x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Kenya veers from drought to floods

Massive flooding has killed at least 35 people, swept away cattle and crops and raised fears of disease as a year of drought ends abruptly.

Towns along the Narok Highway, west of Nairobi, have been hit by heavy rainfall.
Towns along the Narok Highway, west of Nairobi, have been hit by heavy rainfall.

SUSWA, KENYA // Wild zebra and herds of plump cattle graze on fields of green grass in what was recently an arid, dusty plain. Head-high stalks of corn grow in endless rows where, not long ago, brown, withered crops stood.

The rains have finally returned to parched Kenya bringing welcome relief for this country that has suffered more than a year of devastating drought. But in Kenya, when it rains, it pours. Once-in-a-decade El Nino rains, forecast to continue until the end of January, have caused massive flooding across much of the west and north of Kenya. At least 35 people have been killed in the past two weeks and around 30,000 have been left homeless, according to emergency relief officials.

The Kenya Red Cross is distributing tents, food and water purifying tablets in the hardest hit areas including the Rift Valley. "People's houses are flooding," said Gabriel Mukwana, a disaster response officer with the Red Cross in the Rift Valley town of Naivasha. "They need to be shifted from where they are. People were not expecting this rain because of the drought. They were not prepared." Water-borne diseases such as cholera and typhoid are a major concern, aid workers say. The deluge of water also gives malaria-carrying mosquitoes a place to breed. The Kenyan government is working with aid organisations such as the Red Cross to relieve the hardest hit regions.

At a press conference, Kalonzo Musyoka, the vice president, said the government is "consulting with various agencies over mobilisation of resources to assist those in need". "The government would like to assure all Kenyans that it will do all that it can to ensure no more loss of human life where possible." Kenya does not typically experience floods at this time of year. Meteorologists have blamed the unusually heavy rains on El Nino, a periodic warming of the sea in the tropics that can affect weather worldwide.

In northern Kenya, where as recently as last month livestock was dying due to the drought, 2,000 animals were swept away in raging waters. In the Rift Valley, recently planted crops that were finally thriving in the fertile soil were submerged under a metre of water. In Suswa, a Rift Valley village of about 100 brick homes with corrugated metal roofs an hour from Nairobi, residents bailed water from their houses with buckets. The rains began on New Year's Day and the town flooded after the water washed down the side of the valley, residents said.

"After the New Year's celebration, it rained all night and ran down the mountain," said Duncan Saitoti, 15, a student. "Here is the lowland. The water rests here." Houses in the village resembled little islands and residents sloshed through knee-deep water in the inundated streets. About 20 families fled their homes and were staying in the village church that rests on higher ground. "Water came up to the level of the beds as we slept," said Richard Eloto, 35, a labourer who moved his family of six to the church. "It was terrible. We had no option but to find another place to sleep."

Bloated carcasses of sheep and dogs dot the road through the Rift Valley to the Masai Mara game park. Last week, a chunk of the road was washed away in the rains. No one was hurt and traffic now travels around the three-metre wide hole in the road. "It was raining hard when it happened," said Vincent Otieno, an engineer who is working on the road. "The rain has caused a lot of havoc." Further down the road, a large bus sits stuck in deep mud, its windows smashed by tree branches. A large boulder is lodged in the driver's seat and mud fills up the inside of the bus to the tops of the passenger seats. Fortunately, no one was hurt as the waters rushed in.

The bus was travelling to Nairobi last week when it got stuck trying to cross some water covering a low-lying section of the road, according to Michael Kipkarin, the bus conductor. The passengers got off and waited on higher ground. They watched as the rising water levels lifted the heavy vehicle and slammed it into the surrounding trees and rocks. "When we encountered some water, we got off," Mr Kipkarin said. "It became like a river and tossed the bus. I'm glad we weren't onboard."

In Suswa, people have welcomed the rain, even if it has brought death and destruction. The thirsty villagers, like most Kenyans, would rather have a few dozen dead from flooding than see thousands perish in prolonged drought. "The people enjoy living this way more than being without water," Mr Saitoti said. "It's better than drought." mbrown@thenational.ae