Early flood warning laudable, but where's the high ground?

President Uhuru Kenyatta arrives for the requiem Mass of Solai dam tragedy victims on 16 May, 2018. [Harun Wathari, Standard]
President Uhuru Kenyatta yesterday went to condole with victims of the Solai dam tragedy at a funeral service. Some 48 people were confirmed dead in the disaster that occurred on Thursday night last week. Although rescue and recovery efforts were called off when no more bodies could be found in the debris and sludge, survivors claimed some of their family members were still missing. Their pleas for further searches should not be ignored; it is the least the Government can do for them.

As so often happens, investigations were ordered into the possible causes of the accident. Understandably, Kenyans have expressed their scepticism, perhaps because such investigations are, in most cases, left to fade away.

The magnitude of the Solai tragedy demands that action be taken against the dam owner who, to date, has yet to be apprehended. Amid unconfirmed reports that the dam's construction did not meet certain criteria, only the truth will appease a public that is fast losing trust in Government institutions.

Following this tragedy, it would seem the Government has taken to monitoring water levels in other dams and rivers across the country as the heavy rains continue. Indeed, the meteorological department has warned that the rains are likely to continue to the end of next month. River Yala in western Kenya has been reported to have burst its banks, flooding a school and farms. Communication between Alego Usonga and Bondo has been cut off.

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The Government’s commitment to averting more calamities is reflected in the decision of the Cabinet secretary for Energy, Charles Keter, to call a press conference to warn that Masinga Dam was likely to overflow by Friday this week at the rate it was filling up. By Tuesday, the dam, whose capacity is 1056.5 cubic metres, was at 1055.53 cubic metres. These are dangerous levels for those living in the vicinity of the dam should it burst and discharge the excess water. Having seen the devastation of the Solai dam, which is much smaller, those likely to be affected by flooding at Masinga must move with speed to get to safety. Mr Keter did the right thing by warning people living along Tana River in Garissa, Garsen, Hola and Bura to move to safer ground.

But this, of course, is easier said than done since there are several issues to be considered. Rather than simply issue an alert, the Government should organise to get the thousands of people likely to be affected to higher, safer ground. One may ask where the safe grounds are, whether they are Government-owned or private property.

It is absurd to expect thousands of panicking people to just walk to private property, schools or churches without causing friction, disruptions, or even fights in some areas. If these people go to schools, learning would be affected. Will the Government assist the likely victims to move their livestock and valuables to safe places?

The Government should, therefore, identify the higher grounds to make it easier to ferry relief supplies such as bedding, tents, food and medicines. Two weeks ago, Government functionaries interviewed on television told victims of flooding that emergency supplies were available, but that there were challenges in delivering them.

Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i defended the Government’s disaster response, saying it had improved, but he nonetheless admitted that there were still challenges. Overcoming these challenges should be given priority.

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There are fears that water-borne diseases could break out in areas where people have been displaced. Cases of cholera have been reported, yet the authorities' capacity to adequately deal with the threat is doubtful.

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