Torrential rains cause damage and loss of life in East Africa, especially in Kenya

29 May 2024 by The Water Diplomat

Floods in Kenya

During this year’s long rainy season, which usually lasts from March to May, Kenya has been severely affected by torrential rains which took place during the month of April. According to a situation assessment by the United Nations Agency for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), as of the end of April, the combination of heavy rain and flash floods had left 103 people dead, 29 injured, 21 people missing, 150,365 people (30,073 families) displaced and nearly 191,000 affected across the country. The rainfall was not unexpected : Kenya’s National Meteorological Service had alerted the Kenyan government at the end of 2023 that it was expecting heavy, even possibly very heavy rains over the period from March to June 2024.

The Government of Kenya has mounted a multisectoral emergency response, led by the Kenya Disaster Emergency Operations Centre in the country’s capital, Nairobi and supported amongst others by the Kenya Red Cross.

Intense rainfall has been experienced across the whole of East Africa in this period : Tanzania, Burundi, Ethiopia and Somalia have also been affected. According to the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), the rainfall is associated with an El Niño event coupled with the so-called ‘Indian Ocean Dipole’ phenomenon which induce high temperatures of the waters of the western parts of the Indian Ocean. The excess energy in the ocean and atmosphere are probably due to the effects of man-made greenhouse gases, and this is an important factor in explaining the duration and intensity of the peak rainfall events.

 According to NASA, the “Indian Ocean Dipole is a climatic phenomenon affecting the Indian Ocean. During a positive phase, warm waters are pushed towards the western part of the Indian Ocean, while cold deep waters rise to the surface of the eastern Indian Ocean”. (...) This “influences local weather conditions (...) with high temperatures along the African coast causing heavy rains and droughts in Australia”. During this rainy season, the whole of East Africa was affected to varying degrees, i.e. Kenya.

Disaster risk reduction measures had been taken, but were apparently insufficient at the time. As the WMO points out, this type of phenomenon highlights the vulnerability of African societies to weather-related risks and climatic events, and the need to establiush early warning systems for all.

According to later updates of the situation (OCHA, IOM, UNICEF), a total of 637,000 people have been affected in the region, including a total number of displaced persons which has risen to 234,000. The country where the most extreme events took place was Kenya, where floods and landslides affected 38 of the 47 counties (representing 80% of the surface area of Kenya). The human toll was heavy: 219 have been confirmed dead, 72 people are still missing, and 234,000 displaced. The densely populated Nairobi County alone accounted for 72% of the victims, including 54% of the displaced. Cases of cholera have already appeared across the country. In material terms, 5,000 head of livestock were swept away, 11,216 hectares of crops were ravaged and 264 businesses were severely affected. A total of 1967 schools were destroyed, and many other schools were forced to take in refugees on a temporary basis until more permanent solutions could be found. A dam in the Mai Mahiu region burst, killing 48 people, forcing the government to call for the evacuation of people living near the country's 178 dams and reservoirs.

The Kenyan government has already earmarked US$30 million to respond to the humanitarian emergency. The United Kingdom has also donated the equivalent of US$1 million to help the victims. UN agencies have distributed temporary shelters and emergency kits to 39,000 people in Kenya.  Similar distributions were also made in Somalia (240,000 people) and Ethiopia (70,000 people).