Climate change-driven floods destroy lives and crops in Kenya

By Verenardo Meeme

June 2, 2021

Climate change has brought abnormally high rainfall to Kenya, resulting in flooding that threatens food security in five counties.

Tana River, Kisumu, Busia, Homa Bay and Migori counties are now depending on humanitarian aid after the ongoing heavy rains and floods that swept over 4,700 acres of land.

Jared Okello, Nyando Member of Parliament, said the current floods are unprecedented in recent times. ‘‘What we have experienced over the last two years is akin to what last happened in 1963, the worst flooding of its time that occasioned the government to move people to higher grounds.’’

Joseph Owino, a resident of Nyando, in Kisumu County, lamented: “Now we are experiencing a big challenge. We do not have houses, there is no land and the food we had stored has been submerged in water. The floods have washed away everything.”

Ruth Akoth, another Nyando resident, says the heavy rains and floods have also brought poisonous life-threatening snakes. “I cannot leave my children to go to work because I fear they might be bitten by a snake. I got scared when I saw snakes flowing with the floods.”

Residents also fear that the ongoing floods could lead to waterborne diseases as pit latrines overflow. Schools have been suspended.

The Ministry of Water, Sanitization and Irrigation has intervened to try and restore a semblance of normalcy in the area, with excavators sent to divert the water into rivers and streams while the government looks for a long-term solution, such as the construction of dams.

Experts attribute the weather phenomenon to climate change. In addition, pressure cells from both the south and north are causing deep contraction along Lake Victoria, generating heavy rains that have swelled the rivers and cleared everything in their path, according to the Kenya Meteorology Department.

Kenya’s Red Cross has recorded hundreds of livestock animals were washed away in counties lying in the plains. In some rural areas vulnerable residents are not able to access essential services such as markets, schools and hospitals, further threatening their livelihoods. The enhanced floods have further disrupted agricultural production.

The new Global Report on Food Crisis, released in May by the Global Network Against Food Crisis, revealed that nearly 98 million people faced acute food insecurity in 2020, with two out of three of them living in sub-Saharan Africa.

Further, the report finds that weather extremes will continue to exacerbate acute food insecurity in fragile economies while stating that ‘‘a radical transformation of our agri-food systems is needed to achieve the sustainable development goals (SDGs).”

With floods wreaking havoc on Kenya’s arable land, the report finds that while two consecutive seasons of good rains benefited food security in rural areas, they were still affected by floods and desert locusts. Urban populations faced particularly high levels of acute food insecurity due to the economic impacts of COVID-19, the report states.

Africa is more vulnerable than any other region to the world’s changing weather patterns, according to climate specialist Richard Washington.  African society is very closely coupled with the climate system, as hundreds of millions of people depend on rainfall to grow their food.

The African climate system is controlled by an extremely complex mix of large-scale mostly understudied weather systems. The extent of expected climate change in Africa is large, with overall projected decreases in rainfall that could bring prolonged droughts that also ruin crops.

Kenya and other African countries must seriously take note of expert caution that the continent could be walking into a potential catastrophe, the report warns.

Africa’s capacity for adapting to climate change is low. Poverty gives people reduced choices at the individual level, while governments have generally failed to prioritize and act on climate change.

Kenya has taken some steps to respond to the climate emergency that has increased the frequency and magnitude of extreme weather events in the country, resulting in lost lives,  reduced crop and livestock production, diminished livelihoods and damaged infrastructure. The government has developed a five-year National Climate Action Plan to guide the mainstreaming of adaptation and mitigation actions into the functions of both the national and county governments.

Urgent steps are needed to engage stakeholders in these actions since the climate crisis is posing a major threat to the country’s development agenda, officials say.

The Global Report on Food Crisis’ authors write that substantial rural food insecurity persisted in Kenya during late 2020. About 45 percent of the population considered in crisis or worse conditions live in in rural arid and semi-arid lands (ASALs), while 55 percent reside in urban slums.

The report also reported high levels of acute food insecurity in Uganda, where urban, refugee and vulnerable rural populations faced high levels of acute food insecurity due to the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19, heavy April–May rainfall that caused flooding in some areas and localized conflict. Those living in informal settlements and/or predominantly dependent on informal employment, which accounts for about 81 percent of total employment in urban areas, were most impacted, the report states.

Image: A Kenyan schoolgirl heads home with a rescued goat kid during floods. Shutterstock/Cheboite Titus