Four steps to reduce devastation and deaths

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Floods in Kenya in April/May 2024 killed more than 250 people and caused an estimated 4 billion Kenya shillings ($35 million) in damage.

It is not the first time that Kenya’s lack of preparedness became evident as floods devastated rural and urban landscapes. There was also confusion over who would deal with the disaster: the national government or the county government. And it was several weeks before the government mobilized emergency agencies.

This need not have been the case. The Kenya Meteorological Department, the national meteorological agency, issued more than five heavy rain warnings between March 1 and May 15, 2024. This gave the government and humanitarian organizations enough time to take early measures, such as providing supplies non-food items and evacuate people from informal settlements.

My research has focused on understanding the nature, drivers and predictability of floods in Kenya. I have also participated in the Greater Horn of Africa seasonal forecast forums and have over 10 years of experience as a climate scientist at the Kenya Meteorological Department.

Kenya has made significant progress in providing weather and climate information. But there are some gaps that need to be addressed to better prepare and respond.

In my opinion, Kenya does not meet the key points listed by the World Meteorological Organization. These include flood forecasting, risk mapping, observation and forecasting, and communication and dissemination.

1. Flood forecast

Efforts have been made to advance the provision of flood forecasts by the Kenya Meteorological Department. Kenya relies on heavy rain warnings provided by the national meteorological service and the Climate Prediction and Application Center of the regional Intergovernmental Authority for Development. In most cases, rainfall greater than 50 mm in 24 hours is used as an early warning and flood preparedness indicator. These alerts contain information about areas (counties) that are likely to receive such precipitation and be affected by flooding.

Some academics have questioned the appropriateness of heavy rain warnings for flood preparedness. But I think they were valuable to both the government and humanitarian organizations during the recent floods in Kenya.

A much more accurate tool is a system that predicts the occurrence, magnitude, timing and duration of flooding in a specific area. Kenya has 21 documented areas that are prone to flooding.

Ideally, each of the 21 hotspots would have a flood forecasting system, but only one exists: that of the Nzoia River in the Lake Victoria basin. Flood forecasts here are provided three days in advance.

There are no operational flood forecasting systems for Kenyan cities, including Nairobi and Mombasa. Therefore, there is a need to expand early warning systems to cover areas identified by the national master plan.

2. National risk mapping

There is limited knowledge of the most flood-prone areas across the country, which poses a challenge during flood preparedness and response. Exposure and vulnerability can also change. Better mapping of flood risk is needed across the country using high-resolution Earth observations and elevation data.

These would map the elevation of watercourses, information that corresponds to the Water Resources Authority through the technical support of the Kenya Water Security and Resilience Project. River elevation information can be combined with population settlement data and flood forecasts provided by the Kenya Meteorological Department. This would then inform the forecast based on impact, a change from what the flood will look like to what it can do.

3. Observation and forecast

All forecasts are only as good as the quantity and quality of the data observed. The density of hydrometeorological networks in Kenya, as in the rest of Africa, is relatively low, with only 38 ground meteorological stations, which represents only 12.5% ​​of the minimum recommended density.

Efforts are underway to increase the density of the African network, but more investment will be needed. Kenya also needs to invest in weather radar observations that can detect strong storms. This is especially useful for urban centers like Nairobi.

Using global flood forecasts up to 30 days, such as Copernicus (password required), would add information for early preparedness actions.

4. Communication and dissemination

There are standard international guidelines from the World Meteorological Organization for the dissemination of extreme events such as floods, called the Common Warning Protocol. Kenya uses these, but there are still gaps in warning communications to reach those at risk of flooding. In 2024, the Kenya Meteorological Department issued early warnings that were disseminated through various media, including its X handle (Twitter).

More stakeholder awareness activities should have been carried out to communicate the potential of such early warning systems. Therefore, co-design of communication products, diversification of communication channels, regular monitoring and feedback, and collaboration between agencies and stakeholders are necessary.

Next steps

Following these steps correctly does not guarantee proper emergency response. Kenya has recently developed a so-called “early action protocol”, which outlines specific information on who does what during flood anticipation actions.

The County Disaster Management Act requires the 47 county governments to provide funding for disaster preparedness and response in their annual budgets. This should be scrupulously applied and complemented by both levels of government.

Finally, Kenya should consider establishing a legally mandated institution to manage the response to flood disasters, much like the National Disaster Management Authority oversees drought emergencies.