This week, nearly 70 per cent of Tana River County was completely submerged after the main river burst its banks. So far the ongoing floods have sunk at least 32 villages and destroyed 30,000 homesteads. When quantified in monetary terms, the cost is staggering.
The case of Tana River encapsulates how hopeless we are when Mother Naturestrikes. There is no point asking when the rain started beating us; that is cliché. We are thoroughly exposed to nature’s forces. Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai once warned that Mother Nature is very generous, but very unforgiving when disturbed.
We are actually paying for thumbing ournoses at Mother Nature. So we have built houses and settlements along riparian areas, put up roads along the path of rivers, clogged the drainage canals with garbage and cut down the trees for charcoal and timber. And then expect nature to obey us? Never.
And when we are cornered, we rush to court to obtain orders restraining law enforcers from our “land”. That was so until the rains struck and we have been shown whose land it is. Indeed, nature does not negotiate with people. I witnessed this last week when I was confronted by a gushing stream of water in one of the suburban roads in Nairobi.
The water was waist high. As usual, when it rains in Nairobi, traffic was disrupted. And what a mess that was for hundreds of thousands of motorists marooned in the floods. It took me six hours to get home.
The rainy phenomenon has not only showed us that we cannot cheat nature, it has also exposed how ill-prepared for the seasons we are -whether wet or dry. Last year, while most parts of the country experienced dry spells, it appeared as if the rains were not going to come. Prayers were said in churches, mosques and any other places considered sacred.
Heavy rains seemed remote, unthinkable. And so nobody prepared for the sudden change in weather. And even now, the dry spell looks remote, yet it will come and we will wonder again. Indeed, God’s plans have no appeal. For the prayers were answered but those praying had seemingly forgotten to put a caveat to the gods that the rains should come in moderation.
And true to human nature (or should I say Kenyan nature), we were caught unawares.Were we going to utter the now famous words of the lady from Budalangi? serikali saidia (Government help us). When disaster strikes , a lot of us sit by and hopelessly watch. Pictures of Kenya Red Cross’s Abbas Gullet in the trademark luminous half-coat quickly come on our TV screens. No wonder he has been awarded the prestigious North South Prize for 2017. Now he says, half a billion shillings is needed to address the effects of these floods.
In 2013, Isiolo County Woman Representative Tiya Galgalo introduced a Private Member’s Bill on disaster risk management. The last I heard about the Bill was as it went through the Second Reading. The rationale behind the Bill was the creation of an agency that would coordinate all kinds of disasters including drought, floods, fires, disease outbreaks and even problems caused by ethnic conflict. Currently, the National Drought Management Authority only deals with matters of drought and usually gives early warnings but is not sufficiently funded to minimise drought and its effects in its entirety.
As we have witnessed before, the effects of floods and torrential rains destroy not only livelihoods, but also infrastructure.The last time the country experienced such destruction from natural calamities was in 1997. In its wake, the El Nino rains left a trail of destruction. In the last two months, the state of the roads has worsened. Some are looking like they did in the 1990’s!
We can turn disaster into opportunity. Why not harness the rain water and efficiently turn what otherwise would become an emergency into a solution? The government through the National Drought Management Authority has developed a policy framework for ending drought emergencies. By building dams in areas with potential for flooding we can reduce the consequences of drought and make water available for consumption and agriculture.
Most importantly, we should minimise the chances of nature releasing its wrath on usby doing what is right; planting trees, deciding to take all litter to the dustbin and refusing the urge to build houses on the path of water.
Mr Guleid is a governance consultant and chairman of FCDC