Why Kenya must prioritise anticipatory measures as defense against climate disasters

Public members join police officers in searching for survivors after a dam burst in Old Kijabe, Mai Mahiu. [Antony Gitonga, Standard]

New details from the Water Resources Management Authority (Warma) reveal that the devastating floods in Mai Mahiu, which swept away nearly 100 homes and tragically killed over 50 people, originated from a water-filled gulley in Kiambu.

This was caused by a blocked railway drainage system, leading to a catastrophic build-up of water before its wall burst. Heavy rains in the region and the surrounding Kinale area worsened the situation. The destructive force of the water also swept away a portion of the Nairobi-Nakuru railway line.

The devastation caused by the Mai Mahiu flood disaster should be a stark reminder of Kenya’s extreme vulnerability to climate-fuelled hazards. As heavy rains and floods continue to cause havoc various counties across the country, the question is no longer "if" another disaster will strike, but rather "when" and "where".  Therefore, Kenya must shift its focus from reactive responses to more proactive measures to disaster management. Indeed, Kenya needs to embrace anticipatory action approaches to risks and disaster management to mitigate the impact of future catastrophes.

Once again, this particular tragedy puts Kenya on the spotlight concerning its poor score in disaster preparedness and management: the country simply has a serious problem in preparedness. Despite the increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, many Kenyan communities remain ill-equipped to cope with such disasters. But why?  Mainly because there are limited or no early warning systems among many communities in Kenya and those available are often unreliable. Often, this leaves many people unaware of impending disasters. Among many rural communities, infrastructure are often built without adequate consideration for the changing climate, which leaves many such communities susceptible to collapse under the strain of heavy rains or flooding.

The consequences of such failures are often devastating. Lives are lost, livelihoods destroyed, and economic progress is set back years, if not decades. It's a vicious cycle that perpetuates poverty and vulnerability, particularly among marginalized communities who often live in hazard-prone areas.

I am convinced that anticipatory approaches to disaster preparedness and risk communication offers a better way to break this cycle. Let me explain why- anticipatory measures, are pre-emptive -they are about, prioritizing prediction and preparedness. At the core of such approaches lies the idea of acting before disaster strikes. This means investing in robust early warning systems that leverage advanced weather forecasting, risk modelling, and community centred risk communication approaches. Such approaches give the people ample time to evacuate or take protective measures. This way we can save countless lives and reduce economic losses.

However, warnings alone are not enough. Communities must have the resources and capabilities to act. A comprehensive strategy would include - developing and regularly rehearsing emergency response plans, ensuring that evacuation routes are well-maintained, and accessible. In addition, social and behaviour change programs to help people, modify their beliefs, attitudes and adopt new ways of perceiving risks, and change behaviours, should be part of the package. Pre-emptive decisions and actions - like moving people out of harms way well in advance – before disaster strikes need to be part of the strategy. As you may have already realized, this calls for a multi-stakeholder approach to disaster preparedness and management.

As mentioned earlier, when disaster strikes, landscapes are often transformed into scenes of devastation and the impacts can be overwhelming. Communities are unprecedentedly cast into chaos. Families are destroyed and their sense of security shattered. But amidst the wreckage, the human spirit endures. It is at such time that these people need urgent help to rebound, not only by providing immediate relief (which is important), but also by supporting them to get back to their feet  again and foster resilience against future shocks. Resilience goes beyond immediate survival; it's about enabling communities to bounce back faster and better from disasters. In flood-prone areas, this means reinforcing critical infrastructure like dams and bridges to withstand extreme rainfall, and exploring other nature-based solutions.  

The mountainous regions of Kenya, such as Murang'a and Nyeri, face landslides hazards and there is need for the county governments to have elaborate anticipatory action programs in place to pre-empt disasters in these regions. Here, resilience building must focus on geological risk mapping, identifying vulnerable slopes, and potentially relocating communities living in the highest-risk zones. Stabilizing slopes with vegetation, implementing improved drainage systems, and developing landslide-specific early warning systems to further reduce risk.

My point is that – investing in anticipatory action and resilience programs is long overdue.  Well, such venture requires immense investment, political will, and sustained collaboration between government, communities, NGOs, and the private sector.  Our major problem in Kenya is indifference to risks and disaster preparedness. It is unfortunate culture that relegates disaster preparedness to the back burner. 

Devastating flood disasters are not new in the country. On May 9th 2018, Solai dam tragedy in Subukia claimed 48 lives and left hundreds of families displaced when the raging waters swept their houses and other property downstream. Its our hope as Kenyan, that the Mai Mahiu flood disaster will serve as a wake-up call, and a catalyst for a fundamental shift in our approach to climate-related hazards. By now Kenyans should have realized that climate change is an existential threat to Kenya's development trajectory.  The time for pre-emptive action is now; the lives we save may depend on it.

- Dr Kimotho is an Assistant Professor of Public Health Communication at USIU-A and a consultant in Risk and Emergency Communication