose the cheapest of seven construction plans for the Monel extension. The railroad would have bisected Nairobi National Park, in addition to running through Tsavo National Park. In response, Kenyan human rights lawyer Okiay Omtatah Okoiti and a coalition of more than fifty wildlife organizations sued the relevant authorities, including the Kenya Environmental Management Agency and the Land Commission, to oppose the proposal.
On September 4, 2016, the wildlife organizations led a small protest by local residents to “Save Nairobi National Park.” On October 3, they petitioned the court and the president again, demanding the authorities to reassess the environmental conditions and to plan routes to keep Nairobi National Park intact before proceeding with the railroad. Under pressure from multiple parties, the environmental court has issued a stop-work document, and the entire construction of the Monterey Railway extension came to a standstill.
Although in 2019, the court finally ruled against Okiya, and the Monterey Railway extension project was able to continue, the controversy has not yet dissipated. In Kenya and the international community, there is a lot of discussion about the environmental impacts of the Monel Railway.
How to balance economic development and animal protection?
There is no doubt about the economic value of the Monterey Railway. According to statistics, since its construction, it has created nearly 50,000 jobs, trained more than 5,000 professional and skilled workers, and saved 40% of transportation and logistics costs.
For passengers, the Monterey Railway has shortened the original 8+ hours of road transportation to 4.5 hours, and is far less expensive than airplanes, while also increasing the carrying capacity of cargo transportation.
Even in the discussion about environmental issues, Paul Mwangi, former Deputy Minister of Transport of Kenya, said that the Monel Railway has helped tremendously in decongesting traffic. It greatly contributed to environmental sustainability by being a more environmentally friendly option than road transport.
Of course, it is undeniable that despite the many efforts made by China Road and Bridge, the Monel Railway can not avoid damaging the local ecology and animals.
However, as wildlife slowly adapts to the new railroad, monitoring data in the short term may not fully account for the railroad’s negative impacts. Taking the Qinghai-Tibet Railway as an example, the utilization rate of the wildlife passage has gradually increased from 56.6% in 2004 to 100% after 2011, and the cluster size and length of animals staying in the corridor decreased. Therefore, it may take more time to verify whether wildlife can adapt to animal corridors and the changes in migration routes.