Red Cross helps 60,000 Kenyans affected by annual floods

by Andrei Neacsu in Western Kenya
A camouflage-painted Puma helicopter lands in the courtyard of the main school of Nyando in front of a crowd of excited students and bystanders.

As he steps down to be welcomed by the district commissioner and his group of counsellors, the tall and impressive army officer is obviously taken for the head of the assessment team visiting the flooded areas in western Kenya.

The officer declines the massive attention and, instead, directs it towards the less imposing doctor Asha Mohamed, acting secretary general of the Kenya Red Cross (KRCS) and leader of the assessment team.

"We are here to support and complement the national disaster response efforts coordinated by Kenya Red Cross", says Col Steve Ngugi, recalling a recent government decision that the KRCS should coordinate all relief activities for the flood victims.

The meeting that follows is short and to the point. The team learns that two of the three main rivers that flow through this very flat region -- the Nyando, which gives its name to the district, and the Awach - burst their banks causing extensive damage.

Five thousand hectares of crops have been lost and several bridges washed away -- the last one only a few hours ago, in Nyalunya. Many roads are under water and 12 schools were badly damaged, preventing some 300 pupils from receiving their education. The number of houses affected is unknown.

Since access by road is impossible along the tributaries of the Nyando River, the damage in that area could not be evaluated.

"Floods are an annual ordeal for this district, which has high levels of poverty and where more than 29 per cent of the population lives with HIV and AIDS", explains the district commissioner.

For several days now, seven makeshift camps have been hosting up to 5,000 people whose property was engulfed by water. Many more have found shelter with relatives living on higher ground. They all hope to see the waters recede so that they can return to their homes.

From the sky, the scale of the disaster is even more apparent. As far as the horizon there is a sea of brown muddy water. Here, one can see the fence around a property in the middle of which only a shiny iron-sheet roof emerges from the water. The mighty acacia trees look like miniature broccoli.

Further away, only the main road appears above the water, like a wave-breaker protruding into the sea. Elsewhere, a road that should have continued for many kilometres simply ends up in the water, confusing the drivers of two vehicles. The crops of maize, sorghum, millet and beans that one would expect are nowhere to be seen.

Miles away, in Budalangi, in Busia district, nearly 35,000 people are struggling to cope with the catastrophe. There are those who lost everything and are happy with the improvised shelter in the ten camps erected by authorities -- even eight of them are in eight island-villages surrounded by water were aid can only be sent by boat or air.

The lucky ones are those whose villages are on higher ground and have been spared from destruction. But their crops were along the riverbeds and they too are now submerged by the waters.

Throughout the region, food, rolls of plastic sheeting, jerry cans and cooking sets have been distributed by the Red Cross - in many cases with the help of the military. Traditional water sources as well as latrines have been infiltrated by polluted water. A basic health education campaign is underway which has so far prevented the outbreak of waterborne diseases and contained the spread of malaria.

Volunteers are warning people not to use the water before a planned massive chlorination operation takes place. Mosquito nets are being distributed by the thousands. People stand in long lines for a health screening exercise and a preventive immunization of all the children that can be reached.

Some sit in the shade of a green military truck waiting their turn, unaware that this is a mobile surgical unit and that inside army doctors and nurses are performing an appendicitis operation.

In Budalangi, the military have installed a water purification station but the two rubber bladders do not allow enough storage capacity. Asha Mohamed explains that the Federation's regional delegation is ready to dispatch two water tankers with a total storage capacity of 140,000 litres. In the meantime, she encourages Mama Julie, a camp resident, to drink the treated water "even if it has a strange taste".

The good co-operation between the Red Cross, public authorities, non-governmental organizations and the army impresses the representative of the German Federal Agency for Technical Relief. His organization, THW, will also provide a number of rubber reservoirs or bladder tanks to other temporary settlements using the Red Cross pipeline.

Mahdi Mohamed, the Red Cross regional relief coordinator, comes from the eastern Tana River district. He knows that as he helps his fellow countrymen in the west, the floods may be ravaging his own community.

"Don't let my people in Garsen down," he whispers to Asha as he presents a detailed list of the needs to be met in the western region.

Although the Kenyan Red Cross is only handling non-food relief items, Mahdi has written down all the quantities of fast maturing, drought resistant seeds that will be needed to help the communities restart their lives.

He need not worry about helping the flood victims in the east. Red Cross trucks loaded with relief articles to build up a contingency stock are already on their way to Malindi and Mombasa.

In Nairobi, thousands of residents continue to live with little or no water at all after landslides destroyed one of the city's main water purification stations. The night following the Federation's assessment of the Sasumua dam, the waters simply washed away two seven metre-long pipes that were just about to be installed. The same night, more landslides occurred downstream causing additional damage to the purification station that normally meets 20 per cent of the capital's water needs. The team there was reinforced by a group of military specialists and hopes are that water will soon reach the city.

The present floods have so far killed 43 people and affected a total of 60,000. The International Federation has launched an appeal for 846,000 Swiss francs (U$ 645,000) to enable the Kenyan Red Cross to assist them for an initial period of two months.

Government representatives have underlined that "these floods are not only a problem of water, but also of infrastructure". They pledged to repair and construct more dykes and dams, to invest in prevention activities, and have already appealed for international support.

But isn't resettlement a wiser solution, especially when in the affected areas floods are a yearly occurrence?

People have lived along these rivers for generations. They grow their food in the fertile river basins, practicing so-called flood recession agriculture.

"Resettlement is a very delicate issue. This is a way of life. People will not move unless Mother Nature relocates them by force," says Robert Fraser, the Federation's regional water and sanitation expert. "And still, that will be a temporary resettlement."