Kenya: Early warning volunteers try to prevent flood misery

world | Apr 25, 2012 | By IRIN 

Joseph Mbima wades along submerged footpaths as he moves from homestead to homestead in the Bunyala area of western Kenya. His mission: to ask residents to evacuate their homes in the event of flash-flood warnings.

“During floods, many people die because they fail to heed any warning to leave their homes because they think they can climb rooftops or trees and survive and… end up being swept away with their belongings,” Mbima, an early warning volunteer, told IRIN in Bunyala.

Bunyala is in the Budalangi region, which has an estimated population of 64,000, many of whom live in the flood plains of the River Nzoia. 

The Nzoia perennially bursts its banks causing population displacement and damaging crops and infrastructure. In 2008, for example, some 10,000 people were displaced with at least 2,500 others marooned, while in 2007 an estimated 28,000 people were affected, according to the Ministry of Special Programmes.

At present, ongoing rains are increasing farmers’ anxiety in Budalangi. “We need rain to plant our crops, but it will also bring floods and sweep our crops away,” Jack Wasilla, a farmer, told IRIN as he dug a trench to drain water from his farm. “We don’t know what to do but we pray and hope this time there will be no floods.”

Experts are calling for better flood management. 

“There should be sustainable ways of controlling the floods like building a dam and educating people on the dangers of cultivating and destroying trees and vegetation along the river banks. Unless this is done, rains will continue to cause misery to people in Budalangi and other flood-prone areas,” Sylvia Miriwa, an environmental management lecturer at Maseno University, in western Kenya, told IRIN.

But past plans to dam the Nzoia stalled after local members of parliament disagreed on the viability of the project and on where to relocate some 40,000 people. Residents have in the past been reluctant to relocate, saying the flood plains are their ancestral lands blessed by fertile soils brought downstream by floods.

Currently the emphasis is on providing early warning information. A flood alert system is in place to help monitor water levels in the Nzoia.

Dykes (some of which were constructed 40 years ago) to hold back flood waters are also regularly repaired, with the government providing local residents with gunny bags.

Contingency measures

“We have food stocks in our stores for this area and we have evacuation trucks ready and a disaster risk centre as well. But I don’t think floods will strike this time,” Khalif Abdi, Bunyala’s district commissioner, told IRIN.

In 2011, flash-floods displaced thousands in Budalangi. “The other time [in 2011], we were caught unawares, but this time, trust me, we are fully prepared. We have an early warning system in place,” said Khalif, adding that the government has also formed a disaster management committee made up of government and aid agency officials.

Amid ongoing heavy March to May long rains, some residents, fearing the worst, have abandoned their homes and are staying in nearby market centres.

“I lost my husband when floods came in 2011. He died saving our goats and we lost all our property. I have decided to stay here away from that home for the time being,” Julia Othieno, from nearby Port Victoria fish-landing beach, told IRIN.

Flash-floods and storms in other parts of Kenya have led to the deaths of at least 17 people and affected some 58,000, with dozens of livestock swept away and infrastructure destroyed, according to the Kenya Red Cross Society.

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