Floods leave trail of destruction and devastation in lake region

Half submerged building in Lake Victoria, Usenge, Siaya County. 

Half-submerged building in Lake Victoria, Usenge, Siaya County. The April-May heavy rains made the water levels in Lake Victoria to rise, spilling into villages and sweeping away everything in its path.

Photo credit: Winnie Onyando | Nation Media Group

As it dawns in Urima village, Bondo Sub-County, Siaya County, on a May morning, Jane Akinyi struggles to find her way through an invisible pathway cutting across her flooded compound.

For this 55-year-old widow, the aftermath of the April and May downpour in the area has been nothing short of a nightmare. Following the heavy rainfall, life for Akinyi and her children has been reduced to a matter of survival as she helplessly watched all her life savings being washed away.

They have been forced to move from their home into a neighbour’s homestead nearby after days of floods that wiped out almost everything that she owned.

“I have nothing left. Even the trees I planted some years back, which I was to harvest and use the money to pay school fees for my children, have all been swept away,” she explains.

It is the same predicament that Vincent Ouma, a 30-year-old farmer from the same area, faces, having been forced to move his family to Ulowa Primary School, a few kilometres away. “I lost everything and my garden is all flooded. We had to move after our house became inhabitable due to the ever-rising flood waters,” he says.

In the same school, there are tens of people living there and the condition has been worsened by the overflowing waters of Lake Victoria. Heavy rainfall has led to the water level in the lake to rise, spilling into villages and sweeping away everything in its path.

Rainfall inetnsified

"This is posing even more danger as we have to contend with the hippopotamuses roaming around."

At the nearby Nyamonye Girls High School, Mr Charles Obiero,55, a form two teacher, says for the past 23 years he’s taught at the school, he has never witnessed such flooding.

"The teachers’ quarter and two dormitories have flooded and we are using gumboots to navigate to our houses and back to the school compound.”

The Kenya Meteorological Department (KMD) had earlier predicted that the "Long Rains" season would begin between the second and third week of March and though this was accurate, the rainfall intensified and spread to various regions of the country, causing significant destruction.

A building submerged in the floods at Urima Village in Usenge, Siaya

A building submerged in the floods at Urima Village in Usenge, Siaya County on May 8, 2023.

Photo credit: Winnie Onyando | Nation Media Group

According to Chris Ng’etich, a climate scientist at KMD, intensified and widespread rainfall experienced in various regions of the country can be attributed to a combination of factors, and Tropical Cyclone Freddy was one of them.

Though Tropical Cyclone Freddy occurred during the cyclone season over Indian Ocean, which is from November to April, it was one of the world’s longest lived, powerful and deadly storms lasting for 34 days and covered a broader distance of 8,000 kilometres, crossing the entire South Indian Ocean. Malawi suffered the worst impacts of the cyclone.

According to Ng’etich, Freddy’s track was favourable for increased rainfall, resulting in wet conditions in various regions.

“In late February, it crossed the entire South Indian Ocean and made landfall in Madagascar, Malawi and then in Mozambique.

In Kenya, the impacts of the cyclone led to an earlier than expected onset of the March to May (MAM) long rains season over the western sector of the country, including some parts of the Highlands West of the Rift Valley and Lake Victoria Basin.

According to scientists, climate change can affect tropical cyclones in a variety of ways. Normally, tropical cyclones use warm, moist air as their source of energy, and so, as climate change is warming ocean temperatures, there is potentially more of this fuel available.

Between 1979 and 2017, there was a global increase in the proportion of tropical cyclones of Category 3 and higher on the Saffir–Simpson scale, with experts indicating that the trend was clearest in the North Atlantic and in the Southern Indian Ocean.

Among the possible consequences of human-induced climate change are rainfall and wind speed, a decrease in overall frequency, an increase in the frequency of very intense storms and a poleward extension of where the cyclones reach maximum intensity.

Ng’etich says based on scientific evidence and projections, the anticipated increase in global warming and the ongoing impacts of climate change suggest a higher probability of heightened intensity and frequency of extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall storms in the foreseeable future.

“Due to climate change, we are experiencing intense rainfall in a shorter period and storms are expected to exhibit shorter durations, posing significant challenges to affected regions.”

According to him, Kenya should diligently heed all forecasts and early warning information provided by relevant authorities. It is crucial to stay informed and take necessary precautions outlined in the advisories to mitigate potential risks and ensure the safety of individuals and communities. “Vigilance, preparedness and prompt response are key to minimising the impacts of future weather events.”

This is not the first time that the lake is rising and causing destruction. In 2021, Lake Victoria spilt and displaced thousands of people. Researchers said that between October of 2019 and April 2020, the lake rose by 1.3 metres and hit an all-time high water mark of 13.4 metres by September 2020. The lake is a resource shared with Uganda and Tanzania and so when the it rises, the other countries are affected too. However, despite the occasional flooding, scientists still warn that as the world continues to warm, then Lake Victoria, the world’s largest tropical lake and source of the Nile River, could completely dry up in a few decades.

“Our model predicts that at current rates of temperature change and previous rates of lake level fall, Lake Victoria could have no outlet to the White Nile in as little as 10 years. Every major port in Lake Victoria could be landlocked within a century and Kenya could lose access to the lake in 400 years,” a University of Houston College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics scientist was quoted as saying in a 2019 study published on the University’s site.

Due to the region’s vulnerability to the impacts of climate change, the lake region has been targeted by various adaptation activities to enable the communities cope with their new realities. In 2018, for instance, the Adaptation Fund released a five million dollar grant to the Lake Basin Region under a three-year project to build the resilience of the communities around the Lake Region in Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania and Burundi.