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Somali refugees in drought-hit Kenya brace for floods

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Wed, 14 Sep 2011 11:56 GMT
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NAIROBI (AlertNet) – After running from drought and famine, some 200,000 Somalis living in the world’s largest refugee camp in Kenya are likely to be hit by floods, the Kenya Red Cross said on Tuesday, warning that climate change is making it increasingly difficult to know where disaster will strike next. 

The Kenya Red Cross predicts that 700,000 people in Kenya will need emergency aid, such as food and medical care, due to flooding between October and December. About 30,000 are likely to be displaced. 

Most of Dadaab camp – a sprawling settlement of almost 500,000 refugees in Kenya’s remote arid northern lands – is built on the Lorian Swamp, which has dried up due to successive droughts. 

Although the land looks barren and dry, it floods during heavy rains. 

“Mere exposure to the cold weather and to the wetness and lack of proper shelter is enough to kill enough of those refugees, especially those who arrived recently, the ones who are still in poor body conditions,” said Abdishakur Othowai, head of disaster management at Kenya Red Cross.

He is calling on agencies in the camp to prepare thoroughly to avert “a major humanitarian crisis”. 

There has been a massive influx of over 150,000 Somali refugees into Dadaab this year. Famine was declared in parts of southern Somalia in July and it is predicted to worsen before the end of the year. 

“A cholera outbreak there under the current conditions is going to be a disaster,” he added. 

Dadaab is made up of three sections - Ifo, Hagadera and Dagahaley. Two out of three of these are in the swamp, as is the United Nations base camp. 

In 2006, the entire Ifo refugee camp had to be relocated to higher ground when the area was flooded. 

“If they don’t do any mitigation work now, if it rains heavily, we will see what we saw in 2006,” Othowai said.   

The main road to Dadaab gets cut off during the rainy season, as do several other roads to northern Kenya. Relief agencies have to preposition food stocks to last for several months. 


Some 3.7 million hungry Kenyans are still reeling from the impact of a severe, prolonged drought, which is expected to end with the start of the short rains season in October. Most live in the arid northern half of the country where they roam in search of pasture and water for their livestock.

Although below normal rainfall is predicted in northern Kenya, drought-stricken nomads may still be hit by flash floods caused by sudden bursts of intense rain in the nearby highlands. 

“In 2006, pastoralist communities in Marsabit were just grazing their camels when, all of a sudden, a wall of water came from Ethiopia,” said Othowai. 

In these regions, there are millions of emaciated people and animals who have struggled to stay alive despite the failure of the last two rainy seasons. 

“With the rain arriving, we might have increased death of animals,” said Patrick Lavand’homme, deputy head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Kenya. 

Livestock diseases, like Rift Valley Fever, come with the rains. 

“People are weaker, so with the rain you might have increased malaria, increased water-borne diseases,” he added. 

Climate change is bringing more intense rainfall, which, to use the terminology of the Kenya Meteorological Department, is “poorly distributed in time and space”. 

“Rains that should have happened over a two week period fall in two days in a confined area and lead to flooding,” Othowai said. 

Kenya’s flood hazard zones have spread dramatically over the last decade, extending across the country to previously safe areas. 

In a map drawn up in 2000, the United Nations identified two flood zones in Kenya - the Tana River on the coast and Budulangi in western Kenya. Now there are eight, according to the Red Cross’s latest map. 

Flash floods are being seen in new areas, such as the Rift Valley. 

“Rift Valley never used to be a place of flooding the past. We’ve had flooding for three consecutive rainy seasons,” Othowai said. 

The speakers were taking part in a planning workshop organised by the Kenya Red Cross and the United Nations to prepare for the floods.

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