Ruto's response to disaster in stark contrast to hands-on approach of former presidents

President William Ruto at Mai Mahiu where he assessed the damage occasioned by the floods that claimed over 50 lives leaving a trail of destruction. [George Njunge, Standard]

Kenya has in the past acted spontaneously in dealing with many national disasters but never before has a government dithered in the manner President William Ruto’s administration has responded to the ongoing devastating floods.

In August 1998, President Daniel Arap Moi was quick to reach the scene of the US embassy terrorist attack and immediately organised rescue operations for the victims.

He was also good at mobilising relief operations during famine, floods and drought while his successor Mwai Kibaki, crafted a disaster management policy that effectively worked in coordinating relief and rescue efforts. 

In the latest emergency, after hesitating for weeks, Ruto finally emerged on Friday to announce a raft of emergency measures to be enforced, among them the postponement of the opening of schools.

His announcement came a week after his Cabinet Secretary for Education Ezekiel Machogu released another statement in the dead of the night, saying the opening had been moved from April 29, 2024, to tomorrow.

President Ruto’s statement also came after more than 200 people are feared to have been killed in different parts of the country by flooded rivers and roads, mudslides and related hazards caused by the ongoing heavy rains in the country.

President Ruto’s predecessor Uhuru Kenyatta faced perhaps one the biggest disasters the country has ever experienced when the Covid-19 pandemic swept across the world.

Daily updates

The former President was prompt in giving daily updates himself and in the process, carried all Kenyans along as the country collectively managed to deal with the epidemic.

In doing that, the President generated a lot of support from partners and the World Health Organisation and goodwill from the general populace, while also showing leadership to the entire continent of Africa.

This week, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that Kenyan authorities had not responded adequately to flash floods resulting from heavy rains.

The HRW report followed the displacement of thousands of families, which has created a lot of suffering across the country and also exacerbated socioeconomic challenges.

The HRW dispatch said the Kenya government has a human rights obligation to prevent foreseeable harm from climate change and extreme weather events and to protect people when a disaster strikes.

The report cautioned that extreme weather events such as flooding are threatening the marginalized and at-risk populations, including older people, people with disabilities, people in poverty, and rural populations.

Clothes are seen covered in mud at a house that was flooded in an area heavily affected by torrential rains and flash floods in Mai Mahiu, on April 29, 2024. [AFP]

“The unfolding devastation highlights the government’s obligation to prepare for and promptly respond to the foreseeable impacts of climate change and natural disasters,” said Nyagoah Tut Pur, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch.

“Kenyan authorities should urgently ensure support to affected communities and protect populations facing high risk,” he added.

People and families affected by the impact of flooding in places like Mai Mahiu, Sindo in Homa Bay, Makueni and Tana River have talked about the heart-wrenching and harrowing suffering they are going through.

As they wait for help, there appears to be a lack of clarity on the coordination of response to the emerging disasters, when many people are reported are reported to be spending nights in the cold, with some helplessly waiting for assistance on rooftops.

President Ruto says the government is mobilizing resources to offer those affected with shelter, food and medication among other forms of mitigation and response.

“The Treasury has been ordered to release adequate resources and work with other development partners to provide for the purchase and supply of food, medical and other nonfood items,” said Ruto while addressing the nation on Friday.

Asked how much money had been allocated for the emergency operations, the President skirted around the question, with a long explanation that in summary said the Treasury has been requested to prioritise giving resources to counties, NGCDF, Ministry of Roads and the military for the reconstruction of schools, roads and bridges.

And so it appears the government is still carrying out an audit of what is required and the things to be done, as more rain continues pounding the country and causing more devastation in the month of May as predicted by the weatherman.

In May last year, the Met Department warned that the country would experience enhanced rainfall between May-July and October-December, continuing into early 2024 and in response, the government announced it would release Sh10 billion for preparedness.

The Public Finance Management Act of 2023 also requires county governments to set aside two per cent of their annual budgets for disaster response.

And so in August 2023, the Ministry of Health started coordinating with county governments to stock up medical supplies and begin cholera vaccinations. But in October, President Ruto dismissed the weatherman’s earlier forecast that the country would have received El Nino rains, saying the country only expected to get heavy rains instead.

“You recently heard that our country is going to experience El Nino rains from now to December, but who is God.  Have you now heard those people saying there will just be heavy rainfall?” asked Ruto.

He added that above-normal rainfall was expected that time and farmers had been prepared to produce enough yields for the country to have food in January 2024.

The Intergovernmental Authority on Development’s (IGAD) Climate Prediction and Adaptation Centre (ICPAC), the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) had also forecast El Nino rains in late 2023 to 2024.

What transpired according to Kenya Red Cross reports, is that between October and February this year, a total of 1781 people lost their lives because of floods, flash floods, and landslides, caused by heavy rains in the Western, North Eastern, Central, and Coastal regions.

The government has also never explained if the Sh10 billion was released and how it was used but in November last year, parliament approved an additional Sh8.2 billion for disaster management, meaning Kenya has adequate resources that are probably not well utilized.

Harsh lessons

“Despite these harsh lessons from seasonal rains in late 2023 and meteorological department warnings, the authorities did not take appropriate measures to avert further disaster in early 2024 and were slow to respond, HRW said.

“It was not until April 24, after nearly a month of heavy rains and many deaths, that President Ruto announced the creation of a multi-agency team to manage the response.” concluded the HRW report.

 “Over the last few days, social media videos and mainstream media reports indicate that the affected people were receiving little to no support from the government to reach safety and to access essential services such as shelter, health care, and food assistance,” HRW reported in its report circulated worldwide.

Local media also reported that police and rescue teams’ helplines were unresponsive in some locations, where rivers had broken banks and swept away homes.

President Kibaki created the Ministry of Special Programmes and charged it with the coordination, formulation and implementation of policies and institutional framework for disaster management, mobilisation of resources, coordination of all stakeholders in disaster risk reduction and management and monitoring and evaluation of disaster management programmes.

It developed a detailed Disaster Management Plan that could have been very effective had it been implemented by successive governments.

The National Policy for Disaster Management in Kenya, released by the Minister for Special Programmes in March 2009 pointed out strengths and opportunities that existed in the disaster management system at the time.

Baringo residents wade through floods with their belongings after River Perkerra burst its banks flooding into villages in Marigat,  Baringo County. [Joseph Kipsang, Standard]

It dealt with both natural disasters among them bush and forest fires, epidemics on human beings and animals, pests on crops, forests and livestock; geologic and climatic disasters like droughts, floods, landslides, cyclones, storm surges, coastal erosions earthquakes and invasive plants.

Examples of human-made disasters are like terrorist attacks carried out during Uhuru’s reign which killed many Kenyans at the Westgate Mall, Garisa University and Dusit 2 Complex in Nairobi.

Others listed include industrial accidents, fires, transport accidents, civil, resource-based and political conflicts, collapsed infrastructure, food poisoning, drug and substance abuse, human trafficking, industrial sabotage, environmental degradation and other emerging disasters were also captured.

The rights group pointed out that people’s abilities to cope with disasters are constrained or limited where poverty is widespread and deep.

Such areas like Mathare and Mukuru of Nairobi which have witnessed the current flooding, require greater investment in the systems of managing disasters.

“This vulnerability corresponds to the incidence of poverty in the country and as a result of the dynamic nature of the environment and disasters, as well as new approaches to disaster management, this policy recognizes the need to embrace new concepts such as Disaster Risk Reduction and climate change,” read part of the report.

Disaster Risk Reduction is the systematic process of application of policies, strategies and practices to minimise vulnerabilities and disaster risks through preparedness, prevention and mitigation of adverse impacts of hazards within the context of sustainable development.

The policy also provided for an integrated and coordinated Disaster Risk Management focussing on preventing or reducing the risk of disasters, mitigating their severity, improving preparedness, rapid and effective response to disasters and post-disaster recovery.

The policy created the National Disaster Management Trust Fund and the District Disaster Management Fund which have largely not been effective.