How Kenyan communities embrace flood resilience strategies

By Abbas Gullet 07 October 2016

Kenya Red Cross Society staff and volunteers in a rescue boat during a floods response in Magharini. Photo by: Kenya Red Cross Society

Kenyans are all too familiar with floods. The rainy seasons are almost always accompanied by flooding in both rural and urban areas of Kenya. Despite efforts to work with communities to mitigate the effects of potential flooding, nongovernmental organizations and humanitarian agencies are always prepared to respond.

One of the most discussed topics last year was the El Nino phenomenon. Kenyans could easily remember the El Nino rains of 1997, which resulted in 300 deaths, damages worth $670 million and $236 million to infrastructure and the agricultural sector respectively.

The most recent El Nino, which commenced in October 2015 and lasted until April 2016, saw a country more prepared with early warning and mitigation efforts in the form of community contingency plans, household evacuations and movements to higher ground. Nevertheless, the damage caused by the heavy rains was still felt by communities, especially in western and coastal regions of Kenya, where close to 35,000 households were affected.

Many people lose their livestock, which is more often than not their main livelihood. Roads and other infrastructure are damaged or destroyed, secluding communities from timely response and relief. Cholera outbreaks were experienced in many parts of the country due to the contamination of drinking water. The saddest part is that a community that exerted effort to develop and strengthen their livelihoods and build infrastructure, can lose it all during one heavy rainfall, setting them back to when they were completely vulnerable and exposed.

Working with communities to build their resilience

Innovation in practice

One of our most interesting experiences has been working with communities in Isiolo to strengthen a community developed warning system, whereby three rain and river gauges were placed in schools upstream. The data from the rain and river gauges were monitored daily by a trained focal person. In the event that the river levels rise due to heavy rainfall, indicating possible flooding downstream, the light and buzzer placed on an electronic dish on the roof of the school would send warning signals to exposed communities. This innovation excited the community as they had designed the idea while the Kenya Red Cross Society and other partners supported its execution.

Along with other partners, the Kenya Red Cross Society works closely with communities at the grassroots level to strengthen resilience to disasters, including floods. The Partners For Resilience — Kenya Project was implemented in Kenya, as well as eight other countries in 2011-2015.

In Kenya there were several organizations that made up the consortium — The Netherlands Red Cross, Kenya Red Cross Society, CARE Kenya, Wetlands International and Cordaid, who worked with communities in the upper Eastern region of the country to address climate change-related disasters. With the buy-in of the community, a platform was established to bring together the local community-based organizations and NGOs, where decisions on management of the water source were agreed on to minimize the effects of drought and flooding.

A weeklong Camel Caravan was also organized as part of this intervention to raise awareness about the degraded eco-system of the Ewaso Nyiro and the negative impact that community activities and development initiatives have on this water source. Communities from different counties in the region travelled six days to a central location for the event, which was graced by a number of government entities and stakeholders. The event emphasized the importance of community involvement in the protection of their environment and hence, building their resilience to droughts and flooding.

Most of our disaster risk management programs have a component of floods awareness and mitigation both in rural and urban settings. For example, we have supported farmers in Kitui, Makueni and Garissa to learn how to uninstall their pumps at the river beds so that they do not get flooded, which results in high repair costs.

We have also guided the same farmers on how to build furrows around the farm to prevent flooding and the resulting loss of crops. In informal settlements in Nairobi, we have worked with communities to promote and participate in regular clean-ups, thereby freeing the drains of garbage and other blockages, which prevent flooding from heavy rains.

A Kenya Red Cross Society volunteer rescues a young child during floods in Magharini. Photo by: Kenya Red Cross Society

Looking forward through technology

Technology is useful when it comes to early warning, ensuring communities are better prepared and thereby become less prone to or affected by disasters.

Kenya is a technologically-savvy country with over 80 percent mobile ownership, and the population has embraced SMS as a communication tool. The Trilogy Emergency Relief Application SMS platform allows us to send geographically targeted messaging, which means communities can better prepare for potential flooding situations, and encourages them to get in touch with emergency responders when they need assistance.

For instance, during the El Nino rains in 2015, and using the TERA SMS platform, we sent early warning messages to flood prone communities in western Kenya and the coastal region.

Looking forward, we will continue to strengthen resilience to floods through consistent education and awareness activities, interactive community-based platforms and workshops, leveraging on existing coping mechanisms at community level and inspiring communities to continue to develop their own solutions and linkages with experts at the national level who can support these communities in designing their own solutions.

This will improve community ownership and buy-in to efforts that will help them in the event of a disaster. One cannot undermine the importance of working with other actors such as national and local governments, NGOs and the private sector, as this is not a task that one organization or individual can achieve on their own.

Resilience to any disaster, including floods, requires innovation and out-of-the-box thinking, and which can be achieved by working with like-minded organizations and communities.

#WaterWindow is an online conversation to amplify the discussion on flood resilience. Devex, together with its partners the Global Resilience Partnership and Zurich Insurance Group, aims to shine a light on innovative solutions to tackle the issues faced by communities worldwide. Join us. 

About the author

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Abbas Gullet

Dr. Abbas Gullet is the secretary-general of the Kenya Red Cross Society. He is also the founder and chairman of the Boma Groups of hotels in Nairobi, Eldoret and Nyeri which are fully owned by the Kenya Red Cross Society.


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