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Floods on record-high Lake Victoria expose need for water cooperation

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Unusually high rainfall has caused 'backflow' into Africa's largest lake, displacing communities and spurring calls for more regional effort to manage water

By Justus Wanzala

BUDALANGI, Kenya, Aug 19 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Women dashed around open kitchens dotted across the playground of Bubango Primary School, preparing to feed the hundreds of children who now call the school in western Kenya their home.

About 400 families from Budalangi, in Busia County, have been living at the school since April, when the Nzoia River that flows from Kenya's western highlands into Lake Victoria burst its banks in the worst flooding the area has seen in decades.

After more than a year of unusually heavy rainfall, over 800,000 Kenyans have been displaced by flooding, according to the government.

The situation has been made worse by flooded rivers channelling huge volumes of water into Lake Victoria, Africa's largest lake, causing it to spill over onto its shores - a phenomenon called "backflow".

"We lost everything when our homes got inundated with water. Houses have been destroyed, livestock and crops swept away," said Hesborne Opondo, 45, who lost his shop to the rising lake.

His wife now sells flatbread to others living at Bubango school to support their six children, he added.

Scientists warn that other massive flood events may be ahead as climate change strengthens, and some have urged the three countries that share the lake - Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania - to work together to put systems in place to lessen flood damage.

"There should be a joint effort in dealing with disaster management and preparedness in the lake region," said Alfred Owuor Opere, a climate and water expert at the University of Nairobi.

Management of the dams that regulate the flow of water into Lake Victoria should especially be a regional concern, as the area is expected to receive enhanced rainfall in future, he added.

While Budalangi is no stranger to flooding, in recent years the damage has been limited by two dykes the government built 20 years ago along the Nzoia River and on the southern shore of Lake Victoria, according to local elders.

But this year, the dykes could not contain the flooding - the most severe the area has seen since the 1960s, say experts, who attribute it to a combination of climate change and the erosion of shores by urbanisation and farming.

A year of extraordinarily heavy rains, which started in April 2019 following a drought, pushed the lake's water level up to 13.4 metres (44 feet) in May, breaking the previous 1964 record, according to the Lake Victoria Basin Commission.

In normal years, the lake has an average level of 12 metres.

While the waters that burst from the Nzoia have started to recede, the backflow from the lake is still flooding surrounding areas, residents said.