By Alis Okonji

Currently, East African nations, such as Kenya, Somalia, Burundi, and Tanzania, are facing one of the most severe floods seen in the region in the past two decades. Both cities and rural areas are impacted, with significant landslides and mudslides occurring, particularly notable in Mai Mahiu, Kenya, resulting in loss of lives. In Nairobi, water has inundated gated communities and private residential areas, forcing residents to seek shelter on higher ground. Tragically, these floods have claimed the lives of over 500 people and displaced thousands.

What is causing the floods?

The current floods are primarily caused by the annual long rainy season of the equatorial region, typically occurring from April to May. Contrary to the misconception that the tropics experience consistent weather throughout the year, there are distinct variations. This season is marked by intermittent heavy rainfall interspersed with sunny periods and serves as the planting season for farmers.

In June 2023, NASA’s Earth Observatory issued warnings regarding the reemergence of the El Niño phenomenon. El Niño is characterized by elevated ocean surface temperatures in the central and eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean, which was predicted to result in heightened sea levels and subsequent weather extremes, including both droughts and floods. NASA’s satellite images depicted above-average sea levels along the equator and west of the Pacific, prompting multiple warnings of impending El Niño effects, including droughts and floods.

NASA Earth Observatory June 2023

In addition to natural factors, criticism has been directed towards poorly planned urbanization and inadequate drainage systems in major cities like Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. Urban landscapes have increasingly been dominated by concrete expanses, with green spaces sacrificed for infrastructure development. Particularly noteworthy is the construction of the Nairobi Expressway, which resulted in the felling of over 500 trees and has exacerbated flooding along its route.

The convergence of rising ocean temperatures, leading to thermal expansion, increased precipitation during the rainy season, urban sprawl, and environmental neglect has significantly exacerbated flooding in the region.

Is nature reclaiming Its dominion?

Simultaneously, dormant rivers have reemerged, reclaiming their original courses and inundating human settlements, tourist destinations, and infrastructure. In Narok County, Kenya, the Talek River reportedly breached its banks, flooding into Maasai Mara and prompting alarmed tourists to seek refuge in helicopters.

Contrary to predominant narratives attributing the tragedy solely to natural forces, it is crucial to acknowledge human culpability. Reckless human activities, such as deforestation and uncontrolled urbanization, disrupt essential natural processes vital for flood mitigation, including the water-absorbing capacity of forests and wetlands.

A geospatial analysis of flood-prone areas underscores their proximity to water features, highlighting the intricate interplay between human settlement patterns and natural geography.

As nations strive to implement sustainable flood mitigation strategies, it is imperative to honor and respect nature. Prioritizing environmental preservation and embracing ecologically sensitive urban planning practices are crucial steps toward mitigating the impacts of future disasters.

The writer, Alis Okonji is a Communications for Development Specialist.

Water Journalists Africa, established in 2011 as a not-for-profit media organization, boasts a membership of journalists hailing from 50 African countries, dedicated to reporting on water, climate change,...