Kenya: Grassroots disaster-prevention in western Kenya

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NAIROBI, 27 July (IRIN) - A 1999 study commissioned by the United Nations Secretariat for the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR) described sub-Saharan Africa's vulnerability to natural hazards in the following terms:

"The situation in most countries on the African continent continues to deteriorate at an alarming rate, and the objectives of the United Nations General Assembly resolution establishing the IDNDR are not being met.

"Disasters are not increasing because of the increase in the frequency of hazards, but because of the increasing vulnerability to hazards."

This assessment can be applied to Kenya, particularly its western region.

Flood season

Twice a year, as the rainy seasons draw near, Kenyans across the country gaze expectantly at the sky in the hope of generous showers that will fertilise the land most of them subsist on.

But in Kenya's western provinces, the rains are dreaded.

Every year, the region that stretches from the eastern banks of Lake Victoria to the 2,000 m-high escarpment of the Nandi Hills is flooded. Properties and livelihoods are drowned, and deadly waterborne diseases such as malaria, bilharzia, cholera, dysentery and typhoid are spread.

To cope with this recurrent natural disaster, the Kenyan Red Cross Society (KRC) has launched a province-wide campaign to prevent damage to people and property.

Despite a debilitating lack of means, crushing poverty, and one of the highest incidences of HIV/AIDS in the country, some farmers have successfully resisted the rising waters of the long rains, which drench the region each spring.

Man-made erosion, nature's disaster

In the province of Nyanza, regular flooding began in 1985. The ever-growing population has put unprecedented strain on the environment. Tree have been felled to make firewood, houses and utensils, and overgrazing by herds has accelerated soil erosion, clearing the way for gushing streams that form in the plains during each rainy season.

Man's ecological footprint - increased soil erosion - has turned against him by making farmlands more prone to flooding, in a region where floods were once exceptional.

Every year in April rain pours down the Nandi Hills into the plains of Nyanza, running through the rising rivers that feed Lake Victoria, the world's second largest freshwater lake. The luxuriant swamps gradually become clogged, and the rivers overflow to flood the fields. At the same time, the lake expands to engulf arable lands.

In 2004, a single week of rain was enough to cause floods that wreaked havoc on 10,000 residents, according to Philimon Majwa, coordinator of the KRC branch in Kisumu, the provincial capital.

Entire fields of cassava [a staple food crop] were turned to swamps, cattle drowned, huts were washed away, and the few concrete buildings of the region were inundated.

Those who lose their meagre belongings every spring are too poor to afford insurance schemes to cover their losses.

Isaac Adede, a geography teacher and Red Cross volunteer in Awasi, a village located in the Nyando district flood plains, has tried to convince victims of the floods to relocate to less vulnerable grounds. "But they won't leave - after each flood they come back. They say they can't leave their land, where ancestors and family members are laid to rest," he told IRIN.

Talking about the weather

The KRC has been training local communities to prevent and respond to floods for two years. "Until our leaders realise we must act at the community level, we'll face the same problems every year,' Majwa explained.

Red Cross volunteers have been teaching villagers that cutting down trees increases the risk of flooding. According to Majwa, the poor level of education in the region explains the lack of awareness of the risks that erosion presents.

In addition, the KRC has also been training residents to be efficient first-line responders to disaster by teaching them first aid, as well as hygiene practices. "The main advantage of the Red Cross is our structure: our network of volunteers goes right down to the community level," said Majwa.

Raising local residents' awareness is crucial, as prevention is the only possible mitigation for natural disasters of this magnitude.

To keep their settlements from being flooded, communities have no choice but to prepare for the waters that inevitably come each year.

Pointing at what looked like a series of black veins on a hydrological map of the Nyando plains, Adede explained the preventive strategy.

Soil in the region is mostly clay, preventing absorption by the subterranean water tables. But proper drainage of the excess precipitation into the lake must be ensured. This is done by draining existing waterways and enlarging riverbeds, so that water runs all the way to the lake.

A process of de-silting must be repeated after each flood, as rushing water shifts the soil and builds up banks that tamper with the flow. Despite visible efforts, the government has insufficient machinery and means to carry out sufficient de-silting.

Buildings and plots of lands must be protected from the rising tide. Residents dig trenches and build dams around their plots, some extending for hundreds of metres. When the flooding starts, most residents take up shelter on fortified school compounds, some of which are accessed by elevated footbridges made of rough wood planks.

Such operations require either heavy machinery, or intensive labour. Both are hard to come by in the region. The local government is cash-strapped, while residents are poor and struggle to cope with disease.

How disease and poverty help hazards

According to a recent report by the Society for International Development on Inequality in Kenya, the province of Nyanza is the region hardest-hit by HIV/AIDS.

"Even though AIDS is a disaster in itself, it is also a contributor to [the impact of] natural disasters," Majwa told IRIN. The virus wipes out the workforce in its prime, leaving elders and youngsters to carry out the demanding physical tasks of digging ditches and building dams.

Poverty is also a factor. The material means to take preventive measures are often lacking.

As a result, food-for-work schemes have been carried out by local authorities, providing meals to residents who spend a day labouring.

But this is rarely enough. "Last year, the government provided food on three occasions, for about a day's work each time," said Adede.

Despite the enormity of the task, some preventive operations do succeed.

Saving Badalangi

Badalangi, a region in Western province, north of Nyanza, borders the upper part of Lake Victoria. It has flooded consistently every spring since 1969, due to man-made erosion and deforestation.

In 2003, the floods were so severe that they caused 21,000 residents to be displaced and sheltered in temporary camps, Husseyn recounted.

Settlements in the region consist of tiny huts, made of mud stacked on fragile wooden frames and covered by a thatched roof. The floods wash them away instantly.

However, the following year the government dispatched army troops and the National Youth Service, a community-support government organisation, to help locals erect higher, more robust dykes.

The scheme was a success. In the spring of 2004, the inevitable floods did not reach the fields.

However, the dykes must be constantly monitored and maintained.

Elias Nyongesa, a farmer from the village of Igingo, has participated in the year-long effort to uphold the flood-resistant obstacles. "When the floods come, if the dykes break, we have no alternative but to go to the IDP camp," he said.

Villagers therefore reinforce dykes and ditches under the direction of village committees. Trees are planted along the edges to hold the soil in place. The fast-growing eucalyptus tree, which reaches a satisfactory height in five years, is a favourite. Papyrus is sown between the dykes and the threatening rivers, as it absorbs a high volume of water and breaks the velocity of the streams' overflow.

But even if the villagers were willing to relocate to higher ground, out of the reach of the floods, the government rarely provides plots to re-accommodate entire villages.

And so, as the rains come, season after season, the wretched urban slums of nearby Kisumu seemincreasingly attractive to those who have nothing left to lose.


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