Keeping afloat in sunken Kenya

By Andrei Neacsu at the Sasumua dam
The man in the yellow waterproof jacket is giving short and precise orders to a group of workers. The lush green valley of dense, ten metre-high bamboos, eucalyptus and other trees, reminds one of the Amazon rainforest. But this is Kenya's Aberdare forest, and the river that flows from the cliff above is the excess of water from the emptying Sasumua dam, which provides up to 20 per cent of the Kenyan capital's water needs.

Civil engineer K.M. Njorornge has no time to waste. His 20-strong team started work just before seven, when the sky cleared and visibility was good enough to continue the repair work on the two pipes that carry the precious liquid to Nairobi's water treatment plant downstream.

The treatment plant was washed away by the torrent just a week ago. Now, as Kenya struggles to cope with devastating floods, thousands of Nairobi residents have found themselves without water.

"What we put up during the day is washed away during the night. This is Sisyphus work we're doing here," says 37-year-old Njoronge. "We worked like mad round the clock under heavy rain for the whole of last week and will continue to do so until we're done," he adds with pride.

His statement seems somewhat hyperbolic, and Bile Iman Gure, the Federation's regional relief officer conducting a damage and needs assessment in the area, obviously struggles to believe the apocalyptic description. But the sky gets darker as the story goes on and, by ten o'clock, the heavens open, depositing masses of water over the basin and the workers busy fixing its entrails.

This is no ordinary rain. These are huge beads of water falling in dense strings. Under an umbrella, a worker stubbornly continues to weld one of the two, seven-metre-long pipes that have to go across the river. It is these broken pipes that are keeping the taps dry in the city. He soon has to abandon his work, as umbrellas offer little protection against the downpour.

At the same location, the floods have also swept away a bridge "capable of sustaining trucks of ten tons of more", intervenes engineer Kagiri Isheha.

On each side of the river the teams had managed to lay the foundations of the pillars that will support the new bridge. At their base, the water level rises steadily and, in the rain, they look more like LEGO-toys than heavy-duty hardware.

"Because of these conditions it is hard to evaluate the damage downstream. It will take some time before we know for sure how many water sources are inundated, how many hectares of farmland destroyed and how many people are in need of assistance," says Gure.

What he does know is that in Nairobi, the city's main Kenyatta hospital, which depends on the water usually provided by the Sasumua dam, is almost paralysed as a result of the severe shortages.

"During the day, the Nairobi city council has dispatched ten tankers with 10,000 litres of water each, but that is not sufficient. The 2,000-bed hospital uses 410,000 litres of water daily," explains Gure.

The drops of rain falling on the Sasumua dam become harder and harder. They are now hailstones. Suddenly, everything around us turns white. The cold penetrates to the bone. In these conditions, it is hard to share the engineers´ optimism that they will finish their work in just one week. But they stay on-site and continue their difficult work.

If the situation is worrying around Nairobi, it is even worse in the rest of the country with rains spreading from the west to central and eastern Kenya, where people living in the Tana River basin are at high risk.

KenGen, the national electricity company, said the huge volume of water supplied by the river's tributaries around Mount Kenya had made it impossible to manage the flow into the Seven Forks hydropower dams.

According to Kenyan civil engineers, one of the dams, Kiambere, is spilling half a million litres of excess water per second, considerably increasing the risk of floods along the Tana River. More than 20,000 residents have been warned by the authorities to move to higher ground. The police say those reluctant to do so will be forcefully displaced for their own safety.

Kenya Red Cross is working on an emergency plan to pre-position relief stocks in Malindi and Tana River to meet the needs of additional flood victims in the east of the country. Meanwhile, a column of 100 UN trucks ferrying 3,000 tons of foodstuff further north to the Dadaab refugee complex have been held up in the town of Garissa due to the poor state of the roads.

On 9 May, the International Federation launched an emergency appeal for 846,000 Swiss francs (U$ 645,000) to help 60,000 people for two months. However, given the pace at which the disaster is developing, it may have to revise that figure upwards.