Kenya + 3 more

East Africa: Disasters overwhelm regional governments - 10 Jan 2008

SUBJECT: Natural disaster preparedness in East Africa and the Great Lakes.

SIGNIFICANCE: Over the past 20 years, greater responsibility has been placed upon national governments for disaster planning, and mitigation, in their own territories.  However, recent disaster episodes in the region suggest that its governments are some way from meeting their obligations.

ANALYSIS: Applying the lessons learned from such major catastrophes as the Ethiopian famines of 1984-85 -- which together killed over 1 million people -- the emphasis in dealing with natural disasters has shifted from response and management to issues of advanced planning and damage limitation, or what came to be known simply as 'disaster preparedness'.  The UN declared the 1990s as the 'International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction' (IDNDR), which was succeeded in 2000 by a permanent UN body, the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR).

International versus national response.  As the 1990s wore on, the emphasis of DNDR conferences shifted from technical approaches towards the social and political environments within which disaster planning takes place.  Contemporary research stressed the role played by social and political factors in shaping -- either magnifying or negating -- the impacts of practically all natural disasters.

However, in 2000 it was still assumed that the primary agents of disaster preparation would be international agencies.  As such, much of the ISDR's initial work in social and political policy focused exclusively upon improving coordination and cooperation between the international agencies.  

However, events of 2001 -- not least the man-made 'disaster' of the September 11 attacks -- soon led to a further shift in thinking, and to the ISDR instead encouraging national governments to develop their own, individual strategies for disaster preparedness.  Successive ISDR policies -- and funding mechanisms -- have consistently emphasised as much, especially with regard to developing countries.  The ultimate aim has been for all governments to be able to deal with most natural disasters without the need of outside intervention or support.

Eastern African initiatives.  From 2001 onwards, a particular focus has been placed on the countries of East Africa and the Great Lakes:

- In part, this is because the region has seen some of the worst natural disasters of living memory.  It is particularly prone to such events, given that it is an area of extreme environments, uncertain rainfall and geological fault lines.

- It had also been targeted recently by international terrorism (with the bombings of the US embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi in August 1998).  

Early planning efforts.  All of these factors suggested that the region's countries were in urgent need of new, national disaster strategies:

- Tanzania.  The first country in the region to be targeted in this 'new wave' of disaster preparedness funding was Tanzania, which in 2001 received substantial US funds to rejuvenate its moribund Tanzania Disaster Relief Committee.  One of the first tasks of the resulting structure -- the Strengthening Tanzania Disaster Response Capacity Programme -- was to carry out a comprehensive Disaster Vulnerability Analysis, aimed at identifying all possible natural disaster risks nationwide.  

- Kenya.  In 2002, the Kenyan government similarly created a new -- multi-ministry -- National Disaster Policy (NDP), which was initially underwritten by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) at 350,000 dollars per year.  

- DRC.  Also in 2002, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) set up its own Disaster Preparedness Fund (DPF), initially also funded by the UN.

- Uganda.  In 2003, Uganda revised its existing National Disaster Preparedness Policy to create a distinct Ministry for Disaster Preparedness (within the Office of the Prime Minister).  

Other regional governments would later follow suit.

Actual impact.  All of the above programmes and projects have since spent significant sums on analysing the risks prevalent in their territories.  However, in terms of the concrete impact on actual disasters, the results have been somewhat mixed:  

1. Goma volcano.  In January 2002, Mount Nyamuragira, in its first major eruption in 25 years, sent rivers of lava down through Goma, in eastern DRC, destroying as much as 40% of the entire city and killing at least 45 people.  The eruption initially displaced 400,000 people -- almost the entire population of Goma -- and eventually left 120,000 permanently homeless.  The recently created DPF was overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster, and eventually had to accept offers of assistance from international agencies.  These interventions were coordinated by UNDP, whose own contribution to recovery programmes was 4.9 million dollars.

2. NDP challenges.  The Kenyan NDP has had to deal with a series of natural disasters:

- In May 2002, in early 2003, and again in April 2005, various parts of the country were hit by severe flooding.  

- In December 2004, the Kenyan coast was hit by the same tsunami which caused such devastation elsewhere in the Indian Ocean basin.  

- In January 2006, the country experienced one of its worst droughts, and subsequent food security crises, in living memory.

On each of these occasions, the NDP made a significant intervention, with at least some success.  In relation to the 2004 tsunami, it was partly the NDP's actions -- in notifying the coastguard, and other agencies -- that prevented Kenya experiencing the same loss of life seen elsewhere.  During the famine of 2006, the NDP distributed more than 14 million dollars of food aid to affected farmers.

However, it is also the case that during every single one of the above incidents, the country also received significant assistance from the World Food Programme (WFP), and other international agencies.  Following the 2006 famine alone, the WFP contributed more than 150 million dollars to the NDP's efforts.

3. Regional flooding.  Between late July and early August 2007, parts of East Africa -- as well as some parts of Central and West Africa -- were hit by some of the worst flooding in living memory, following one of the heaviest periods of rainfall recorded since the early 1960s.  One of the worst affected countries was Uganda, in which the flooding -- which was mainly concentrated in the north-east of the country -- displaced as many as 400,000 people, and killed at least 21.  

The Ministry of Disaster Preparedness proved completely ineffectual, and was simply overwhelmed by the scale of the crisis.  Amid great criticism in the Ugandan press, the ministry was eventually forced to request outside assistance to respond to the problem.  The UN eventually pledged 43 million dollars in assistance.

Outlook.  The DPF's poor performance following the eruption of Mount Nyamuragira can be partly attributed to the fact that it occurred at a time of civil war -- and general state collapse -- in the DRC.  In addition, the role Kenya's NDP played during the tsunami event shows what advantages might eventually come from primarily national programmes.  

However, the fact that all of the national disaster programmes -- most of which are already underwritten by international aid -- have had to be repeatedly bailed out by international agencies, and by such significant sums, must call into question whether regional governments (or indeed, any developing world countries) will ever be able to afford the full costs of natural disasters without outside support.  

CONCLUSION: It is still early days for the region's disaster preparedness programmes.  While some benefits are already discernable, much more work will have to be done for any of the countries of East Africa or the Great Lakes to become self-sufficient.


Oxford Analytica
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