Can We Get Past Floods, Frustration and Fear

The scientists told us to prepare for heavy rainfall and flash floods. The elders tell us this is the worst flood since 1961. A presidential advisor advises us that Kenya Kwanza is not our agony aunt, so stop whining. Those who have survived death by drowning rage against the government that has spectacularly failed them. As an entire nation finds itself vulnerable to nature and braces for Cyclone Hidaya, we must address what didn’t happen and what needs to happen now.

As of Thursday, at least 188 Kenyans have died, 125 have been injured, with 90 missing, and 190,000 have been displaced in the last few weeks. Monday’s tragic Mai Mahiu flooding killed 52 and left 51 human beings still missing. Those affected most have been from poor, marginalized and at-risk populations such as children, persons with disabilities and older people.

Tragically, Kenya has just considerably added to the global statistics. Over the last 20 years, floods and droughts have killed 166,000 and affected 3 billion people. It is estimated that the risk to economically and politically marginalised populations is 15 times higher than that of the middle class and those important to the political class.

Kenya is a party to twenty international treaties and agreements related to disaster management. Under Article 2 of the Constitution of Kenya, they form part of Kenyan law. The Constitution obligates the State to provide essential services such as water and sanitation, health, education, and housing and to protect all persons from all risks to their dignity and life. Should the State be overwhelmed by a natural disaster or any other public emergency, it can declare a state of emergency under Article 54.

Yesterday’s Presidential address offered more clarity than we have had to date. All communities across eleven coastal and up-county counties must be forcefully evacuated from high-risk dams, water reservoirs and rivers to higher ground. Schools will remain closed indefinitely. Constituency Development Funds, National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB) food reserves will be directed to rebuilding damaged schools and food relief programmes.

The President was worryingly vague about how much Treasury has been instructed to fund national and county emergency programmes. The promise of relocation and shelter support, a life-and-death issue for thousands currently homeless, was also unclear. Apart from his passionate and welcoming plea for environmental conservation, his speech was silent on who is accountable for the current human security lapse and how this will be prevented in the future.

At the invitation of Pussy Power organisation, I spent Labour Day listening to Mathare residents sheltering in schools, places of worship, food kitchens and along the still surging Nairobi River. While overlooked in the President’s speech, community-based organisations were their first line of defence against drowning, disease, hunger, and homelessness. Absent were navy divers to retrieve bodies, diggers and tippers to remove debris and officers to assist with trauma counselling and antiretroviral and insulin medicine. Absent also were state officers to register the dead or those without citizenship documents, offer clothing and identify alternative schools for the displaced children. Most are willing to relocate but lack the Sh 7,000 shillings for one month’s rent and deposit.

Could national and county governments interrupt the opportunistic rental hikes, waive the costs of mandatory post-mortems, replace identity documents, birth certificates, and driving licences, and offer a one-off Sh5,000 start-up capital for the affected for the next three months?

Timely information gathering, open danger reporting lines and community-based decision-making led by local leaders trusted across communities are now critical. Top-down national pronouncements and no local follow-through will diffuse the government’s efforts to protect citizens. Climate emergencies need proactiveness at all levels of government, business, and civil society.

The lack of sustainable land use policy, emergency planning, and mitigation strategies to date must not be allowed to confuse comprehensive, inclusive, and faster recovery efforts now. However, unless the government has the courage to implement a more comprehensive disaster management approach, floods, frustration, and fear will remain in our future.

Irũngũ Houghton is Amnesty International Kenya’s Executive Director and writes in his personal capacity. Email: [email protected]