Residents of Budalangi evacuate their flooded home after Nzoia River banks burst. Photo by Thomas Mukoya/Reuters.
Kenya is going through unprecedented times on various fronts. First, floods are ravaging most parts of the country, taking innocent lives and leaving behind mass destruction of infrastructure, farm produce and homes. The Water Resources Authority has reported overflowing dams and lakes even as most rivers burst their banks. Even the dykes constructed in the perennially-impacted Budalangi area have helped little by at least providing shelter for the displaced.
Simultaneously, COVID-19 infections across the country are on the rise despite measures aimed at flattening the curve. Targeted hotspot residential estates in Mombasa and Nairobi with significantly higher concentrations of new infections have recently been locked down. It is still unclear when academic institutions and other key sectors of the economy will open up. In both situations, levels of intervention vary.
Effective risk management, whether for flooding or COVID19, depends on three key factors. First, early warning from reliable prediction infrastructure that is made accessible to all relevant stakeholders. Second, dependable response capacity consisting of key institutions and their partnerships as well as sufficient funds. Thirdly, proactive leadership is critical in coordinating the entire effort towards weathering the current storm and building resilience to future risk.
In the COVID-19 situation, warnings were issued immediately once things went bad in Wuhan and a lockdown was announced in January 2019. As cases began to be reported in Europe in February and beyond, proactive African leaders started to put cautionary measures in place -- although a few others, like Tanzania’s Magufuli, did not think the threat was serious. Countries such as Rwanda, whose strong decisive leadership reacted early and quickly to the warning, have reported significantly low infections compared to the laggards.
It took a decisive President Kenyatta to change guard at the Ministry of Health to improve Kenya’s coordination of responses to put in place some semblance of readiness for COVID-19 patients by setting aside Mbagathi Hospital and Kenyatta University Teaching Research and Referral Hospital. County governments such as Kilifi, Machakos, Mombasa and Muranga were also included. The private sector was also not left behind, as we saw the Aga Khan University Hospital set itself up a while back, even managing mock COVID-19 mass infection situations to refine its systems. Other private actors that have significantly supported the MoH-coordinated effort include Safaricom, the banking sector and others that continue to contribute millions of shillings into the COVID-19 kitty.
In contrast, the flooding disaster was not met with similar leadership. More than 50 years since independence, Kenya is unable to contain the perennial Nyando and Budalang’i floods. The State has been conspicuously absent, only to be reactive through “disaster celebrities” from the Devolution and Interior state departments when disaster strikes, who come in choppers armed with short-term solutions such as relief supplies and temporary dykes. Early warning is reported to have been issued as early as 2015 when meteorological scientists at North Carolina State University and ICPAC in Dagoretti predicted the current storms over Lake Victoria. Various other early warning systems have similarly sounded their predictions and were sent out to different institutions, but not necessarily integrated in interventions.
We haven’t seen strong, decisive leadership mobilise financial and institutional resources to help the hundreds of thousands displaced by floods across the country. Ideally, these efforts should have moved to build multipurpose dams to control floods, irrigate farms and generate electricity in some places shortly after early warnings were given.
The two primary goals of flood management are: first, reduction of economic losses and threats to public health and safety; and secondly, preservation and restoration of the natural and beneficial functions and resources within floodplains and ecosystems.
As the flooding disaster and COVID-19 pandemic wear off and things slowly return to the anticipated “new-normal,” strong leadership will still be needed to deal with emerging challenges such as food insecurity, need for long-term shelter for thousands displaced, healthcare and security.
Finally, strong and decisive leadership is also required to coordinate requisite response capacity against climate change and its impacts on society and economy, guided by the available early warning information. In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 degree centigrade above pre-industrial levels. They warned that within the decade, severe impacts will be felt in certain sectors and locations in East Africa as a result of increased warming and high rainfall variations. Kenya has established its National Climate Change Action Plan, which various actors in the private sector, civil society, research and development, and academia are willing to implement.
Strong, decisive leadership is vital to mobilise political will, funding from internal sources as well as necessary partnerships and networks and coordinate efforts across sectors. Only then shall we help communities and ecosystems adapt to climate change and build resilience to enable future generations to survive and prosper.
Key take away lessons from these two calamities on managing future large-scale public health or environmental risk emphasise: the need for strong leadership that is quick and decisive, response capacity which consists of organised institutions, individuals, partnerships and funds, and engaged predictive capacity that provides early warning. Strong leadership will proactively coordinate the response capacity guided by clear early warning information availed publicly.
Dr. Evans Kituyi is the Director of the East Africa Institute at the Aga Khan University.
Any opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.