Floods in East Africa threaten the fight against COVID-19

Before the Coronavirus began its spread across East Africa, many communities were already battling heavy monsoonal flooding. Here, Robert Kibet tracks how communities across Kenya may struggle to respond from the climate crisis to the compounding risks of COVID-19.

For 54-year-old Esther Anyango, who resides in Maduwa village nestled in the swampy Yala, an island within the Lake Victoria, rapidly rising waters have become “too much to bear”.

“This time, the waters are too much to bear. This is different from the other floods,” she told Ubuntu Times in an interview, speaking through a translator, referring to the ongoing flooding in Budalangi, a region that sits on the shores of Lake Victoria.

With almost annual floods hitting Esther’s village, many have already moved away, and if she could, she would do so herself. “Those in a better financial position”, she says, “have relocated and established their new residences in much safer land”. Those who can have moved 15 kms away to Bunyala North.

A mother of six, Anyango’s family is one of the hundreds displaced due to the ongoing flooding in Budalangi, which experts say is mostly due to rising water levels at Lake Victoria.

As of March 28, close to 500 families were reportedly affected by flooding, forcing them to seek refuge on safer higher ground.

Of concern to Anyango and thousands of residents here is how they will balance health measures such as self-distancing and handwashing using clean water or sanitizers, now that they have their homes submerged.

“Toilets have been submerged in floodwater. The water is now contaminated. Soon we are foreseeing outbreaks of cholera and other water-borne diseases. To worsen it, families are forced to share single rooms in safer places,” notes Elijah Wanjala, a resident of Mabinju, a community in the westernmost corner of Kenya, closer to Kampala (Uganda) than Nairobi (Kenya). 

In its 2019 analysis of the floods in East Africa, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) said over 2.8 million people had been affected by the floods.


More than just corona

The floods came off the back of consecutive droughts, and have triggered landslides across the region. Destroying homes, infrastructure, and livelihoods. Now, the fear is the potential risk of communicable diseases — including cholera.

In Kenya’s western region, potential threats of water-borne disease outbreaks are imminent as floodwaters stagnate, jeopardizing the government’s efforts to contain the spread of coronavirus pandemic.

A spot check at one of the trading centers saw businesses brought to a halt, with few remaining shops staring at a possible total closure as the floodwaters continue to occupy the surrounding.

Raphael Wanjala, a Member of Parliament for the Budalangi constituency, told Ubuntu Times in a telephone interview that the ongoing floods are likely to complicate the government’s efforts to combat coronavirus spread.

A woman with her children is spotted outside her submerged homestead with few belongings. Ongoing floods have caused residents to flee to safer grounds in Budalangi. Credit: Robert Kibet / Ubuntu Times


“The flooding threatens to sink the people of Budalangi into deeper poverty. One of the biggest concerns will be managing overcrowding in safety camps where families affected by the raging floods seek refuge,” says Wanjala.

Plagued by heavy rain and flooding over the last few months, with the February flooding leaving 40 dead and 15,000 people displaced, Tanzanian authorities had to order at least 25,000 people to evacuate to safer grounds.

This was after Nyumba ya Mungu dam, located in Mwanga district in the northern Kilimanjaro region, showed signs of breaking due to rising water levels.

Last month, roads in and around the commercial capital, Dar es Salaam, were closed due to heavy rains, with a bridge in Kilosa district on the important Morogoro-Dodoma highway collapsing.

A March report by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) indicates that torrential rains caused damage in Mutimbuzi and Kabezi communes in Burundi’s Bujumbura rural province and Nyanza-Lac in Makamba province, resulting in two deaths and over 300 people displaced from their homes

Other provinces affected by the torrential rains in Burundi include Rumonge, Gitega and Ruyigi.

The unusual torrential rainfall witnessed in most East African countries during 2019’s last quarter, were said to be primarily driven by the positive Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD)-an irregular oscillation of sea surface temperatures in which the western Indian Ocean becomes alternately warmer (positive phase) and then colder (negative phase) than the eastern part of the ocean.

Flood-stricken Budalangi, in Kenya, is home to a multi-million rice irrigation scheme. There, fears are emerging that continued flooding will disrupt jobs and food security. The disaster has coincided with the planting season.

A child is seen sleeping outside a grass-thatched mud-walled house in Runyu village as Lake Victoria’s backflow water cause havoc in Budalangi constituency. Credit: Robert Kibet / Ubuntu Times


Down the river or up the lake?

Leaders say the sudden rising water levels in Lake Victoria could have been caused by neighboring Ugandan government’s decision to let off water from its Jinja dam through the Kiira and Nalubaale powers stations spillways into the River Nile.

For residents living in villages within the Yala swamp, accessing medical services is a tedious exercise, with the nearest health center located in the Osieko area, several miles away.

“People here live at God’s mercy. For them to access medical care, they have to sail a boat far away. With floods causing havoc, their situation worsens,” says Collins Ayango, a water and beverage consultant from the region.

Collins is is in the process of developing a water treatment and bottling plant, seeking to solve the problem of access to clean potable water for the region’s residents.

Uganda and Kenya are two of the countries that signed the 2010 Cooperative Framework Agreement that allows the development of projects along the Nile without approval from Egypt.

Under the framework, the River Nile Basin Commission was established to act as a forum for cooperation and a clearinghouse for the planned measures that could cause any harm to other riparian states.

Collins Ayango told Ubuntu Times that lack of political will in the implementation of infrastructural projects contribute to annual floods in Budalangi. Among these lacking projects is the construction of reliable dykes on the River Nzoia, which flows into Lake Victoria.

“Until the World Bank funded the construction of concrete dykes a few years ago, residents used to witness fatal flooding. But the ongoing floods look different from the past. It seems it is being caused by the lake’s backflow,” he says.

Some of the vastly affected areas in Budalangi include Osieko, Maduwa, Bukhuma, Bulwani, Iyanga, Rukala, Runyu, Bubamba. Others are Kholokhongo, Mabinju, Musoma, Rugunya, Omena Beach and Buongo villages.

This story was originally published by Ubuntu Times.

Robert Kibet
Robert Kibet is an independent journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya. His work has appeared at Climate Tracker, The New Humanitarian, Inter Press Service, The Guardian UK, InDepth News, Equal Times, DW, News Deeply, Thomson Reuters Foundation,Farm Radio International and Ubuntu Times. He majorly reports on topics such as climate crisis,humanitarian issues, environment, conflict, health, the SDG 2030 Agenda,food security, human rights and education.