Building Resilience to Flood-Related Disasters

Building Resilience to Flood-Related Disasters

Floods are among the most common and destructive natural hazards. They occur when large quantities of water overflow onto a normally dry land. Flooding can be caused by overflowing of streams, rivers, lakes or oceans or can be because of excessive rain. Various factors are likely to see an increase in the frequency and intensity of flooding events. These include: local geography, ground cover, growing human populations and erratic weather conditions due to global warming.

Regular floods take hours or even days to develop, giving residents ample time to prepare or evacuate. Common types of such floods include: riverine flooding; surface water flooding; and coastal floods. Fluvial or riverine flooding occurs when rainfall over an extended period causes major rivers to overflow their banks causing flooding over enormous areas. As the water level slowly rises, communities can be evacuated to safer grounds. This type of flooding is severe in Tana River, Turkana, Kisumu, Mandera, and Kilifi, where major rivers overflow during severe rainfall events, displacing thousands of people. Pluvial, or surface water flooding is caused by heavy rainfall in areas where land has a low permeability and/or is already saturated or developed. Pluvial flood is common in urban areas when intense rainfall saturates an urban drainage system or may occur due to lack of proper drainage in an urban area. This has been witnessed in Narok town and in Nairobi’s South C and Langata estates. Coastal or Surge flooding occurs in areas that lie on the coast of a sea, ocean, or other large body of open water. In most cases, they occur because of extreme tidal conditions caused by severe weather. While coastal flooding is not common in Kenya, similar spectacles have occurred on the shores of lakes Victoria, Naivasha, Nakuru, Elementaita, Bogoria and Magadi when the lakes swell following heavy rainfall, threatening the survival of both communities and wildlife.

Flash floods, unlike the regular floods, are characterized by rapid and extreme flow of high water into a normally dry area or a rapid rise in a stream above a pre-determined flood level. As such, these floods are generated quickly and with little warning and can be extremely dangerous because they sweep everything in their path. The keyword with flash floods is speed. Flash floods mainly occur due to heavy rains. They are most common in hilly areas with steep valleys, in low-altitude areas with poor drainage systems, or along small waterways in urban environments. Such flash floods have been experienced in Narok, Kisumu, Baringo and Kericho counties and in coastal region.

These flood types often occur jointly. For instance, floods in an urban area could be caused by flash, urban or river floods. Similarly, Narok County is prone to a combination of flash and urban floods due to its topography, unsustainable human practices and poor drainage.

The March-May 2018 rainfall records show that the country received more than 200 per cent of average seasonal amounts in many areas. FEWS NET ­– a USAID famine early warning systems network – indicates that floods events have been severe in Tana River, Turkana, Kisumu, Mandera, and Kilifi, where major rivers overflowed. Other notable major past floods events include: the Uhuru Floods of 1961 that inundated extensive low lying areas; the 1963/1964, 1968, 1977/1978, 1982, 1985 and 1990 floods that mainly hit the Lake Victoria basin and the coastal areas of Athi, Lamu and Tana River basins; the El Niño floods of 1997/1998, with devastating impacts on record until this year (2018); the April/May 2003 floods where the country experienced massive flooding in the Western Province; and the 2015 El Niño floods that mainly affected Tana Delta, Nyanza, Garissa and Turkana. These trends indicate river basins, particularly those found in the western and coastal areas of the country, as flood-prone areas.

While flooding occurs in most counties, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reports that flooding has the most significant impacts in Tana-River, Kilifi, Garissa, Mandera, Siaya, Homa-Bay, Turkana, and Nakuru counties.

Heavy rainfall has mixed effects on agricultural production. In some pastoral and agro-pastoral areas, the rains have led to improved livestock body conditions and supported livestock births and productivity. Regarding crop production, when floodwaters recede, affected areas are often left with rich soil good for crop production. Though fine silt deposits rejuvenate soil fertility for cropping, too much sediment entering waterways may have negative effects on the quality of water downstream. In addition, flood water is generally contaminated with hazardous materials, such as sharp debris, pesticides, rusting building materials, fuel, and untreated sewage. Such pollutants may have negative impacts on the environment, leading to loss of habitat, deteriorating health of communities and lower aquafarming productivity. Potentially dangerous mold blooms can quickly engulf water-soaked structures, resulting in health complications such as nasal stuffiness, throat irritation, coughing or wheezing, eye irritation, or, in some cases, skin irritation. Flooding is also associated with acute sanitation problems and deadly waterborne diseases like typhoid, hepatitis A, and cholera.

Despite some gain in crop and livestock production in flood pains, flooding has worsened food security outcomes for households in some parts of the country. This emanates from damaged crops, both garden/farm to stores and loss of livestock. The extent of the loss and damage depends on the specific crop/livestock, its growth stage and the duration of flooding. Flooding washes away crops and livestock, erodes the top fertile soil and pollutes water, which in turn causes crop damage and leads to loss of livestock. Floods also reduce soil oxygen and nitrogen, which are associated with increased crop and livestock diseases and hence reduced agricultural yields. With limited social safety nets in the country, these occurrences result in increased food insecurity, especially among poor households. Other effects of flooding include displacement of hundreds of thousands of people, fatalities, damage to infrastructure and loss of private property.

Research shows that in the future, extreme weather events are likely to increase during the 21st Century, implying that we should expect more frequent episodes of flooding. In October 2018, floods have caused havoc in: Mallorca in Spain; Florida and Georgia in the US; some parts of Central America; northern Iran; and in India among others. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), climate change will amplify existing risks such as flooding and create new risks for natural and human systems. Therefore, it becomes critical for the country to integrate flood management in the national agenda of guaranteeing food security and nutrition to all Kenyans by 2022. It is also important to ensure preparedness of communities to cope with floods as the short rains begin.

While floods can be immensely destructive, people’s precautions and reactions can mean the difference between life and death. This points to the importance of social preparedness, that is knowledge and capacities of different stakeholders to anticipate, prepare themselves, and respond to an imminent flood risks, for efficient flood risk reduction, especially in flood-prone areas. One of the viable approaches to reduce social disengagement during an imminent or ongoing disaster is to develop a community-based early warning system. This will benefit from the already established indigenous knowledge among communities and at the same time provide a platform to facilitate timely reporting while creating a sense of ownership and accountability. As a result, cases where flood evacuation warnings are ignored are likely to decline. Usually, communities do not respond to the warnings because of several issues including:  denial, memory of flood experience, limited trust in the authorities, low risk awareness or even perceived benefits. For this community-based system to work, community members must be involved in risk assessments, monitoring and warning, dissemination and communication. This system has been used with positive results in countries such as Nepal, Indonesia, Cambodia and Malawi. The systems are shown to help build trusted community networks, which increase the effectiveness of early warning systems and resilience of flood-prone communities.

Natural water retention measures such as reforestation; targeted planting for “catching” precipitation; restoration and maintenance of rivers, basins, ponds, and wetlands; soil conservation practices; appropriate design of roads and stream crossing; sustainable drainage systems; and rainwater harvesting, among others are an important field of action in prompting environment preparedness of floods. These measures are likely to have positive impacts on the surface water body ecologies, retain precipitation, water quality improvement, decreased runoff, soil conservation, and the restoration of the natural water balance.

Under “The Big Four” Economic Plan, the government aims at upscaling insurance with the goal of cushioning farmers against climate-related risks. One such approach that can be of help to flood-prone communities is index-based microinsurance, which pools the risks and resources of whole groups, making insurance available to poorer households who were previously considered uninsurable. Unlike traditional indemnity insurance, which is designed to protect households against the loss of a specific risk, index insurance protects groups from a specific event, such as floods without their having to make individual claims. Index insurance would assess the exposure of communities to flood risks within a specific area and compensate them for the associated loss of income. Among the benefits of index insurance include lower moral hazard, more transparency, timely pay-outs, and lower administration costs. In developing countries, index-based flood insurance has successfully been introduced in: Peru – termed as the Extreme El Nino Insurance Product; in Bihar, India to relieve agricultural communities from severe economic pressure from flood-induced losses; and in Bangladesh where a Meso-Level Flood Index Insurance project was launched to protect river-basin people in the flood-prone regions.

The Kenya 2016 Water Act redefines roles and responsibilities for the management, development and regulation of water resources in the country. Under the Act, several institutions have been established and their roles and responsibilities defined. At the national level, the responsibilities of the Water Resources Authority (WRA) include flood mitigation. It may be critical for WRA to operationalise flood risk prevention and mitigation strategies as outlined in the National Water Resources Management Strategy, completed in 2006. The strategies are fourfold: one, flood prevention and mitigation such as improving catchment conservation and protection so as to retard surface run-off; secondly,  preparedness such as enhancing data recording and information management systems of extreme events; thirdly, responses, which include establishing institutional framework for flood management at national, county and grassroots levels; and lastly, on recovery and rehabilitation, which involves establishing institutional framework for disaster management. To ensure the strategies are a success, it is important to identify the barriers for implementation, potential conflicts and synergies by employing joint assessment methods and mechanisms.

In addition, the Disaster Risk Management Act, 2018 establishes the National Disaster Risk Management Authority. The functions of the authority include serving as the central agency in the implementation of disaster risk management activities, such as floods, and preparing and co-ordinating disaster risk management measures in the country. The Act further provides for the establishment of a County Disaster Risk Management Committee for each of the 47 counties. Among the responsibilities of the county committees is to formulate the county disaster risk management plans and policy in line with the national plan and policy.

The law is welcome as it is viewed to bring several agencies together (i.e. the National Drought Management Authority; National Disaster Management Unit; and National Disaster Operations Centre) and hence provides for better coordination of the country’s approach to disaster prevention, preparedness, mitigation, response and recovery. However, there is need to enforce the provisions of the law to bring resilience among county residents. To achieve this, there is need for political will at the county level and strong coordination and engagement of stakeholders. There is also need for systems to be put in place to provide linkages for national and sub-national activities.

Furthermore, policy coherence between the national and county governments on water, biodiversity, agriculture, drought and flood adaptation and mitigation needs to be fast tracked so that both levels of government are speaking with one voice. To institutionalize disaster management in the country, it is prudent that it should be included in the education curriculum from primary level.


Authors:  Dr Evelyne Kihiu and Nancy Laibuni (Productive Sector Department)

Photo: Courtesy of the Kenya News Agency 


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