Declare El Nino a national crisis and rescue Kenyans from floods

Floods in Eldas Sub-county, Wajir County on November 6, 2023. [Victor Ogalle, Standard]

The devastation caused by El Niño rains in most parts of Kenya, especially in those areas that recently endured calamitous drought that left death and destruction in its wake, is harrowing and desolating for residents.

The desperate images of drowning people and livestock in social media and news are heart-rending. This is why the government must declare flooding and effects of El Nino rains a national emergency and crisis, and focus all resources and facilities on addressing it.

More than 71 lives have been lost, hundreds of thousands of people displaced, thousands of livestock have died and huge destruction of infrastructure in most parts of Kenya. According to the United Nations Coordination on Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Nairobi, the needs assessment undertaken by humanitarian partners estimates that more than 136,025 people (27,205 households), news outlets give much higher estimates of more than half a million, have been displaced due to flooding.

The areas most affected are in the northeast including Garissa and the Dadaab refugee complex, home to some 300,000 refugees, the majority from Somalia (even more if we add Dagahaley camp, which is submerged by rising waters), Mandera, Wajir, Mombasa, Kilifi, Tana River, Kwale and Kitui. The El Nino rains are at their peak as expected between October – December and will continue until January next year, and therefore the end is far.

Flooding is caused by rising ocean levels due to climate change, El Niño rains, bursting river banks, excessive encroachment of river reserves, overstocking of livestock far in excess of the carrying capacity of the land, deforestation, land overuse, and lack of innovative water harvesting systems and structures. However, there are man-made causes that could have been dealt with to reduce flooding.

These include building in waterways and catchment areas, bad urban development planning, insufficient drainage systems, and impermeable surfaces like pavement. Bad drainage systems and bad urban planning are the main culprits in most towns.

It is heart-breaking to watch news reports of the increasing deaths, threats to human lives, destruction, and displacement, and instead of seeing national and 47 county government leaders offering empathy and practical solutions, we see blame games and fights over money and resources.

When El Niño rains were predicted, we saw the national and county governments stating how much funds and resources they had set aside in preparedness. We are justified to be shocked and outraged to watch the blame game over resources instead of national and county government leaders offering emergency solutions.

Where did the El Nino resources go? The national government should provide emergent and strategic leadership, marshalling all available resources and engaging humanitarian people and institutions to support the affected people in a coordinated and priority-based approach.

The government should also lead in galvanising national and international support to save lives and facilitate flood survivors to have an existence that restores their human dignity and demonstrates to them that leaders and all of us, care.

The adverse effects of El Nino rains will be long-term and far-reaching and go beyond deaths, injuries, lost livelihoods, destruction, displacements, swept roads, broken bridges, and destroyed infrastructure. Serious outbreaks of waterborne diseases, more deaths, and starvation are imminent.

Leaders must prioritise what needs to be done urgently, immediately, in the medium term, and long term. Better planning and designing of appropriate interventions and sufficient resources are required. While education, universal health coverage, and economic crises are critical existential concerns, they pale in comparison to deaths, threats to human lives, and destruction visited by El Nino rains.

This is why flooding and the effects of El Nino must be declared a national emergency that takes priority over everything else.

This will help leaders set aside their parochial political differences and interests, and assume a bipartisan approach of focusing on solving this national emergency before it becomes a perilous catastrophe.

The writer is a democracy, governance and elections expert. She works for South Eastern Kenya University (SEKU) Kwa Vonza in Kitui County.