Residents save belongings in floodwaters after a mudslide in 2017. Picture: REUTERS
Residents save belongings in floodwaters after a mudslide in 2017. Picture: REUTERS

Nairobi — Rainfall that has been twice the seasonal average in parts of eastern Africa has claimed almost 500 lives, forced thousands from their homes and damaged crops, raising the spectre of a repeat of last year’s food shortages.

A series of small Kenyan dams collapsed at the weekend, killing five people — the latest victims of the deluges that began around the main wet season in March, and which have also caused deaths in Rwanda, Ethiopia, Somalia and Tanzania. Livestock has been swept away and transport systems disrupted, with a UN agency official warning of damage to food production.

"Recent floods have heavily affected the fragile food security situation in the East Africa region," Valere Nzeyimana, land and water officer with the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), said in an e-mailed response to questions. "People have seen their farms washed away through flooding and mudslides."

The flooding comes about a year after eastern Africa faced the opposite problem: its worst drought in 60 years that left more than 11-million people in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia needing food aid. In Kenya, it cut corn production, reducing the country’s strategic grain reserve to less than a day’s supply, and caused shortages of products, such as sugar and milk.

This year’s downpours have spanned the greater region, from the tiny Red Sea nation of Djibouti — which recently saw the equivalent of its average annual rainfall in just two days due to Cyclone Sagar — to southern Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania, where precipitation was double the normal rate. Somalia, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi also saw several weeks of heavier than normal precipitation.

Swept away

In Kenya, more than 8,500ha of crops have been destroyed, 20,000 animals swept away and irrigation systems damaged, according to the East African, a regional newspaper. In Rwanda, almost 5,000ha of crops have been lost and farming infrastructure destroyed, according to the government.

The impact on food supplies is likely to be "more severe than previously projected for many households in flood-prone areas, most notably in riverine areas of the Horn of Africa," the US’s Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FewsNet) said this month.

Nzeyimana said grain storage and drying facilities in rural areas had also been flooded, affecting crops already harvested.

With the floods have come disease. Heavy rains and flooding in Kenya have compounded a cholera outbreak and a chikungunya epidemic, increasing the risk of their spread, according to the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs. A cholera outbreak in 15 of Kenya’s 47 counties has left at least 55 people dead, the agency said on May 3.

There may be little respite later in the year. FewsNet has said there’s an increasing chance during the October to December short-rains season of an impact from El Niño, a weather phenomenon characterised by abnormal warming of the Pacific Ocean’s surface temperature that can lead to droughts in parts of the world and floods elsewhere. Its effects can include damage to crops, animal diseases, plant pests and forest fires, according to the FAO.