The poverty trap of perennial flooding of Kenya’s Tana River

Caroline Njogu | July 1, 2016

Mzee Ahmed. Photo: CWS

Mzee Ahmed. Photo: CWS

The best place to start this story is probably at the beginning. In early June, I traveled to Kenya’s Tana River to visit communities whose homes had been destroyed by recent flooding. The purpose of the trip was to help us better plan our Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) work in the area for the next year, including addressing livelihood, financial savings, education and other community needs. The trip started with a flight from Nairobi to Malindi, a small town along Kenya‘s coastal province followed by two hours’ drive inland alongside the porous Kenya-Somali border to Garsen, a small town on the west banks of Tana River. The Tana is Kenya’s longest river and home to Pokomo farmers and Oromo and Wardei pastoral communities.

On the second day, I set out further inland from Garsen about one hour’s drive to a small village called Sera Feji; a “vulnerability hotspot” for the impacts of flooding. It has this unfortunate designation primarily because, severe floods from Tana River have annually become common in the area. The impacts of the floods act as a threat multiplier for vulnerable families, adding to already existing stresses that stand in the way of a better life, including constant land degradation, poor social and physical infrastructure, clean water scarcity, poor agricultural yields and malnutrition. These factors mean that families’ ability to adapt to new adverse situations is weak.

Insecurity makes it even more difficult for people in poverty to earn a living and has reversed many of the modest rural development achievements of previous decades. The results are destroyed sources of livelihoods, reinforced inequalities and reduced opportunities for recovery. Collectively, this paints a complex social, economic and ecological picture, and poor populations find themselves being inherently entangled in a poverty trap.

Floodwaters from Kenya's Tana River. Photo: CWS

Floodwaters from Kenya’s Tana River. Photo: CWS

It was in Sera Feji that I met Mzee Ahmed, the leader of a Kieni self-help group, who quickly mobilized other members of his group to join us, as we rowed on a dhow to the vast area. This was a place they used to call home and had their farms. It was now covered in three feet of flood water.

I was struck by the courage that it took for Mzee and the other group members to even be in this place. Flood water had covered and damaged their farms. All of their crops and homes and been covered in flood water and destroyed. They lost their livelihoods, a devastating loss. I listened to members narrate their lives – “Here I planted maize, there I was just about to harvest watermelons” – and my heart broke as I watched them point out where their crops had been. All we could see now was flood water. In sum, though it is hard to quantify, it is safe to say that the community has lost their only source of livelihood, worth thousands of Kenyan shillings, which they had hoped to harvest and sell to earn an income for better health care for their families, pay school fees and meet food among other household needs.

As I sat in the dhow, I continued to reflect on the many other Mzee Ahmeds around the world whose livelihoods have been destroyed by floods. There has been a steady show of commitment from the international community, including the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Sendai Framework and the recently concluded World Humanitarian Summit. Even with these shows of commitment, disasters continue to have devastating effects. Far-reaching efforts need to be made to seize this positive change, and catalyze it to build the resilience of local vulnerable communities against natural disasters in an innovative and holistic manner. If we fail, natural disasters including floods and drought will continue to have a disproportionate impact on the millions of vulnerable people the world over leaving the likes of Mzee Ahmed displaced and homeless without access to the most basic elements of survival.

Caroline Njogu is the Emergency Response and DRR Coordinator with CWS Africa’s Relief Development and Protection team.