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Kenya: Floods everywhere and not a drop to drink

Current Affairs

Kenya: Floods everywhere and not a drop to drink

Kenya has been awash with the worst case of flooding for 20 years. Hundreds have died, thousands have been made homeless and there has been massive damage to infrastructure. Yet, in the midst of the flooding, Nairobi’s water supply system ran dry! Wanjohi Kabukuru reports.

In early February 2018 Kenya hosted the 48th Greater Horn of Africa Climate Outlook Forum in the coastal resort city of Mombasa. On the sidelines of the conference the Kenya Meteorological Department (KMD) director Peter Ambenje issued an alert of heavy rains and possible flooding to be expected in the months from March until July. Kenya’s climatic pattern is made up of the long rains from March to July and short rains from October to December. 

The prediction issued covered East and Central Africa, as well as the Horn. “There will be a chance of flooding in South Sudan, western Ethiopia, southwestern Uganda, northeastern Rwanda and southern Tanzania,” Ambenje said. “In Kenya we are not safe.”

It is significant to note that Kenya hosts the regional Inter-Governmental Agency on Development (IGAD) Climate Prediction and Application Centre, which provides weather information and data for the entire region. It was therefore no surprise when Ambenje issued an early warning on floods for the region.

As for Kenya, the Met department was categorical that extreme weather conditions in the form of heavy rains would be experienced in the central, south-western and south-eastern parts, with a possibility of floods. These warnings by the Met department were not taken seriously, despite the fact that the country had been experiencing a 2-year-long drought. 

And so it happened. The rains came and flooding occurred.

As of mid-May, the trail of death, destruction and displacement had ignited a humanitarian disaster. The flooding was made worse after a privately-owned dam in Solai, Nakuru County broke its walls and killed 46 people downstream. The tragedy shook the nation and soul- searching began.

“In the construction of a dam, the first consideration is the purpose – the small, medium or large-scale use of water,” says Dr Evans Mukolwe, a former scientific and technical director at the World Meteorological Organisation in Geneva.

“The second consideration,” he continues, “covers the feeder-rivers and their catchment areas. It does not make sense to build a large
dam on a seasonal river. Third, a study of the rainfall trends of the areas must be carried out to bring out the worst rainfall storms that can occur.

“Construction of dams is based on the worst of the worst storms for resilience. The dam must have a drainage slot in case things get bad and [ideally] villages should be [kept away] from the downstream vicinity. In the case of Solai Dam, it is clear no inspections were carried out. The Solai Dam flooding was a result of poor workmanship, and sheer negligence based on impunity.”

Mukolwe reiterates that the current administrative set-up of the country, which gives counties leeway on environmental matters, needs to be revised. “Counties cannot carry out conservation in isolation from other counties,” says Mukolwe. “These are shared values for the good of our country, Kenya, as a whole. In fact, conservation should be a preserve of national institutions.”

47,000 households displaced

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN-OCHA), which runs a disaster risk assessment and early warning system, by early May flooding had displaced 47,188 households, directly affecting 260,200 people, and the death toll associated with the floods had risen to 100

OCHA further says that 205 schools were also damaged, together with community water systems in Garissa, Isiolo and Makueni counties. Some 8,450 acres of farmland was submerged, 6,000 livestock were killed and roads, property and essential health facilities had been destroyed. 

Of Kenya’s 47 administrative counties, the worst affected were Turkana, Tana River, Kilifi, Garissa, Isiolo, Kisumu, Taita, Mandera, Wajir, Marsabit, West Pokot, Samburu and Narok. 

The Kenya Red Cross Society has now made a public appeal seeking to raise some $4.7m to assist victims of the current flooding.

Ironically, as the heavy rains and massive flooding were taking place countrywide, the Athi Water Services Board, which runs the main Ndakaini Dam that supplies Nairobi with water, said that the dam was not yet full. The board further issued an alert that water rationing would continue. 

“The rain in Nairobi is not in the Aberdares region, hence there being little run-off. All rivers in the Aberdares which are relied upon to fill up Ndakaini Dam, have not yet improved,” said Michael Thuita, CEO of the Athi Water Services Board, trying to quell the public outcry over water shortages in the midst of flooding. 

His answer did not satisfy the nation. Kenyans did not take this water rationing alert lightly. For days on end, the Kenyans, under their hashtag #KoT, took to Twitter wondering at the irony of floods not filling up the Ndakaini Dam while there was flooding all over the republic. 

“Floods in Kenya are cyclic and therefore normal, particularly following severe droughts. As we are all aware, flooding in Kenya results from heavy rains,” says Mukolwe. “The Ndakaini issue is a bad joke by some government officials based on the belief that Kenyans are stupid – and a cover for some corrupt deals on water use.”

A bad joke

Indeed, after the Twitter campaign, Ndakaini Dam filled up in a day. And the jokes continued on Twitter, chiding the government. “So, miraculously, the water levels at Ndakaini have risen – a little bit.” Popular radio presenter Caroline Mutoko, who took part in the Twitter campaign under the hashtags #RaiseYourVoice and #RaiseTheWaterLevels, said: “Looks like it’s not the rain that raises the level of water; but our voices.” 

The shame exposed by the Twitter campaign forced the government to set up a taskforce to investigate the mystery of low water levels in the Ndakaini Dam and file its report in two months.

The Met Department has now categorised the current rains as being the result of a mini El Niño.  El Niño is a periodic atmospheric phenomenon that warms ocean currents. In recent times some scientists have linked it to climate change.

A similar scenario was experienced in Kenya exactly 20 years ago. During the 1998 El Niño, heavy flooding not only claimed lives and wreaked havoc on the mainland, but completely destroyed corals through bleaching in the entire Western Indian ocean rim. “El Niños occur during the short rain periods, from October to December,” says Mukolwe, who runs the Associated Weather Consultants in Nairobi. “El Niño is much more frequent now than before. Expect an El Niño soon.”   

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