Opinion: Kenya must prioritize anticipatory measures against climate disasters

Stephen Kimotho

May 16, 2024

Kenya’s Water Resources Management Authority (WARMA) revealed that the devastating floods in Mai Mahiu town in Kenya, which swept away nearly 100 homes and tragically killed over 50 people, originated from a water-filled gulley in Kiambu County.

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

Shift focus from reactive responses

The devastation caused by the Mai Mahiu flood disaster should be a powerful catalyst for change. It’s a stark reminder of Kenya’s extreme vulnerability to climate-fuelled hazards. As heavy rains and floods continue to wreak havoc in various counties, the question is no longer ‘if’ another disaster will strike but rather ‘when’ and ‘where.’

This is a call to action. Kenya must shift its focus from reactive responses to more proactive measures to disaster management. It’s time for Kenya to embrace anticipatory action approaches to risks and disaster management to mitigate the impact of future catastrophes.

Once again, this tragedy puts Kenya in the spotlight, highlighting its poor disaster preparedness and management score. The country has a severe problem of preparedness. Despite the increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, many Kenyan communities remain ill-equipped to cope with such disasters. This is a pressing issue. Mainly because there are limited or no early warning systems among many communities in Kenya, and those available are often unreliable. This lack of awareness often leaves many people unaware of impending disasters. Among many rural communities, infrastructure is often built without adequate consideration for the changing climate, which makes many such communities susceptible to collapse under heavy rains or flooding.

A vicious cycle that perpetuates poverty

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 offer 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 modeling, and community-centered 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 and ensuring that evacuation routes are well-maintained and accessible.

Moving people out of harm’s way in advance

The package should include social and behavior change programs to help people modify their beliefs and attitudes, adopt new ways of perceiving risks, and change behaviors. Pre-emptive decisions and actions—like moving people out of harm’s way well in advance—must be part of the strategy before disaster strikes. 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 is shattered. But amidst the wreckage, the human spirit endures. At such times, these people need urgent help to rebound by providing immediate relief (important) and supporting them to get back to their feet 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 landslide hazards, and county governments need elaborate anticipatory action programs to prevent 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 reduce risk further.

Catalyst for a fundamental shift

My point is that – investing in anticipatory action and resilience programs is long overdue.  Such a 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 an unfortunate culture that relegates disaster preparedness to the back burner.

Devastating flood disasters are not new in the country. On May 9, 2018, the 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. Our hope as Kenyans is 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.


Stephen Kimotho is an Assistant Professor of public health communication at USIU-A and a consultant in Risk and Emergency Communication.