Why Kenyans must be ready for El Nino

El Nino is remembered by many Kenyans for the havoc it caused 12 years ago rather than its Spanish name which in English translates to “The Little One”.

Scientists worldwide have predicted a season of storms and floods that may start some time this month, and the Meteorological Department says Kenyans had better be prepared as well.

“In 1997 we warned people of the impending floods. We were looked at as doomsayers and the information we gave out was taken with a pinch of salt. So people were caught unprepared,” said Mr Ayub Shaka of the Meteorological Department during an interview with the Sunday Nation.

Back then, Mr Shaka says all the alerts they were giving out were not only confined to media reports but they went to relevant government ministries as well.

Nobody listened. After two months of “dark” forecasts, the storm came to pass. In a normal year, the short rain season is meant to begin in October and run through to December. In 1997 this timetable was adhered to, but the amount of rainfall received through most parts of the country was more than expected. The downpour, which started as normal rains in October, had by early November brought heavy flooding.

By January of the following year, the amount of rainfall received in different parts of the country was increasing. The skies only let up in February 1998. The result of the four months of heavy rainfall was massive flooding and landslides resulting in death and destruction.

A 2007 report commissioned by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) conducted by Kenyan researchers says that El Nino was responsible for destruction of several bridges and an estimated 100,000 km of rural and urban roads. This eventually led to a paralysis of the transport system in many parts of the country. The estimated cost of the damage was put at $670 million.

But despite assurances from the Met department that it is unlikely that the ghosts from El Nino will haunt Kenyans as they did in 1997, some who were affected by the rains of 1997 are not taking chances.

“They have been wrong before, and they have been right before. This is just a case of staying safe,” said Ms Betty Maina, the Chief Executive Officer of the Kenya Association of Manufacturers. Ms Maina says that this time, members of the association will not sit back as the rains wreak havoc on the country’s infrastructure.

“If there is a lesson we learnt from 1997, it is that we should always be prepared. Companies now have alternative power sources and multiple routes through which their goods can get to the markets,” she said.

In an era in which population pressure has forced people to settle on almost every available land surface, the Dutch, renowned for reclaiming vast areas of land previously under water, believe they have a solution to yet another of humanity’s problem.

They have built two-storeyed houses that float. In case of floods around these specially-built houses, they simply rise with the tide. Although others like KAM are taking some preventive action against the damage that may be caused by El Nino, a majority of Kenyans cannot do much.

The UCAR report says that the hardest hit people during the 1997 El Nino rains were the poor. “Most of those affected by these natural occurrences are those living in slums and squatters along flood and landslide-prone areas.

Poverty also seriously affects their resilience to disasters given the constant challenges for survival, which many face,” says the report. It is estimated that more than half the Kenyan population lives on under a dollar a day.

Although many countries under the constant threat of hazardous weather have early warning systems to create awareness of the impending disasters and, hence, make people more alert to impending danger, the same may not be said about Kenya.

“As the Meteorological department, we can only do so much. We relay our data to all the concerned bodies. How they choose to react to our warning or advice is entirely up to them,” said Mr Shaka.

In 1997, the aviation and shipping industries too were affected as some runways and shipping yards flooded. “Both scheduled and chartered flights were cancelled due to poor visibility and the submergence of the navigational equipment and runways by flood waters.

The docking facilities at the shipping ports were also submerged in flood waters making it impossible to offload merchandise from the ships,” says the UCAR report.

Weather experts, however, say the situation may not be as bad as the 1997 one. “Kenyans always associate El Nino with the floods and destruction of 1997 not knowing it is a recurrent phenomenon. We have experienced El Nino conditions several times since 1997, but with minimum or no damage to the country’s infrastructure,” says Mr Shaka.

Despite this, Mr Shaka says, Kenyans should still be prepared for whatever outcome that the weather might bring. “Ours is not an exact science yet so we cannot say the exact amount of rainfall expected. All we are sure of is that the amount of rain received will be more than average and therefore we should prepare ourselves for occasional flash floods,” he said.

The report singles out the telecommunication, health and transport as some of the most vulnerable sectors. In 1997, several health facilities were destroyed, water sources were contaminated, and there were increases in the number of stagnant water ponds, overgrowth around homesteads and market centres, blockage and overflow of sewers and open drains, and an increase in fly breeding as a result of decomposing refuse. These factors led to an upsurge of disease epidemics like cholera that in some instances caused death.