Floods hammer Nairobi: The river must rise, no matter the tricks African cities pull [UPDATED]

“When the rain starts falling abruptly…we climb on top of our wardrobes and stay awake till morning."

THE rainy season has begun in earnest in eastern Africa, and although rain is supposed to be a blessing – for agricultural communities, at least – it is now frequently associated with floods, destruction and death.

This week has been terrible for Nairobi residents. On Monday, a two-hour downpour had some cars submerged and 10 people died when a stone wall collapsed on a number of iron-sheet houses.

On Tuesday night a three-hour deluge led to a city-wide traffic snarl up lasted 11 hours in some places; there were reports on social media of people getting home at 5.30am after leaving the office at 9pm, only to shower and go back to work. Two major rivers cutting across the city from west to east had overflowed onto some major roads, cutting off some sections of the city.

A fortnight ago at least 15 people died after flash floods swept through Narok town in southern Kenya; 10 vehicles have been swept away and one building collapsed. A major road linking the town to western Kenya was also temporarily cut off by the flood waters.

It comes just days after similar flooding in Tanzania left one person dead and at least 300 families in Manyara Region homeless. The worst affected area is Babati District, according to reports.

A few weeks ago, seven people were confirmed dead and over 5,000 displaced by heavy rains that pounded the capital Dar es Salaam.

About the same time, at least 20 people were killed in a landslide near Burundi’s capital Bujumbura after a hill collapsed due to torrential rains.

And earlier this year in Malawi, some 276 people were confirmed dead and 230,000 people in what has been described as the worst bout of flooding since 1964.

Africa’s flood problem has largely been linked to climate change. With temperatures getting warmer, more water vapour is held by the atmosphere, which in turn means more rain.

But in Africa’s cities, even modest downpours can result in serious flooding. Urbanisation itself aggravates flooding by restricting where floodwaters can go; when the ground is covered with buildings, roads and pavements it yields more runoff than vegetated land would.

In Kampala, Uganda, run-off in the low-lying slums of Kalerwe, Katanga, Kivulu and Bwaise is six times higher than would occur in natural terrain, largely due to the effect of hard, compacted urban surfaces as water flows down from the surrounding hills, says a 2009 study by ActionAid. 

Flooding in Kampala. Motorbike taxi (bodaboda) operators were charging UGX 5,000 ($2) to carry a passenger to cross to the other side. (Photo: Flickr/ 350.org)

City build-up obscures natural channels of water, but as the saying goes, water will always find its own level, despite humans putting buildings in its way.

Poor urban planning is also blamed for the frequent floods, but sometimes the problem is the good plan.

When rivers are deliberately channelled through culverts and concrete storm drains, they cannot adjust to changes in the frequency of heavy rain as natural streams do, leading to frequent overflows, particularly if the drains are blocked by waste and plastic debris.

The most affected by urban flooding are the poor, partly because they cannot afford to live in safer areas and have crowded, makeshift houses that are vulnerable to destruction.

The ActionAid study found that flooding had become a “normal” feature of African cities when it rains, so much so that communities, particularly in the slums, had begun to arrange their lives around the inevitability of a flood.

A resident of Kroo Bay in Freetown, Sierra Leone quoted in the report said: “When we see very dark clouds up the hills, we expect heavy rains to come. So we get ourselves prepared by transferring our valuable things on our very high beds which are reached by climbing ladders. Also, children who sleep on the floor are transferred to the high beds.”

Adopting to wet realties

In Alajo, Accra, Ghana, one resident described how her furniture had been flood-proofed: “When the rain starts falling abruptly…we climb on top of our wardrobes and stay awake till morning. Our furniture has been custom made to help keep our things dry from the water. For instance, our tables are very high and so also are our wardrobes, they are made in such a way that we can climb and sit on top of them.”

Other coping mechanisms recorded in cities such as Kampala, Nairobi, Maputo and Lagos included baling water out of houses to prevent damage to belongings; constructing temporary dykes or trenches to divert water away from the house; constructing barriers to water entry at doorsteps or even constructing outlets at the rear of their houses so any water entering the home flows out quickly.

But it’s not always poor communities that are affected. In the latest flooding in Nairobi last week, some of the most dramatic photos came from South C and Kileleshwa, which are middle-class areas. Cars in South C were nearly completely submerged after a night of rain Monday.

The city is known to have problems with drainage and flooding – after all, Nairobi was built on a swamp, reclaimed in the colonial days by the extensive planting of eucalyptus trees.

But a look at Google Maps suggests that unregulated land use – and possibly corruption – is a big culprit in the city’s flooding problems.

Just north of Kileleshwa is the Nairobi River, which flows from west to east through the city. But the map shows that the river mysteriously vanishes at one point, only to re-appear a few metres east.

A source familiar with happenings at the city’s urban planning department told Mail & Guardian Africa that sometimes property developers who want to illegally extend their land into the riparian reserve adjacent to the river press to have it downgraded from a river to a culvert or a mere storm drain, and then build small concrete channels for the water.

With that, the river “officially” disappears, and you can see this on all over the city by just a cursory exploration on Google Maps. 

Even in Kileleshwa itself, a tributary of the Nairobi river flows on its southern side, but it mysteriously rises in what appears to be the heart of the built-up area. 

But saying a river is a culvert doesn’t make it so, and it only takes a few centimeters of rain for nature to reclaim what rightfully belongs to her.

-UPDATED from May 4 when it was first published, adding in floods in the Kenyan capital Nairobi of the last few days.

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