Flooding in East Africa: Could this be an end to the Drought?

By Christopher Crellin,
Research Assistant, Global Food and Water Crises Research Programme


The recent floods affecting the East African countries of Kenya and Somalia, have had detrimental impacts. The heavier than expected seasonal rains have caused rivers and dams in the region to overflow, damaging key infrastructure, displacing hundreds of thousands of people and sparking fears of water-borne disease outbreaks.

The floods occur seasonally and could signify an end to the drought; however, it is difficult to argue that this is the case. Due to rapid population growth, urbanisation and inadequate infrastructure, the inability to utilise and successfully manage the rains has seen East Africa see-saw between drought and floods. Increased efforts to implement long-term projects to enhance resilience and capacity are in place, but they are highly dependent on the stability of the region.


Kenya and Somalia have, until recently, been battling with drought. Both countries have been struck by seasonal monsoon rains in recent weeks, leading to the internal displacement of approximately 300,000 people in Kenya and a further 580,000 in Somalia. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the rains have cut off roads, disrupting transport and the humanitarian response, as well as sweeping away other key infrastructure.

Parts of north-eastern Kenya have recorded the heaviest rainfall in over two decades, causing the River Tana to burst its banks and the Masinga and Kamburu dams to overflow, as well as, more recently, the collapse of a commercial dam in Kenya’s Rift Valley.  Meteorologists believe that the early rains are a result of the Madden-Julian Oscillation, an eastward moving low- pressure system that carries cloud and rain around the tropical regions over a 30- to 60-day period.

The overflowing of the river and dams in Kenya, paired with the deterioration of urban drainage systems, has put severe pressure on already inadequate infrastructure. Rapid population growth and urbanisation in Nairobi, without the necessary infrastructural development to mirror the growing demand, has resulted in the rains blocking the drainage system and increasing the severity of the flooding.

The World Bank recently funded an unblocking project in several cities affected by the floods. The rains have caused several roads to be submerged, which has cut off aid access and also destroyed homes. The biggest concern, however, is the flooding of refugee camps.

The refugee camps, home to displaced people from Kenya and bordering countries, are the most vulnerable to the floods. Many of the camps are located in low-lying areas, with poor or limited access to sanitation facilities and insufficient accommodation. Authorities fear that shelters that are filled with knee-high stagnant water will lead to an outbreak of water-borne diseases, including cholera and malaria.

Although the floods may signify the end, or easing, of the drought in East Africa, it is difficult to argue that this is the case. The rains, known as the South and North Monsoons, are seasonal and occur in April and October, due to an intertropical belt that passes through the region. Therefore, countries that experience the seasonal rains, such as Kenya, are also afflicted by drought; raising concerns about the country’s longer term water infrastructure and resilience projects.

The World Bank is currently working on a water security and climate resilience project in Kenya. The project began in June 2013 and will be completed in December 2022. It focuses on three pillars: the financing of water investments, the development of effective water governance institutions and the establishment of a project management unit. The three pillars aim to increase the availability and productivity of irrigation and to enhance and strengthen institutional frameworks and capacity; the keys to achieving water security and climate resilience for Kenya.

To meet these aims, the World Bank is working with the Kenyan Government, supporting its efforts to develop new water storage and irrigation facilities and to build capacity in its water institutions through reform. One of the first projects to be undertaken includes an irrigation scheme on the Lower Nzoia River in western Kenya. The scheme aims to increase the water supply for crops, contributing to food security, economic growth and climate resilience for farmers within the region.

The success of those projects, however, is highly dependent on the stability of the country. If Kenya and neighbouring Somalia continue to experience severe environmental events, such as drought and flooding leading to food and water insecurity concerns, as well as health epidemics, it could have a great impact on human security and result in mass migration, social unrest and political instability.

Despite seasonal rains, the effects of damaged infrastructure, water and food insecurity, drought, social unrest and disease outbreaks, could continue to hinder the development of the East African region. Countries, such as Kenya and Somalia, which face high levels of water scarcity, cannot rely on heavy seasonal rainfall to fully overcome drought conditions. A long-term integrated effort is needed to enhance water resilience through the construction of dams and irrigation systems and the implementation of policies and reforms that improve water capacity. Institutions, such as The World Bank and the United Nations Development Programme, are evidently assisting countries in such efforts; however, the success of those projects depends on the ongoing stability of the region.

First Published by Future Directions

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