Now that floods have come to cities, govts will be forced to act

People pull a car submerged in flood water along Thika Road in Nairobi, capital of Kenya, on May 1, 2024. (Photo by Joy Nabukewa. Xinhua).

Wild climatic swings, from sweltering heat and drought to relentless rain and floods, have become quite common lately. Climate experts warn that this pattern, where the wet season will become wetter and the dry season hotter, may become the norm.

We have already seen evidence of this in East Africa in the last few years.

In March this year, an unusually massive heatwave kept children in South Sudan out of school. High temperatures and the safety of students forced the government to announce a temporary closure of schools.

Today, heavy rains that have been pounding Kenya and causing floods are keeping students in from school. They have already claimed more than two hundred lives, thousands of others have been displaced or made homeless, and others injured. On Friday, May 3, President William Ruto announced the postponement of schools opening for the second term that was due next week.

Here in Rwanda the rains have been heavy but not as destructive as they were last year or as in Kenya today. Still, there have been some fatalities.

The story is the same in much of East Africa. Torrential downpours without letting up. Swollen rivers breaking their banks and flooding surrounding areas, covering homesteads and farmland. Dams bursting and the rushing water sweeping everything in its path, including people, houses, and vegetation. Bridges and sections of roads washed away and cutting off entire communities. Landslides carrying away entire villages and dumping them in other areas or burying them under mud, trees, and rubble.

These are not some imagined headlines. It is real. You couldn’t imagine this happening. The usually dry northern Kenya, often a scene of devastation caused by drought, completely covered by water. The Masai Mara, home to famous wildlife and tourists’ paradise completely submerged, with only treetops showing and its famous visitors evacuated by helicopter. What has happened to the poor animals that attracted them here in the first place, we do not know.

The worst may yet come. The weatherman has been telling East Africans to brace themselves for more rain. A cyclone has even entered the picture. One, named Hidaya, which has been building up in the Indian Ocean was forecast to hit the East African coast on Sunday. However, it is reported to have lost its strength before making landfall.

This would be a new phenomenon in the region and mark a significant shift in weather patterns for which East Africans are not adequately prepared. Cyclones have not been common here. They probably spend their main force in the ocean. We only experience their residual force as stronger winds and increased rain. Never their full force.

The humanitarian catastrophe that the death, destruction, and dislocation cause is akin to that caused by war. The cost in terms of lives lost, infrastructure destroyed, crops lost or damaged, trade disrupted, and humanitarian relief is simply immense.

It could have been worse were it not for some measures that have cushioned us against even more destruction.

Early warning systems seem to have improved. Meteorology departments are giving early and more reliable weather forecasts, largely due to better science, more trained staff, and better equipment (though not the best or latest). Governments and citizens now seem to take their forecasts more seriously and act on them. Still, there is a need to invest more in climate science and forecasting systems.

A new response mind-set is developing and governments are not waiting for disasters to happen before they act. President Ruto’s decision to postpone the opening of schools and other measures his government has taken is a case in point

In some cases, as in Rwanda, they are not afraid to take stronger, if unpopular, action. Such tough decisions include the relocation of residents from high-risk or disaster-prone areas such as steep hillsides, wetlands, or along river banks to safer settlements.

Rwanda has taken other measures like the construction of flood protection infrastructure, such as canals and, more importantly, keeping them free of debris and blockage, reinforcement of riverbanks at points where they are likely to burst and cause damage, or regulating the flow of a river by creating a diversion in parts of its course.

This is in addition to such other actions as the reclamation, restoration, and management of wetlands and denuded hillsides.

But all these can only be fully effective if accompanied by increased consciousness of citizens. We are seeing governments engaging more with the people in the management of the environment and mitigating the effects of disasters.

Weather-related disasters have always occurred. Human beings have always found a way to cope with them. They are now happening with increased frequency and fury. How much rain falls and for how long, and the resulting flooding or landslides may be beyond our control. Simply coping is clearly inadequate. Other measures are needed, at least to reduce their severity and the devastation they cause.

Many of them are fairly common sense. One is taking note of and acting on the lessons learnt from previous disasters and correcting what was seen to be wrong or missing in order to prevent a similar or worse one next time.

Another is identifying and mapping disaster hotspots like road traffic managers do with accident spots. Rwanda has already started on this.

Then, policies must be designed and followed regarding better land use and management, better human settlements, and maintenance of water drainage infrastructure, especially in the cities.

The ongoing heavy rains and flooding may be among the severest this region has seen, but something good may come out of it. As they say, every cloud has a silver lining. In the past, disasters of this kind happened in the countryside, in scarcely populated low-lying areas, mountains, and hilly places often denuded of their vegetation, away from much public view.

They were not considered a dangerous threat. Now, they have come to the cities. The devastation and inconvenience affect more people in a smaller geographical space and the impact is that much greater. Politicians cannot ignore them. City residents will howl loud and long. Governments have to act. If we see better policies, we may thank the rains for it.




Joseph Rwagatare 

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