Nairobi streets get flooded

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Major floods in Nairobi have been in news this week (at least locally, global media does not pay much attention – just imagine the amount of coverage if this happened in the western world). Having floods in Nairobi is nothing new, but these are mostly restricted to slum areas on riverbanks receiving no government attention whatsoever. But flooding of this scale in the Kenyan capital is beyond people’s memory. Other than Nairobi, big floods have occurred this year in various parts of Kenya, notably in Narok town.

Flooded road in Kileleshwa, Nairobi 2015.
Flooded road in Kileleshwa, Nairobi 2015.

There have been other significant flood events in Kenya in relatively recent history. The 1997 El Nino Floods left much havoc  in certain parts of the country, causing crop damage and crippling much of road and rail network (still not fully repaired), and resulting in hundreds of fatalities. Notable flooding occurred also in 2003.
The map below illustrates that Nairobi sits on a drainage basin between highlands in northwest to the city and plains between east of it. These rivers converge into Nairobi River, itself a tributary of Athi River eventually reaching the Indian Ocean. Nairobi’s rivers and streams divide the city since main roads are generally aligned along them in roughly east-west orientation, while only few roads cross these rivers. This not only divides the city but also contributes to the heavily congested traffic.

Nairobi River Basin. Map created by UNEP.
Nairobi River Basin. Map by UNEP’s Nairobi River Basin Project.

These are all small Rivers, Nairobi River isn’t quite Thames or Seine, and over time water flow has gradually decreased due to increased water usage upstream. However, any rain north or west of Nairobi will rapidly accumulate the water flow.  New buildings, much of them informal settlements, have encroached these riverbanks due to land shortage in Nairobi. In some cases these streams have been channeled. There is also large amount of waste in these rivers. All this limits the water flow capacity which means eventually, after much raining, incoming water has no other escape route than take over the streets.

Leaders may claim this is an “unprecedented” event due to unusually heavy rains, but most of all these floods are a result of decades of neglected city planning. Much blame has been put on Nairobi County Governor Evans Kidero, despite the inherited nature of this problem. That said his government has been unable to tackle other problems like traffic, crime and poverty, which only continue to escalate. The response to the flooding by county and national government has also drawn criticism, once again showing the poor or non-existent disaster preparedness Kenya has.

So what will be done to prevent such flooding happening in the future? Probably some hastily implemented measures will take place, but these may do more harm than good  (cf. No right turn rule, supposed to ease traffic Nairobi). Let’s assume next time we’ll have such flooding will be 15-20 years from now when today’s floods will be long forgotten and all that leaders can do will be apologising and saying it is “unpredictable” and “one-off” event.

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