Lobby: Policy gaps hinder Kenya's disaster management

Women wading through Musoma beach in Budalangi on October 19, 2021. [Benjamin Sakwa, Standard]

For years now, Kenya's failure to implement a concrete disaster preparedness policy has led to an erratic response to catastrophic events.

Disasters such as droughts, floods, epidemics and terrorism leave the country shooting in the dark on the back of a slow and uncoordinated response that further burdens taxpayers.

As envisioned by the draft laws, a Disaster Risk Management Authority would coordinate at both the national and county level in the handling of disasters including efficient budgetary allocation.

However, previous efforts towards such legislation have amounted to nothing with the Disaster Risk Management Bill currently lying in limbo.

Experts warn that this leaves Kenya exposed and only leads to a repeat of past shambolic mistakes when reacting to man-made and natural catastrophes.

For instance, the government has previously acknowledged that key development projects risked getting derailed as the State diverted billions to mitigate effects of natural disasters which could have been prevented if early warning was heeded.

"The cost of dealing with a disaster when it happens was seven times bigger than the cost of prevention," said then Planning Principal Secretary Julius Muia in 2018.

Edward Wanyonyi, the chairperson of the Disaster Risk Reduction Network of African Journalists (Diraj), urges the Kenya Kwanza government to rethink disaster response from a holistic perspective.

"Many of these plans they have and are building won't make sense if there are vulnerabilities and hazards within our economy," he notes.

"There's no cohesion in terms of creating a national disaster management bill and giving it the force of law to have an operational mandate."

When disasters strike, many Kenyans tend to rely on aid agencies such as the Red Cross for information and support and are unfamiliar with government agencies tasked with such matters.

The initial plan had been for Kenya to form a single agency to coordinate disaster management. However, the government ended up splitting it into various agencies over the years including the National Disaster Management Unit, National Drought Management Authority and the National Disaster Operation Centre.

Wanyonyi says that such splitting led to confusion as most disasters are interlinked.

NDOC, which is supposed to be stronger in addressing disasters, is a mini department at the Ministry of Interior with a low profile and has poor capacity and resources to realise its potential.

"The Ministry of Interior needs to reorganise that space to make it more dynamic, vibrant and engaging to the public. NDOC not pushing the strategic weight the country requires in the international arena a lot of opportunity to be a leader in the region."

"Interestingly, neighbouring countries such as Ethiopia and Rwanda have built their disaster frameworks around Kenya's draft laws that have been gathering dust.

Diraj Secretary General David Owino notes that a lack of a comprehensive policy also creates loopholes for crooks to loot whenever a disaster strikes and funds are allocated.

They capitalise on the weak law as there's no accountability.

"They'll say they used an X amount but it's impossible to trace how the money was utilised ... in that kind of arrangement many people thrive for their own selfish interest," says Owino.

Countries such as Algeria, a leader in disaster risk management in the continent and world, have well a well-defined structure coordinated by a civil protection directorate that anticipates risks and ensures swift response.

"Countries where the disaster policy works have a body which maps all the possible risks then creates a department with standard operating procedures dealing with each particular risk," adds Owino.

An overarching policy would also put an end to the duplication of roles.

Over the years, Kenyan companies have woken up to disaster preparedness and are risk-proofing themselves.

As per labour laws have established departments to operationalise the Occupational Safety and Health Act which provides for the safety, health and welfare of workers and all persons lawfully present at workplaces.

Wanyonyi describes Diraj as a "centre of excellence" in reporting on disaster issues. The collective is an association of journalists and communicators working in the fields of disaster risk reduction and humanitarian response in Africa and around the world.

The goal of the association is to create a network of journalists who report on disasters which makes it easier for journalists who want to travel to other regions to cover a disaster. The bigger role, says Mr Wanyonyi, is to see African journalists taking charge of story narratives happening in their locale.

Mr Wanyonyi adds that an elaborate policy framework on disaster management also helps to create a database which equips stakeholders.

"If you look at the typical disasters such as flood and drought, it's difficult to get the correct data on, for example, the affected. We have to wait for NGOs and others to process the data," he says.

"Having a centralised database whenever a disaster takes place makes economic sense because you are able to know accurately how much you need to respond to who and where. This goes beyond numbers for the sake of numbers."

This, adds Wanyonyi, helps the government know who to lift and take through the disaster recovery phase and make them resilient in the event of a next disaster.

The counties are also being caught flat-footed with disaster management being an afterthought instead of placing it in their integrated plans.

They might have allocations for disasters but are diverted to other issues as they think of disasters as something far away that may never occur.

The typical disasters in Africa include fire, road accidents, the collapse of buildings and health epidemics.