Horn of Africa facing deadly floods due to El Nino-linked ‘above average’ rains

Heavy rainfall predicted to keep affecting the region for the next three months with varying intensity

By Tony Malesi
Published: Wednesday 08 November 2023
Photo for representation: iStock

Several people in the Greater Horn of Africa are feared dead, property worth millions destroyed and populations displaced due to heavy rainfall in the region, according to officials.

The ‘above-average’ rainfall, predicted to keep affecting the region for the next three months with varying intensity, is attributed to a combination of the El-Nino phenomenon / climate change and the Indian Ocean’s Dipole (IOD), according to climate experts.

In Kenya alone, at least 17 people lost their lives in the first week of November, with over 10,000 households displaced by raging floods, according to data from the Kenya Red Cross.

“Cumulatively, 10,277 households have been affected, 17 fatalities, 14 casualties, at least 1,009 livestock deaths, 84 latrines and 221 acres of agricultural farmland and crops destroyed as of this weekend (November 5),” said the Red Cross in a press statement.

The intensified rains, which started mid-October, have also left communities reeling from the destruction of schools, hospitals and other key social amenities. Some roads linking parts of northern Kenya, the coast and the eastern region have been cut off, washed away or flooded, leaving populations marooned.

Elsewhere in the region, heavy flooding cut off a major highway linking Uganda to neighbouring South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), according to the Uganda National Roads Authority (UNRA). The agency said in a statement that the flooding occurred along the Olwiyo-Pakwach road in the northern district of Pakwach, cutting off the communication network.

“The water levels are still too high to allow any intervention. But our technical teams are monitoring the situation. We plan to intervene with an appropriate response once the water levels subside,” the UNRA said.

Several parts of Somalia have also been hit by torrential rains, causing deadly flooding and landslides. Khadija Mohamed Al-Makhzouma, the country’s minister for environment and climate change, issued a statement over the weekend stating that 21 people have lost their lives due to raging floods.

“Our hearts are with our fellow citizens facing dire challenges amid unprecedented floods, which have forced over 400,000 people to flee their homes. Let’s come together to support relief efforts, spread awareness, and champion climate action to safeguard our communities,” read her statement in part.

In Ethiopia, more than 20 people have died and over 12,000 others have been forced out of their homes due to flash floods triggered by torrential rains, according to state officials.

“Bridges and roads have been destroyed by the heavy downpour, making it difficult to reach affected households. More than 20 people have died due to the floods, with damage to crops, property and livestock also evident,” read a statement in part from the State Communication Bureau.

The trend is the same across the region, with counties registering above-normal rainfall that has resulted in deadly floods and destruction of property and farmlands. The region, which includes Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Somalia, South Sudan and Sudan, is still reeling from the effects of the worst drought in 40 years.

Intensified rainfall attributed to El Nino, climate change

After several days of speculation and hesitation, the Director of the Kenya Meteorological Department, David Gikungu has confirmed the ‘above-average’ rainfall is a result of IOD and El Nino conditions.

In their forecast of the disaster, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development Climate Prediction and Applications Centre (ICPAC) attributed the ‘above-normal’ rainfall to a combination of the El-Nino phenomenon / climate change and the IOD that traditionally causes heavy rain in the East African region.

Ordinarily, the Greater Horn of Africa has a short rainy season from October-December. However, due to climate change, some countries and zones were predicted to experience enhanced rainfall, described as “wetter-than-usual” conditions by ICPAC.

“The devastating drought associated with the three-year La Nina event may be replaced by a deluge because of the new El Nino event, which typically means wetter-than-usual conditions in East Africa,” said Wilfran Moufouma Okia, head of regional climate prediction services at World Meteorological Organization (WMO) in his statement.

“Another climate phenomenon known as the IOD is developing over the Indian Ocean and may strengthen the El Nino impacts,” he said. ICPAC, the climate centre accredited by the World Meteorological Organization, provides climate services to 11 East African countries.

Poor response despite early warnings

Few countries in the Greater Horn of Africa have embraced early warning systems, which can track potential hazards, take early action and minimise the impacts on people’s lives and property. A handful of the countries have mitigation measures and early warning systems such as megaphone announcements by village leaders, information billboards, mobile phone text messages, television and radio broadcasts for warning local communities about impending natural disasters.

Venant Ndigila, manager, disaster management, Kenya Red Cross, said this is only the beginning and the heavy rains are likely to go on till January.

“October-November-December is our short rainy season in most parts of East Africa. This time around, the forecast indicated we will receive enhanced rains. And here they are,” said Ndigila.

“Northern and eastern Kenya, for instance, hardly receives 10 millimetres of rain during this season. But some parts of these regions are now receiving as much as 70 mm, 100 mm and some even 200 mm,” he added.

He said rescue / emergency services, including aerial support by the Kenya Red Cross, are in place. The government and other humanitarian agencies continue to offer support and save lives.

Recent El Nino events occurred in 1982-83, 1987-88, 1991-92, 1997-98, 2002-03, 2004-05, 2006-07, 2009-10 and 2015-16 but at varying strengths. Past El Nino events led to significant climatic, environmental and socio-economic impacts in the Greater Horn of Africa.

However, it’s not all gloom and doom. Without the deadly flooding, as is expected in some areas, the wetter-than-normal October-December 2023 will allow communities to recover from the effects of the prolonged 2020-2023 drought.

Experts predicted the ‘wetter-than-normal conditions’ will lead to declining numbers of food-insecure populations due to improved food production and abundant livestock grazing resources.

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