First drought, now floods plague Kenya's nomads

After all her goats died in a drought that swept East Africa last year, Habiba Abdi Gedi decided to settle a few kilometres from the Darwa river along the Kenya-Ethiopia border.

But then this year abnormally heavy rains in the Ethiopian highlands caused flash floods, bursting the river’s banks, and flooding her home.

“Water came into the house very fast. Before I knew it, it was up to my bed, then my utensils and chicken coop were swept away,” said the 45-year-old Kenyan.

Already weakened by the drought that annihilated their precious livestock, nomads in Kenya’s arid north-east are now grappling with devastating floods, which have killed over 100 people and displaced more than one million across Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia and Rwanda.

Covering her nose and mouth with a colourful traditional shawl, Gedi points to a large pool of water next to her hut of sticks, grass and plastic sheeting.

Flies swarm on bloated camel stomachs and other rubbish washed from slaughter houses along the river and swept down to Gedi’s home by the floodwaters.

“The toilets have collapsed, the water has brought this stinking mess, and there are even snakes here,” she said.

Gedi and her neighbours are too poor to shift their houses and wait for the water to recede before moving back.

Along the riverbanks, hundreds of small-scale farms have been ruined by floodwaters, and officials fear already critical food shortages will become worse.

“The farms along the river form the bread basket of the district, all the food is either from here or relief,” said Raphael Lemaletian, Mandera district officer.

“Now that the crops have been swept away, we anticipate a severe food shortage for about 100 000 people who are not included in the list of beneficiaries for relief food,” he told a team from United Kingdom-based aid agency Save the Children.

‘Again, I’m left with nothing’

All his life, 55-year-old Jammah Ali Isack says he has followed the path of his pastoralist ancestors, traversing the arid, harsh terrain of Kenya’s north-eastern province with his livestock in search of water and pasture.

But after losing over 100 goats in the drought, Isack decided to try his hand at farming, an alien concept to his people’s way of life.

“Our people are not farmers,” Isack said.
“But I have no animals and nine children and three wives to feed, so I had planted some maize and vegetables. Now it’s gone, again I’m left with nothing,” he said, shaking his head and pulling at his brightly-dyed beard.

Aid agencies say nomadic people are the most vulnerable in the region because their entire livelihood depends on the climate. But persistent drought and lack of rain have forced many nomads to change their lifestyle, and some have settled into farming or moved to cities in search of jobs.

Hundreds of people and tens of thousands of livestock died of hunger during last year’s drought.

Isack said the floodwater swept through the middle of his farm but he would try and replant his crops and would pray for the rain to stop.

Forecasts suggest the rains could continue through December and spread into other countries in central and southern Africa.

‘Ticking time bomb’

In neighbouring Wajir district, aid agencies and public health officials are bracing themselves for a surge in malaria cases. They fear other diseases such as cholera might break out from a lack of proper latrines and water hygiene.

“In Wajir town, people use buckets instead of latrines so when the floods came, the latrines overflowed, and contaminated the drinking water,” Nur Kato Abdiadir, Wajir public health officer, told Reuters.

“We are sitting on a ticking time bomb,” he added.

In the district hospital, the paediatric ward is already straining with an influx of children suffering from diarrhoea and malaria. The suffering is compounded by malnutrition.

Poor access to transportation is also hampering aid efforts.

“The roads have been cut off by the floods ... it has been nearly a month since the roads were accessible,” a nursing officer said. ‒ Reuters

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