Opinion: Flooding – A call for climate action in Africa

By Edward Mungai

It is a rainy day here in Kenya and looking down through my office glass window, I can see the devastation that the nearby Nairobi River has caused, swelling up beyond its banks, the parking lot almost non-existent. I can imagine the kind of destructions being done downstream where the terrain does not accommodate the excess flow. For sure climate change is no longer fake new as it is evident that the effects of climate change are true and are being manifested right before me.

Detrimental effects of climate change are becoming more conspicuous as witnessed in the Horn of Africa as rainfall exceeds its limits, it causes runoffs and hence flooding and especially where the infrastructure for dealing with such runoff is none existent. How does climate change lead to devastating flood havoc? Certainly, the world is warming up due to human activities emitting heat-trapping greenhouse gases. The warm air increases the capacity to hold more water vapour and the aptitude keeps increasing as the air temperature increases. Upon saturation, there is a heavy downpour leading to increased risks of flooding. The dry parts of Africa are the hardest hit, they experience dry spell with faster evaporation, which causes the soil to dry faster. When the rains fall, it comes in heavy downpour potentially leading to more floods. The recent drought in Africa which has been followed by intense flooding provides a great case study.

Floods lead to losses, ranging from economic to social and environmental effects. For instance, recent torrential rain and flooding killed 14 people in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania while in Kenya the situation is worse with over 72 people dead and close to 211, 000 displaced. In addition to the high death toll, houses are being destroyed with farmlands submerged resulting to agriculture loss all over the continent. The livestock and crops have not been spared either, with thousands of livestock have been killed and crops drowned. This will leave a massive dent in the economies, as the annual income from the agricultural sector will be significantly affected.

In addition, the affected people have been cut off from help by the wallowing effects of water. Farmland may take a long time to recover, resulting in the reduction of food production hence the continent should brace itself for the coming season of hunger. On other occasions, a lot of rainfall over a short period causes ‘flash flooding’. Resulting floodwater quickly surrounds buildings and traps people inside. Heavy rain occurring in the hilly areas cause mudslides which destroy and submerge houses. Such cases have been reported in the highlands of Kenya where deaths have occurred similar to the mudslide that hit Freetown, the capital city of Sierra Leone in August 2017. Apart from direct destruction, floodwater stagnation forms a good breeding site for disease-causing microorganisms which are easily spread. These often include dysentery, typhoid and Cholera. Flooding in cities and major towns causes sewage mix which pollutes sources of drinking water and increases chances of freshwater contamination.

Despite these challenges, we can adopt climate change interventions that can mitigate the advance effects of flooding. It is important to focus on three major interventions. First, there is need to invest properly in flood defence mechanisms such as adopting actions that are geared towards managing the consequences of flooding. This involves increasing awareness among property owners to enable them to take action before flooding occurs to reduce their damages, ensuring wide coverage of floods warning notify everyone in the areas likely to be affected and plan mitigation in prior time , adopting land management which can be done by restoring the floodplains to increase the capacity for storage of flood flows and to reduce the flood risks downstream, removing artificial land drainage and restoring more natural and slower rates of surface run-off, using tree planting and shelter belts to reduce surface run-off, encouraging and supporting good soil management – reducing soil compaction and therefore surface water runoff and using sustainable urban drainage systems to reduce the rates of runoff.

Secondly, understanding the risks of climate change and factoring it in policy making, floods cause long-term losses that are a burden to the country’s economy. Policymakers can no longer ignore this, climate change is real and its effects are becoming more evident. Adopting policies that address mitigation and adaptation strategies to climate change would be effective. For instance, coming up with flood insurance schemes as an adaptation measure will compensate the losses incurred in the event of floods.

Lastly, there is need to double our efforts to tackle the causes of global warming. Humans are responsible for global warming since 1950 and efforts should be concentrated in reducing greenhouse gases and human activities that contribute to global warming. For instance, adopting proper waste management to avoid dumping of garbage which releases methane gas that is a potent greenhouse gas. Adopting renewable energy production and its usage to cut off carbon emissions into the atmosphere. Greening our commute can also contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gases.

The current floods in Africa must be seen as a wake-up call for everyone from top-ranking policymakers to the recipients of the policies. Let’s all revert our minds to adapt sustainably to the effects of climate change such as flooding.

Edward Mungai is the CEO at Kenya Climate Innovation Centre.

First published on LinkedIn.


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