What are the reasons and concerns related to floods in Kenya? | Explained

Why is Kenya facing heavy floods? How is flooding disrupting life in the nation?

Updated - May 16, 2024 07:32 pm IST

Published - May 16, 2024 06:12 pm IST

A displaced woman  carries cans of water at an inundated area next to a camp for displaced people in Garissa, Kenya.

A displaced woman carries cans of water at an inundated area next to a camp for displaced people in Garissa, Kenya. | Photo Credit: AFP

The story so far: India on May 14 sent fresh consignments of relief materials, including medicines and essential supplies, to the flood-affected people of Kenya, as the nation continues to reel under the impact of incessant rainfall and flooding.

At least 2,000 schools in Kenya could not open on Monday despite an announcement to this effect by President William Ruto, after weeks of incessant rainfall and flooding in the country, local media reported. President Ruto had, on May 8, announced that all schools will reopen on Monday, saying that the decision was made in consultation with the Kenya Meteorological Department.

A teacher dries damp books inside the ceiling of a classroom that was previously affected by floods in Mathare slum of Nairobi, Kenya on May 13, 2024

A teacher dries damp books inside the ceiling of a classroom that was previously affected by floods in Mathare slum of Nairobi, Kenya on May 13, 2024 | Photo Credit: AFP/Simona Maina

Heavy rains and flash floods have in east Africa have impacted approximately 848,773 people across Kenya, Somalia, Burundi and Tanzania, including displacing 350,155 persons, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

What is the reason for flooding in Kenya?

Kenya usually has two rainfall seasons – the long rain season that lasts from March to May, and the short rain season from October to December. The 2023 short rain season also caused floods in the country. Now, Kenya has been facing heavy rainfall since March, and although flooding in Nairobi and other parts of the country is not unusual, the deluge has been attributed to the El Niño weather pattern.

El Niño typically causes sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern Pacific Ocean to rise and become warmer than usual. During El Niño, surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific rise, and trade winds — east-west winds that blow near the Equator — weaken. Normally, easterly trade winds blow from the Americas towards Asia. Due to El Niño, they falter and change direction to turn into westerlies, bringing warm water from the western Pacific towards the Americas.

In Kenya and East Africa, El Niño often causes above-average rainfall. According to UNOCHA, the impact of El Niño-induced heavy rains and flooding during the long rainy season (March-May) has been devastating across in Kenya as well other countries in East Africa, like Burundi, Somalia, Rwanda, and Tanzania.

In March, the 2023-24 El Niño peaked as one of the five strongest on record and continued to impact global climate in the following months despite a weakening trend, the World Meteorological Organisation said.

According to OCHA, the flooding has killed around 267 people in Kenya, while 188 have been injured, 75 are missing, and 281,835 people (56,367 families) have been displaced. Flooding has also impacted 179,000 in Burundi, 127,000 in Somalia and over 125,670 in Tanzania. It has caused extensive damage to infrastructure, agricultural land, and water and sanitation facilities.

This is not the first time Kenya has been devastated by excessive rains caused by the El Niño weather pattern. Between May 1997 and February 1998, the phenomenon caused extraordinarily heavy rainfall in the country, leading to widespread landslides and floods.

Another reason contributing to the excessive rainfall in Kenya this year is the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD). The IOD is characterised by a difference in temperature between the western and eastern parts of the Indian Ocean — a positive value represents above normal sea surface temperatures in the equatorial eastern Indian Ocean, and below normal temperatures in the western equatorial Indian Ocean. According to the Australian government’s Bureau of Meteorology, the IOD for the week ending April 28 is +0.68 degrees C, which is above the positive IOD threshold (+0.40 degrees C).

The fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), published in 2007, had identified the 1997-98 IOD as the strongest ever [until the time], and associated it with “catastrophic flooding” in East Africa.

Did early warnings fail to reduce the impact of floods in Kenya?

In its seasonal forecast for the March-April-May (MAM) long rain period published in February, the Kenya Meteorological Department warned of above-average rainfall over parts of the country. Floods and flash floods were predicted over several parts of the country, especially over the Coast, Southeastern lowlands, Lake Victoria Basin, parts of the Central and South Rift Valley, and northeast and northwestern parts. The forecast had also advised mapping high-risk areas prone to flooding and mobilising funds and resources to mitigate flood risks.

An update from the Kenya Meteorological Department published in July 2023 had predicted that El Niño will prevail during the remaining part of the year (with a 90% likelihood) and may extend into early 2024.

Human Rights Watch has accused the Kenyan government of not taking necessary measures in time to mitigate the impact of flooding.

The government of Kenya first activated a multi-agency emergency response centre to counter the impact of floods in the country on April 25, local media reported. The development was reportedly triggered after Kenya Red Cross said that 45 people had been killed in floods since March.

On April 30, a special cabinet meeting led by President Ruto directed people living in “risky areas” to evacuate within 48 hours. These areas included those near dams and other water reservoirs, and areas prone to landslides and mudslides, local media reported.

What are the concerns arising due to widespread flooding in Kenya?

According to the government of Kenya, floods are estimated to cost 5.5% of the country’s GDP every seven years, while the larger economic cost of climate change in Kenya is 2 –2.4% of the GDP each year.

Extreme weather events like flooding are particularly concerning for marginalised and at-risk populations, including older people, people with disabilities, people in poverty, and rural populations, the Human Rights Watch said.

The floods in Kenya have already destroyed 65 roads, and affected 106 schools, 907 businesses, 42 health facilities and more, the Kenya Red Cross reported in its update on May 11. The flood has also increased the risk of water-borne diseases like cholera in the country.

Thousands of people have been killed, injured, or displaced, adding pressure on the country’s resources. Floods have also destroyed cropland — at least 45,097 acreages of crops have been affected, threatening food security.

President Ruto has announced alternative settlement to 40,000 displaced households, resources to buy food and bedding for those affected by floods, and one billion Kenyan shillings to rebuild schools in the country.

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