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The current floods wreaking havoc across Kenya, and coming in the wake of another memorable devastating weather-related event – the long drought of 2009 – may be perceived to result from the much talked about phenomenon of climate change and its impacts. However, for those familiar with the flood and drought history of Kenya, the country has experienced recurring cycles of droughts and floods in the past. Thus, this most recent flood event could well be part of that normal cyclical pattern of the annual heavy rains over the decade. Still, while many people are inclined to believe that extreme events are ‘normal’ occurrences and could argue that it is too soon to conclude that these events are a direct consequence of climate change, the National Climate Change Response Strategy for Kenya (2010) concluded that “the evidence of climate change in Kenya is unmistakable”, while the National Climate Change Action Plan asserts how scientific evidence confirms that the frequency of droughts, floods and other extreme climate events in the country has increased in recent decades.
Whether linked or not to the effects of global warming, many in East Africa and Kenya in particular still recall the devastating impact of the drought of 2009 that left nearly 80 per cent of the cattle herd dead in parts of the country. Likewise, according to recent reports in the media, the havoc being caused by the current flood continues across the country. People have lost their lives in landslides, families have been left homeless, while many more remain vulnerable should heavy rains persist. Furthermore, besides causing destruction to existing assets, the floods have disrupted productive human activities including transportation and farming in most of the affected areas. For example, farmers in some parts of the country have been forced to delay planting. Education has also been disrupted with several cases reported on how schools have been submerged, books destroyed, students displaced and, where still intact, school infrastructure used as shelter by displaced people.
The current floods, coming hot on the heels of the 2009 drought make one thing seem certain, that we increasingly need to factor these phenomena into development planning decisions and horizons. As we witness the destruction – of roads, bridges, farmland, crops, and housing, the displacement of families, loss of life and interruption of livelihoods at alarming scale – the resulting aggregate negative impact on the economy requires an evaluation of how planning internalizes the impact of these events in order to minimize their overall effect on the economy and livelihoods, if at all.
As Kenya continues on its path to development and aspires to attain a two-digit growth rate, with many infrastructure projects already under design and/or implementation across the country, the fact that such projects are vulnerable to the devastating impacts of extreme weather events needs to be mainstreamed in development planning. Interventions that can be employed include, among others, designing bridges with larger culvert sizes, promoting catchment area management programs and strengthening community capacity to undertake adaptation measures to respond to either extreme droughts or extreme floods. For example, while most areas of the country could be classified as water stressed, we should nevertheless not lose sight of the fact that infrastructure, such as roads, in those areas should be designed to take into account the real possibility of extreme floods occurring.
Furthermore, for rural communities, it may be essential to re-evaluate settlement in low-lying flood-prone areas as well as on steep slopes susceptible to landslides during peak rain periods. Under the new administrative system which devolves governance to the district authorities, additional responsibilities could include promoting adaptation programs such as tree-planting -and catchment area management, besides ensuring infrastructure projects are designed to withstand extreme weather events.
In addition, strengthening of early warning systems and disaster risk management capacity will be required to avert the devastating effects of similar events in future. In Kenya, the Government has shown some level of preparedness and considerable commitment to respond to these disasters, but more could be done to strengthen the capacity to respond to similar events and to build community resilience. What’s more, additional resources are required to enable monitoring and generation of information that will permit improved understanding of the trends in extreme weather events especially as we set our path towards a warmer world.
Effective decision-making in this realm requires appropriate climate information. Through the Clim-Dev Africa Programme, which includes the Clim-Dev Africa Special Fund (CDSF), implemented in collaboration with the Africa Union Commission (AUC) and United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), the African Development Bank aims to support activities that fill the significant gaps in our understanding of the African climate, and that ensure that relevant climate information is communicated to decision-makers and other stakeholders in a form that is both useful and accessible. The African Development Bank has committed about US $30 million to strengthen five regional Climate Centres on the continent – AGHRYMET, Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) Climate Prediction and Applications Centre (ICPAC), African Centre of Meteorological Application for Development (ACMAD) and the Drought Monitoring Centre (DMC) in Gaborone.