With the El Niño, all bets are off

Scribe: Otiato Guguyu

Behind the lens: Immanuel Kaunga

Bytes: Jobic Ojanji

Visual Intelligence: Jacob Ayoo

Audio storyteller: Leonida Owaga

As we stand on the brink of the impending El Niño floods, I’m reminded of a lesson drawn from a community whose very identity is intertwined with this natural phenomenon. Whenever the topic of my community arises, and I mention that I am a Manyala, I often receive quizzical looks that beckon for further explanation.

It’s as if I need to clarify that I belong to one of the Bantu-speaking tribes, clustered under the umbrella of Luhyas. However, it becomes infinitely easier to convey my origin when I mention that I hail from Budalangi – suddenly, people’s minds are filled with thoughts of floods.

While my roots are in Bunyala, I must confess that I have no firsthand experience of the annual flooding that plagues the region. I spent my formative years outside of this homeland, my knowledge limited to the stories recounted by relatives and friends who’ve endured the heart-wrenching impact of these floods.

These tales paint a grim picture of lives lost, livelihoods destroyed, and the resilience of a community forced to weather the relentless deluge year after year.

It’s a stark reality that approximately 30,000 of our people are displaced within our own borders each year. They find themselves condemned to dwell in deplorable conditions in makeshift camps, their villages washed away, their crops and livestock gone, their existence dependent on handouts and WhatsApp donations.

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Bunyala has been grappling with annual flooding since gaining independence, primarily due to the state’s inability to effectively manage the inland waterways created by the convergence of Lake Victoria, River Nzoia, and River Yala. The absence of comprehensive dredging and river training measures has left our people vulnerable.

Consequently, the consequences of this negligence are dire. Loss of life, destroyed livelihoods, damaged property, displacement of families, ruined homes, schools, roads, and infrastructure, devastated crops and farmlands, decimated livestock, and rampant public health hazards like malaria, dysentery, and cholera have become the harrowing norm.

In quantifiable terms, the annual cost of flood-related damage to our community has been estimated at an alarming Kes104 million (equivalent to US$800,000). On top of this financial burden, an additional Kes130 million (about US$1,000,000) is needed to provide emergency relief and support the rehabilitation of flood victims.

As we face another cycle of El Niño event, it’s not just about the impending floods; it’s about the ongoing struggle of a resilient people who yearn for sustainable solutions and meaningful change in their homeland.

Why don’t they just leave?

When I had the opportunity to interview the then Secretary-General of UNCTAD, Mukhisa Kituyi, during the Fourteenth Quadrennial Ministerial Conference in Nairobi a few years back, I gained some insight into the consistent government policies that have reinforced the neglect of our community.

During our conversation, when I mentioned that I was from Budalang’i, he shared with me the perspective that our people had resisted relocating from the floodplain of River Nzoia to higher ground, despite government efforts to encourage settlement in safer areas.

Government officials often simplify this issue by labeling it as mere resistance to leaving ancestral lands, without recognizing the profound cultural ties, such as the resting places of our ancestors and the origins of entire clans, that bind us to these locations.

Consequently, we are often excluded from claiming equal treatment under the state like getting compensated for loses, while the government overlooks potential solutions.

This, in a way, sheds light on the laissez-faire approach the government has taken towards us. Unlike other minority and marginalized communities, such as pastoralists and those residing within wildlife reserves, the Budalang’i people have never received compensation for the losses they’ve endured in terms of lives, property, and livelihoods due to recurrent floods.

Busia District the county that hosts us had no flood mitigation plans and government’s efforts to construct dykes, has at times failed to contain the problem. In the 2003 for example, the flood waters broke the dyke, and 25,000 people, almost half of the then Budalangi’s population of 53,000 were displaced.

And despite the fact that nearly half of our people depend on fishing to earn a living, neglect from central government has left our people harassed by Uganda. More than 10,000 residents of Bunyala Sub-County have suffered the impact of perennial arbitrary arrest, detention, apprehension, loss of vessels, property, equipment and territorial freedom to security officials of a neighbouring country while Kenya has not even protested these acts of aggression.

Omtatah Petition

The persistent flooding stems from the absence of a structured program for the regular upkeep of inland waterways. This neglect has led to the accumulation of silt in rivers, thereby diminishing their capacity to carry water effectively.

In a petition to the Kenya Maritime Authority via Senator Okiya Omatatah’s office, the Bunyala Professionals Association (BAPRO) has highlighted that the flooding problem is further exacerbated by the meandering paths rivers take as they near the lake. They contend that this challenge could be readily addressed through river training measures.

They say the straight distance from my village in Rwambwa to the mouth of Lake Victoria is approximately 17km, through the river channel, the distance is 44km because of river meanders, while traversing on the dyke the distance is 20km. River training will reduce the effective water travel distance between Rwambwa and the mouth by more than 20km halving the volume of accumulated flow restricted water within the Lower Nzoia area. 

The Bunyala Professionals Association (BAPRO) notess that a government investment of just Kes10 billion in flood mitigation could yield huge benefits. This investment would grant our people access to approximately 11,000 acres of fertile land, capable of generating potential annual revenues of Kes2 billion.

Additionally, it would enable the unimpeded movement of people and goods, fostering the growth of a thriving blue economy ecosystem that has the potential to generate billions in income.

The petition underscores the need for urgent funding, pegged at an estimated Kes9.5 billion, for dredging and river training. Alternatively, it suggests acquiring the necessary machinery to consistently manage and control the recurring flooding issues in Bunyala Sub-County.

As we await the possibility of intervention, residents hold onto hope, particularly following the visit by the Kenya Maritime Authority in September. However, the looming threat of El Nino rains casts a shadow over us, and the true costs of years of neglect are beginning to manifest.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that a minimum of Kes12.7 billion in emergency response funds is necessary to mitigate the expected impacts of El Nino in the Horn of Africa, including Kenya.

El Nino Preparations

Many have observed the Nairobi County government’s “green-courts” initiative, where young men and women are diligently clearing sewage from trenches in anticipation of the upcoming El Nino weather phenomenon.

However, there remains a sense of uncertainty regarding whether these efforts alone suffice for adequate preparedness. Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua has also announced a forthcoming meeting with the National Emergency Response Committee to discuss the nation’s readiness for the impending El Nino, yet there appears to be limited coordination in addressing this looming challenge.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that a minimum of Kes12.7 billion in emergency response funds is necessary to mitigate the expected impacts of El Nino in the Horn of Africa, including Kenya. Regrettably, little action has been taken to secure and allocate these critical funds.

In contrast to these pressing concerns, we have witnessed Agriculture and Livestock Development Cabinet Secretary Mithika Linturi announcing the acquisition of 100 mobile dryers by the government. These dryers are intended to assist farmers in the drying and proper storage of their grains, with the aim of reducing post-harvest losses.

As someone hailing from Budalangi, an area consistently plagued by annual floods, it is disheartening to witness a recurrent pattern of government neglect. Schools and homes in this region often remain submerged under water for months, with minimal state intervention to address this recurring crisis.

State neglect

I have personally witnessed my community’s relentless struggle to pool resources together to purchase basic necessities. I’ve seen our people enduring long stays in makeshift camps within schoolyards for months, and it sends a shiver down my spine when I contemplate the challenges my fellow citizens will soon confront with the impending deluge.

Regrettably, the government’s effectiveness in addressing flood-related issues in Kenya has been lacking. It’s no surprise that we are ill-prepared for the impending El Nino. According to Auditor General Nancy Gathungu, the government’s response to floods has often been disorganized and poorly coordinated.

As a consequence, these floods have resulted in the tragic loss of lives and property in the affected regions, losses that could have been prevented if timely action had been taken in response to early warnings.

Ms. Gathungu’s audit uncovered that early flood warning information was generated jointly by the Kenya Meteorological Department and the Water Resource Authority. This information was then disseminated to stakeholders through various channels, including the National Government Administration Officers, local radio stations, and SMS alerts by the Kenya Red Cross Society. However, the audit highlighted a glaring lack of early action on the part of both government agencies and the community itself.

Heed the monk

The first person to sound the alarm regarding El Nino was an unexpected figure: Patrick Njoroge, the ex-Governor of the Central Bank of Kenya. I never got around to writing a farewell tribute when Dr Njoroge stepped down from his role as the Governor of the CBK, as I had initially planned.

There were compelling reasons for this omission. At the time, he was mourning the loss of a beloved family member, and his reputation had suffered in the final days of his tenure. Dominic Omondi had already captured the legacy of this devout man so perfectly that I felt there was little more to add.

As he departed from his position, with the consensus in the financial sector being that his leadership had been inhibiting, patronizing, and had indirectly enabled the government’s unchecked borrowing spree by artificially supporting the shilling when depreciation should have naturally curbed state debt, many had stopped paying close attention to him. However, I remained an attentive listener.

His voice, always characterized by its gentle, American-accented cadence, except for the stubborn ‘R’s and ‘L’s, resonated like that of Cassandra, delivering truthful prophecies that few were willing to believe. Nevertheless, they were undeniably true.

During his March Monetary Policy meeting, Dr Njoroge dedicated considerable time to discussing vegetables, an unexpected subject for a central bank governor. He explained how they had posed the most significant challenge he had faced during Kenya’s severe drought, which marked one of the worst in four decades.

He pointed out that vegetables were the reason his monetary policy measures had failed to control inflation for nearly a year, as the inflation index remained stubbornly above the CBK’s target range of 7.5 percent.

“Vegetables have exerted considerable pressure on inflation, and this is primarily due to the unusually hot and dry period we recently experienced,” he remarked. He added, “Of course, monetary policy does not directly influence vegetable prices or similar factors.”

Interestingly, the “Monk,” as Dr Njoroge was informally known, had sought insights from the experts at the meteorological department. They had informed him that Kenya’s prolonged drought was being attributed to El Nino, sometimes referred to as the Christ Child.

He recounted their collaboration, saying, “We had a very productive meeting with experts from the meteorological department, just a day before our MPC meeting in March 2023. I’d like to extend my gratitude to them for their tireless work, which often goes unacknowledged. We truly learned a great deal from them.”

In conclusion, he stated, “The bottom line is that they assured us that the long rains would be normal. However, they also discussed the short rains with us. The expectation is that this year we may experience the El Nino phenomenon, and as we know, with El Nino, all predictions are uncertain, including the amount of rainfall and the potential crop damage. Thus, we return to the issue of El Nino.”

Bumper harvest

In the subsequent months, government officials have been traversing the nation, engaged in a sort of competition, each vying to predict how Kenya would harvest an abundance of maize, all thanks to the combination of plentiful rains and state-subsidized fertilizers.

Unfortunately, amidst these rosy forecasts, they seemed to have overlooked a critical aspect: the risk of substantial crop losses due to excessive rainfall. There was a noticeable absence of proactive measures to provide adequate drying facilities for farmers.

Despite the country’s awareness of the impending heavy rains for several months, a recent investigation conducted by The Standard revealed a disheartening lack of preparedness. Kenya’s response to this meteorological event has fallen short in terms of mobilizing for early harvesting, establishing grain-drying infrastructure, mapping flood-prone and landslide-prone areas, and implementing preventive measures against cholera and other waterborne diseases.

The consequences of this oversight are expected to extend to the widespread destruction of infrastructure, which will inevitably impact the economy significantly.

It’s worth distinguishing El Niño from the broader issue of climate change, as the former is a cyclical and predictable climate pattern originating in the tropical Pacific Ocean. This phenomenon occurs when an increased flow of heat and moisture enters the global climate system, resulting in a natural boost to average global surface temperatures.

While El Niño typically leaves regions like Australia and Indonesia parched and vulnerable to heightened wildfire risks, its influence in East Africa, which has grappled with prolonged drought, often brings about wetter conditions. Conversely, other parts of Africa experience drier-than-average weather patterns.

As a result, what is typically the driest and hottest season in Kenya, from mid-December to late March, transforms into a period of intense rainfall during El Niño events, marked by some of the most substantial precipitation levels ever recorded in the country.

Grass will grow

What this means for a country that is 82 percent dessert is that for the first time, grass will grow in plenty in Garissa. Out of Kenya’s 47 counties, a staggering 23 are designated as arid or semi-arid lands (ASALs), leaving only about 18 percent of the country’s territory as agriculturally productive.

This productive zone encompasses the central and western highlands, separated by the imposing Rift Valley. Here, a temperate climate prevails, often graced with moderate to heavy rainfall.

However, Kenya’s climate exhibits remarkable diversity. The coastal region experiences warm and humid conditions, while the arid interior typically suffers from low and irregularly distributed rainfall, particularly in the tropical belt where approximately 82 percent of the country receives less than 700 mm of precipitation annually.

Yet, a remarkable shift is anticipated. According to the Meteorological Department‘s projections, nearly the entire nation is on the brink of a significant transformation, with most areas expected to receive rainfall exceeding the typical 700mm annual average.

The department’s statement reads, “During the ‘Short Rains’ season of October-November-December (OND) 2023, it is anticipated that a majority of the country will enjoy increased (above average) rainfall.”

An eastern season

Northwestern Counties (Turkana and Samburu) are likely to experience occasional rainfall during the season just like the North-Eastern Counties (Mandera, Marsabit, Wajir, Garissa and Isiolo).

The Coastal Counties (Mombasa, Tana River, Kilifi, Lamu and Kwale) expect rainfall that is likely to be above the long-term average amounts for the season while South-eastern Lowlands Counties (Kitui, Makueni, Machakos, Taita Taveta, and Kajiado) will recive reinfal above long term average.

The Highlands East of the Rift Valley Counties (including Nairobi area): (Nyandarua, Nyeri, Kirinyaga, Murang’a, Kiambu, Laikipia East, Meru, Embu, Tharaka Nithi and Nairobi): These counties are likely to experience rainfall throughout the season. Rainfall amounts are expected to be above the season’s long-term average. Rainfall is expected to be well distributed in time and space.

Asal food baskets

In the arid and semi-arid (ASAL) regions of Kenya, a profound shift has occurred among most farmers. They’ve transitioned away from traditional maize cultivation, which often yielded disappointing harvests due to the perpetually challenging climate in these areas. Instead, they’ve turned to cultivating drought-tolerant crops like green grams and cowpeas.

Anthony Nzioka, a farmer from Kavete in Makindu, Makueni County, shared his perspective with the Star Newspaper. He recounted that the last time he enjoyed a bountiful maize harvest was during the El Nino rains of 1998, followed by another fruitful season in 2002.

Now, with Kenya bracing for the anticipated torrential El Nino rains, especially in the eastern regions, Mr Nzioka and his fellow ASAL farmers find themselves on the brink of transforming from being a struggling agricultural region into the nation’s breadbasket.

“After enduring three years of devastating drought, this could indeed be seen as a blessing for farmers,” remarked the Nairobi-based IGAD Climate Prediction and Applications Centre.

ICPAC, designated by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) as the regional climate center, has forecasted a 90 percent likelihood of El Nino rains resembling those of 1997. However, they caution that, on the flipside, this El Nino could be equally destructive.

The 1997 El Nino

Recollections of the 1997 El Nino phenomenon still haunt the collective memory. Over 300,000 families suffered adverse impacts during that period. El Nino-triggered landslides in Kenya left an indelible mark of devastation.

While precise statistics on the extent of destruction caused by landslides are currently unavailable, the loss of human and animal lives, along with widespread damage to crops, was staggering.

Fertile farmlands were displaced, roads and railway lines were destroyed, bridges crumbled, and communication and power infrastructure were severely disrupted. Soil erosion, exacerbated by increased surface runoff and exposure, filled rivers with sediment. This sediment found its way into hydroelectric dams, leading to blockages and a halt in power generation.

The economic toll on the nation was colossal, estimated at approximately $1 billion, and recovery would take a considerable amount of time. The resurgence of El Nino carries the ominous potential for extreme weather events such as flash floods, riverine floods, mudslides, and landslides. These events not only threaten farmlands and food security but also jeopardize critical infrastructure, cutting off access to communities.

“However, it can quickly become a curse,” cautions ICPAC. Already, desert locusts are proliferating at alarming rates in certain parts of the region. The risk of deadly incidents also looms large in the collective consciousness, particularly remembering the last El Nino in 2015–16 when torrential rains led to landslides, flash floods, and structural collapses.


The initial impact of El Nino is poised to unfurl in the fertile breadbaskets of South Rift. At present, farmers are diligently harvesting their crops, but an ominous cloud hangs overhead. There’s a palpable concern of an impending outbreak of pests and diseases, most notably the dreaded fall armyworms. These unwelcome guests are expected to make their presence felt in areas predicted to receive below-average rainfall.

Forecasts further forebode potential disaster for farmers in the Western region. The impending El Nino may disrupt the drying process of maize, which coincides with the peak harvest period in October. This timing couldn’t be worse, as the rains are anticipated to commence in numerous parts of the country.

Kenya already grapples with significant post-harvest losses, amounting to a staggering 30 percent of the food produced. The looming rains exacerbate this issue, with experts sounding the alarm that inadequately dried maize could lead to dangerous aflatoxin contamination.

Threat of desert locusts

Meanwhile, as the heavens open up and soak vast grasslands that have long remained parched, an astonishing transformation unfolds in the world of the desert locusts. These solitary insects, driven by the effects of drought followed by rapid vegetation growth, undergo a behavioral shift.

This transformation triggers serotonin in their brains, propelling them to unite into swarms of destructive insects capable of devouring vast swathes of vegetation in a single day. Experts caution that as the rains set in, conditions may become favorable for a desert locust infestation in the region.

All of this comes at an inopportune moment for East Africa, a region often characterized by its volatile nature, where conflicts frequently erupt due to resource scarcities in the Horn. These experts warn that the existing conflicts in the region could hinder coordinated cross-border efforts to combat the impending pest onslaught.

Despite the clear and dire warnings sounded by scientists, it’s perplexing that Kenya appears remarkably unflustered about mobilizing the necessary financial resources to confront the impending adversity of El Nino. A cursory glance at Kenya’s past encounters with El Nino reveals that this year’s event looms as a looming catastrophe, while government agencies seemingly adopt a passive stance.

For a people accustomed to the devastation wrought by floods and a history of state neglect, our collective response seems to be rallying WhatsApp groups for donations and partnering with communities to aid victims in navigating these challenging times.

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