Flooding in Homa Bay County: Residents’ annual struggle

When the sky turns dark and thunder rumbles, families in Wang’ Chieng’ location in Rachuonyo North, Homa Bay County begin to panic. It is a sign that they must leave their houses and live in neighbouring schools, churches and health facilities.

For decades, the area has been witnessing severe floods every year because of its flat topography, which allows water from higher grounds to be deposited on agricultural land as it flows into Lake Victoria. Whenever it rains, villages and farms in the region get submerged in flood waters for several weeks even as mud houses crumble.

This year, tens of families have left the comfort of their homes and are living in tents and classrooms at Osodo, Kobala, and Kobuya Primary schools.

Ms Tekla Taabu is among the residents who have been leaving their homes  every time it rains.  She left her house the last week of March and went to live in a camp.

“Every year I have to spend at least two months outside my home whenever it rains. I have to wait for the water level to go down before I can go back,” she says.

For the 30 years she has lived in the area, Ms Taabu has noticed that water level has been increasing yearly and it takes longer before it goes down.

“ In the past, the water level would recede after a few days. I could even tell the amount of rainfall we would receive and predict when I would return home. Today, however, the weather is unpredictable and the floods keep increasing, making us stay in camps longer,” Ms Taabu says.

What the senior citizen is experiencing reflects what is happening in other counties across the nation, where floods have caught many by surprise. In Nairobi County, for example, deadly floods have wreaked havoc in residential areas, especially in informal settlements, leaving scores dead.

Floods have become the most devastating climate change risk, and some areas of the capital city covered with water have never experienced flooding. Environmental experts attribute this to climate change, warning that more damages are likely to be witnessed in the coming years if no intervention is implemented to mitigate the effects of climate change.

Mr Clifford Omondi, a climatologist and a member of the Environment Institute of Kenya, says the country largely reacts during floods rather than being proactive before disaster strikes.

“There is inadequate preparedness before, during and after floods. What we are experiencing now clearly shows that there was no preparedness to deal with floods,” he says.

Floods disrupt service provision when roads, electricity poles and social buildings are damaged. They also lead to loss of lives.

Mr Omondi expresses concern that most devolved units only spend funds during the flood recovery phase after damages.

He says devolved governments have not formulated and enacted climate-sensitive policies.  “County governments do not have proper legislation, frameworks and development plans that reference resilience to protect infrastructure against unforeseen climate risks,” Mr Omondi says.

According to the climate expert, some counties have legislations and policies on climate change, but they do put them to use.

He says all devolved units should have the Town and Building Climatology concept, which deals with the reciprocal influences of buildings and settlements on the one hand and regional climatic conditions on the other.

It advocates for building resilience in infrastructure to respond to and withstand the effects of climate shocks.

“Different stakeholders need to share a common vision to ensure events associated with climate change are properly mitigated. Floods expose infrastructure to structural damage, wearing out and edging out quickly, thus increasing maintenance and replacement costs,” Mr Omondi says.

Some buildings that have been affected by floods have developed weak foundations.

He explains that concerned departments in every county  should be acquainted with a disaster management cycle that includes mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery.

“There are signs that more floods will be witnessed in the future,” he says, calling on county governments to plan appropriately for any eventuality, including drought.

“Failure to take action now will lead to a fall in the economy and increased poverty. The government should not wait for people to be displaced or die before responding; rather, there should be a preparedness plan to reduce damages caused by floods,” he says.

According to the Climate Economy Report, it is estimated that global investment in infrastructure will increase annually due to floods.  Mr Omondi says vulnerability to floods should be a course of concern to the whole country.

“Floods lead to many socio-economic losses and the spread of diseases, which affect communities and families.”

The expert calls for proper infrastructure planning, saying floods in the country are bound to continue.

Some infrastructure development policies include land use planning and building codes and standards. However, Mr Omondi says they do not provide adequate requirements for enhancing climate-resilient infrastructure, which he describes as a new concept.

“Climate variability impacts building planning, design, construction and maintenance. The government must not wait for people to be displaced or die before it reacts,” he says.

Families in Rachuonyo North, which has been hit hard by floods over the past years, may finally get to live in their homes all year round if the government’s plans are implemented. Water and Sanitation Cabinet Secretary Zachariah Njeru said the government has two projects that it will undertake in the region to address floods. First, the government will construct dykes along River Miriu, which is the main contributor to floods in Rachuonyo North.

“We are looking for a long-term solution. We have made all plans for the construction of dykes, and the project will begin in two weeks’ time,” Mr Njeru said. A National Youth Service team will desilt the river to control water movement into Lake Victoria.

“We will similarly construct dykes in lower Tana and Budalangi where floods are a major problem,” Mr Njeru said.

Later, the government will construct a multi-purpose dam across River Miriu to control water movement within Wang’ Chieng’, which is located at the lower side of the river.

A location near Sondu has been selected for the construction of Magwagwa dam. When it rains upstream, River Miriu typically holds large volumes of water. Some is deposited on farmland as water moves downstream near Miriu market at the border between Nyakach and Karachuonyo. Most of the water ends up in homes. The situation has been recurring year in, year out, leaving families in poverty as most of them cannot invest for fear of incurring losses. Others have to spend a lot of money to repair their houses each time they are destroyed by floods.

Mr Njeru said the dykes will be constructed on both sides of River Miriu.

“Other rivers that are prone to floods will also have dykes constructed along them,” the CS said when he visited flood victims who had converged at Rakwaro chief’s camp to get relief food.

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