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NIAS AFRICA STUDIES
Floods in East Africa

  Jerry Franklin A

Heavy rains caused devastating floods in East Africa 
Jerry Franklin A

Extreme and intense rainfall in East Africa caused flash floods in Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia killing hundreds of people and affecting the livelihoods of millions. The floods have been attributed to abnormally heavy rainfall.

On 22 November, according to the Kenya Red Cross, the death toll due to floods rose to 71, over 20,000 families fled their homes, hundreds of acres of agriculture were destroyed, and over 1,000 livestock were killed.

On 21 November, the Director of the Somali Disaster Management Agency, Mohamud Moalim Abdullahi, stated that 50 people died in the disaster and 687,235 people were forced to flee their houses following the heavy rains and floods; over 1.5 million people were affected by the floods. 90 per cent of the Belet Weyne population, around 250,000 people, were forced to flee their houses due to flooding.

According to the Somali regional government in Ethiopia, the floods have claimed the lives of over 52 people, forced over 39,985 others to flee their homes and impacted 108,000 more who fear losing their livestock and homes.

Since November, the Juba and Shabelle Rivers in East Africa overflowed due to heavy rains in the highlands of Ethiopia and Somalia. In central Somalia, the floods submerged the surrounding countryside including the town of Belet Weyne. In Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya, 130 people have lost their lives due to the floods. 

Previously on 10 November, UN's Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Martin Griffiths, stated: "Extreme weather linked to the ongoing El Niño risks further driving up humanitarian needs in already-vulnerable communities in Somalia and many other places."

On 21 November, referring to the situation in Somalia, the International Rescue Committee stated: “With above-normal rainfall expected to persist until the end of 2023, this will exacerbate the already grave humanitarian situation, whereby 4.3 million people, a quarter of the population are expected to face crisis-level hunger or worse by the end of 2023.”

Factors contributed to the intense floods in East Africa
In August, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) predicted that the El Niño phenomenon would likely result in unusually heavy rains in eastern Africa during the October–December period. El Niño is a meteorological phenomenon linked to global warming, drought in certain regions and abundant precipitation in others. Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia are suffering from flash flooding and torrential rains brought on by El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO). A shift to a predicted positive Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) worsened the situation. A positive Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) favours a wet OND in eastern Africa. This is because the western Indian Ocean experiences warmer-than-normal sea surface temperatures, while the eastern equatorial Indian Ocean experiences cooler-than-normal temperatures. A positive IOD amplified the El Niño effect in East Africa. Heavy rainfall and flooding in East Africa are linked to these two phenomena.

Over the past four years, climate change has made the drought in the Horn of Africa more severe. The temperature has increased by 1.2 degrees Celsius. The extended drought has led to the deaths of millions of cattle and wiped-out crops. The patterns of rainfall are being impacted by climate change. The two rainy seasons that often occur in countries around the Horn of Africa are the long rains in March, April and May (MAM) and the short rains in October, November and December (OND). Large portions of Eastern Africa have been experiencing prolonged dry conditions since October 2020. The southern region of the Horn of Africa, including southern Somalia, eastern Kenya and southern Ethiopia, experienced rainfall that was below average during both the long rains (March–May) in 2021 and 2022 and the short rains (October–December) in 2020, 2021 and 2022. However, the 2023 OND season saw significantly more rain than normal. The Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) reported that since 1 October, total rainfall for southern and western Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya has quadrupled the average. 

The continuing dire humanitarian situation for the past four years in East Africa
About 15 million people in East Africa struggled with food insecurity even before the floods.  The five failed rainy seasons which resulted in prolonged drought for four years in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya, forced millions of people to flee and made food shortages worse. The dry soil caused flash floods, which destroyed houses, killed livestock and displaced millions of people. Crops and vegetables cannot be grown because of the dry soil. Food insecurity throughout the region has worsened due to record-low agricultural output and months of obstructed grain imports brought on by Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The adverse effects of the drought and impending hunger are currently affecting over 36 million people in East Africa. Nearly 24 million people currently face severe water shortages because of prolonged drought. According to current estimates, severe acute malnutrition affects nearly two million children in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, who need immediate medical attention.

Government responses to the flood
In response to the floods, humanitarian organisations are collaborating with the Kenyan government and have provided food assistance to about 950,000 people in the affected region. According to Kenyan Deputy President, Rigathi Gachagua, the government will step up its cooperation with counties and humanitarian partners. To help with rescue efforts and the distribution of relief supplies, the Kenyan government dispatched alert teams from the Kenya Coast Guard, National Police Service, Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) and Kenya Wildlife Service. The displaced people were given temporary residences at schools and social halls.

In Somalia, the government declared a state of emergency following the flood. The government authorities and humanitarian organisations have provided food, cash, water, sanitary facilities and other necessities to at least 679,400 people in Somalia who were affected by the flood. 

Challenges faced by the government in East Africa to mitigate the effect of the floods
Governments in East African countries have limited resources making it difficult for them to invest in flood mitigation strategies including constructing resilient infrastructure and putting sustainable land management techniques into place. Insufficient funding for early warning systems limits the capacity to promptly notify populations about the risk, impeding evacuation attempts and raising the possibility of property and human casualties. In the Somali region, numerous flood-affected areas are still difficult to access due to damaged roads and bridges.

Although East African countries have comprehensive plans to address climate change, funding is still a major obstacle in putting the commitments into practice. Countries have committed 15 per cent of the total funds required to implement Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). Coordinated flood management is made more difficult by shared river basins and transboundary rivers, which call for cooperation between adjacent countries that are hampered by disparities in objectives and policies.

Trajectory
According to the World Meteorological Organisation, the current El Nino, which began to develop in July, is predicted to continue influencing weather patterns and causing a further increase in global temperatures until April 2024 in East Africa. The heavy rains in the Horn of Africa are expected to worsen the situation which poses significant challenges to the government in East Africa to mitigate the crisis. The floods have sparked a humanitarian crisis that requires immediate attention and action. Nearly 4.3 million people are predicted to experience crisis-level hunger by the end of 2023 due to abnormal rainfall, which is predicted to continue until the end of 2023. This will likely worsen the already dire humanitarian situation.

(Part of this commentary has been originally published as part of the NIAS-IPRI-KAS Conflict Weekly.)


About the author
Jerry Franklin A is a Postgraduate Scholar at Madras Christian College, Chennai. 

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