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Broad disaster preparedness key to tackling future floods

 The ongoing heavy rains have killed over 200 people leaving a trail of destruction and devastation. [File, Standard]

The scientists told us to prepare for heavy rainfall and flash floods. The elders tell us this is the worst floods since 1961. A presidential advisor advises us Kenya Kwanza is not our agony aunt, so stop whining. This is directed to those who have survived death by drowning rage against the government that has spectacularly failed them.

As an entire nation finds itself vulnerable to nature and braces for Cyclone Hidaya, we must address what didn’t happen and what needs to happen now.

As of Thursday, at least 188 Kenyans had died, 125 had been injured with 90 missing and 190,000 displaced in the last few weeks. Monday’s tragic Mai Mahiu flooding killed 52 and left 51 human beings still missing. Those affected most have been from poor, marginalised and at-risk populations such as children, persons with disabilities and older people.

Tragically, Kenya has just considerably added to the global statistics. Over the last 20 years, floods and droughts have killed 166,000 and affected 3 billion people. It is estimated that the risk to economically and politically marginalised populations is 15 times higher than the middle class and those important to the political class.

Kenya is a party to 20 international disaster management-related treaties and agreements. Under Article 2 of the Constitution of Kenya, they form part of Kenyan law. The Constitution obligates the State to provide essential services like water and sanitation, health, education, and housing and to protect all persons from all risks to their dignity and life. Should the State be overwhelmed by a natural disaster or any other public emergency, it can declare a state of emergency under Article 54.

Yesterday’s presidential address offered more clarity than we have had to date. All communities across 11 coastal and up-county counties must vacate or be forcefully evacuated away from high-risk dams, water reservoirs and rivers to higher ground. Schools will remain closed indefinitely. Constituency Development Funds will be directed to rebuilding damaged schools while National Cereals and Produce Board food reserves will go to relief programmes.

The president was worryingly vague on how much the Treasury has been instructed to fund national and county emergency programmes. The promise of relocation and shelter support, a life and death issue for thousands currently homeless, was also unclear. Apart from his passionate and welcoming plea for environmental conservation, his speech was silent on who is accountable for the current human security lapse and how this will be prevented in future.

At the invitation of Pussy Power organisation, I spent Labour Day listening to Mathare residents sheltering in schools, places of worship, food kitchens and along the still surging Nairobi River. While overlooked in the president’s speech, community-based organisations were their first line of defence against drowning, disease, hunger, and homelessness. Absent were navy divers to retrieve bodies, diggers, and tippers to remove debris and officers to assist with trauma counselling and antiretroviral and insulin medicine. Absent also were state officers to register the dead or those without citizenship documents, offer clothing and identify alternative schools for their children were absent. Most are willing to relocate but lack the Sh7,000 shillings for one month’s rent and deposit.

Timely information gathering, open danger reporting lines and community-based decision-making led by local leaders trusted across communities are now critical. Top-down national pronouncements and no local follow-through will diffuse the government’s efforts to protect citizens.

The lack of sustainable land use policy, emergency planning and mitigation strategies to date must not be allowed to confuse comprehensive, inclusive, and faster recovery efforts now. However, unless the government dares to implement a more comprehensive disaster management approach, floods, frustration, and fear will remain out there in the future.

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