Humanitarians challenged in response to flooding across East Africa

People stand near a bridge broken by heavy rains in West Pokot County, Kenya. Photo by: REUTERS / Stringer

NAIROBI — Abnormally heavy floods have burdened East Africa in recent months, stretching the humanitarian sector thin as it responds to crisis after crisis. Accessing flood-stricken populations has been a primary challenge due to insecurity in some areas and flood-destroyed or nonexistent infrastructure in others, according to aid workers.

This type of extreme flooding, primarily driven by record-breaking temperature rises in the Indian Ocean, is expected to become a new reality faced by the humanitarian sector as the climate changes.

The flooding is due to a phenomenon known as a positive Indian Ocean Dipole, which occurs when sea surface temperatures are warmer in the western part of the Indian Ocean, leading to heavy rainfall in East Africa and, conversely, dryness in Australia and Southeast Asia. The positive dipole is currently at its strongest point since 2006. When the dipole is in its negative phase, the reverse happens, causing drought in East Africa.

“As climatic shocks pile up, people's livelihoods are being devastated and their access to basic needs, including food and clean water, is being compromised.”

— Gemma Connell, head, OCHA ROSEA

While it’s unclear whether climate change led to the development of this current dipole, rising sea temperatures are expected to increase the number and frequency of this type of phenomenon in East Africa, according to Nathanial Matthews, director of programs at the Global Resilience Partnership.

“The climate crisis — and the intensification of phenomenon such as the Indian Ocean Dipole — is driving rising humanitarian needs,” said Gemma Connell, head of the Regional Office for Southern and Eastern Africa at the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. “As climatic shocks pile up, people's livelihoods are being devastated and their access to basic needs, including food and clean water, is being compromised.”

The extreme floods are causing some in the humanitarian sector to assess whether community-based resilience programming can adequately protect communities against climate shocks, or whether governments should instead prioritize large projects focused on containing and diverting water.

Regional floods

Thousands of Kenyans were hit by massive rains this week, causing flash flooding and subsequent mudslides that resulted in the loss of lives, homes, crops, and livestock. Some called it the “worst disaster in memory.”

While flooding is anticipated at this time of year in Kenya, the volumes of water were beyond what was expected, said Peter Abwao, communications manager at the Kenya Red Cross Society. Many of the communities impacted were recently suffering from drought.

“We were coming from a period of prolonged drought, especially in the northern part of Kenya. There had been a drought from about December,” he said. “These people were very vulnerable.”

At the onset of the flooding, access to communities in the northeastern part of the country was delayed because bridges collapsed and roads were cut off, Connell said. Because of this, assistance was delivered by air.

In Somalia, hundreds of thousands of people — many of whom were also recently suffering from drought — have been impacted by flooding that started at the end of October, causing the Juba and Shabelle rivers to overflow.

Beyond the difficulty of accessing communities due to security concerns, coordinating the response was also a challenge, with groups duplicating their efforts and providing aid to the same communities, said Yves Rukundo, World Food Programme’s head of Mogadishu Area Office.

“We would go in one village to assist the beneficiaries and see someone else coming to assist. We tried to avoid that with the task force, but some stakeholders did not attend the task force meetings,” he said.

Flooding has also devastated huge swaths of South Sudan since July, leading President Salva Kiir to declare a state of emergency last month.

While seasonal flooding is common in South Sudan, the flooding was much heavier than in previous years, according to Helene Sandbu Ryeng, communications specialist at United Nations Children’s Fund.

“In the rainy season, we always see some flooding — to some extent. But it’s typically short-term and then the water resides. We haven’t seen floods with this scope and levels in many, many years,” she said.

In South Sudan, aid groups are providing water purification tablets and creating temporary health structures to replace health facilities under water, she said.

Flooding across the region is also accompanied by concerns over waterborne diseases as flood waters stagnate, such as cholera and malaria.

“Most people that we’ve seen are still drinking and using the floodwaters, so we are preparing for the medical consequences of that,” said Richard Crothers, Somalia country director at International Rescue Committee.

Infrastructure investments, early warning

With climate change, sea temperatures are expected to continue to rise, Matthews said.

“We will, for the foreseeable future, continue to see both sea-level rise and warming sea temperatures on the surface of the sea and in the deep ocean,” he said. “This will cause greater precipitation to fall in eastern Africa.”

The flooding was worsened by poor infrastructure to contain floodwaters coming from certain areas, including Ethiopia’s highlands, which caused levees to burst in other parts of the region, according to responders. Crothers said it was crucial to move with investments in areas such as better watershed management.

“Typically, most of the investment in Somalia has been in community-based projects such as digging boreholes and wells,” he said. “There needs to be further investments and larger projects.”

This includes ensuring that the water from floods is collected through dams or canal systems, which can then be used during the dry seasons, Crothers said.

“The community-based approaches the country has relied upon are no longer adequate to provide the resilience that is necessary,” he said.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations recently surveyed canals in Lower Juba, Somalia, to assess them for rehabilitation.

Improving early warning systems for natural disasters is also key, according to Matthews. He said this could be done with weather stations on coasts or by using digital technology to reach a wide range of people.

About the author

  • Sara Jerving

    Sara Jerving is Devex's East Africa Correspondent based in Nairobi. She is a reporter and producer, whose work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Vice News, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Nation magazine, among others. Sara holds a master's degree in business and economic reporting from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism where she was a Lorana Sullivan fellow.