Lives, property lost in the Horn floods inflames 3-year drought crisis

Monday April 24 2023
red cross Kenya

A team of Kenya Red Cross Society officers at the shore of Mwatate dam where the body of a pregnant woman and her three children were retrieved. The family died after their house was swept away by flash floods on April 5, 2023 at Kironge village in Mwatate, Taita Taveta County. PHOTO | LUCY MKANYIKA | NMG


Lives and property have been lost following disastrous floods that hit the eastern Horn of Africa, aggravating the humanitarian crisis that has existed for the last three years due to drought.

The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration said Sunday that flash flooding from heavy rainfall had killed dozens and affected 300,000 people in Ethiopia and Somalia in March 2023 alone, imposing continued humanitarian emergency as populations now confront floods.

The March-to-May season long (or gu) rains caused major rivers to overflow their banks, with significant consequences including loss of human life and livestock spared from the prolonged drought across Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania.

The above-average rainfall ushered in an early start to the gu rains in Eastern Africa, with moderate to heavy rains in the Ethiopian highlands overtopping banks of the Shabelle near the Ethiopia-Somalia border and Juba rivers.

In the first 25 days of March, parts of Ethiopia received 5 to 10 centimetres (2 to 4 inches) more rain than usual for the period, a report from Crop Monitor showed. More than 1,000 hectares of cropland has been swamped in Ethiopia and Somalia.

Read: Drought kills livestock in southern Ethiopia


Records from various government and humanitarian agencies show the rains have caused mass deaths and devastation. According to United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) since the start of March, 21 deaths and 140,000 people have been displaced in Somalia districts of Baardheere in Jubaland State; and at least 29 people have died in Ethiopia, due to widespread floods, the overflow of rivers where 240,000 have been affected or displaced. Many of the affected people are in Somali, Oromia and Afar Region.

Recent deaths happened in Tanzania where floods following heavy rains that caused river overflows in Talanda River killed seven people and destroyed homes in the Rukwa Region in western Tanzania, last week, according to the Red Cross.

Three weeks ago, the Red Cross also reported that 12 people had died in Northern Kenya from flooding, after months of drought in the arid pastoral northern counties of the country. In total, at least 17 counties have been affected by floods in the country.

Widespread damage

According to Marsabit County spokesperson Alexander Barille, roads have been swept away by floods.

Residents have lost thousands of livestock that had been spared from the prolonged drought that saw scores perish from drought.

The Horn of Africa has seen almost three years of some of the worst drought conditions in history, according to the Famine and Early Warning Systems Network. Ethiopia and Somalia have had five failed rainy seasons since late 2020, which have displaced 1.4 million Somalis and killed millions of livestock. During this time the Shabelle-Juba River basins saw their lowest rainfall totals since 1981.

In Kenya, Gilgil suffered a mudslide from the Eburu Mbaruku hills; Flash and riverine floods caused by heavy rains in Somalia have affected over 175,000 people since mid-March, bringing with it an outbreak of cholera and acute watery diarrhoea, mainly in Juba land and Southwest states.

Read: Kenya gets $100m USAID water investment

In Tanzania, flooding has devastated the lives of hundreds of people in Mara and Mtwara regions in early April after the Ruvuma River broke its banks.

“This flooding doesn’t just undo three years of drought,” said Caroline Wainwright, a climate scientist at Cardiff University in the United Kingdom whose research into the drivers and impacts of rainfall variability in East Africa found that from the mid-1980s to 2010, the long rains have been getting drier and the short rains could deliver more rainfall than the long rains by 2030–2040.

“During the fourth week of March 2023, livestock were washed away by flash floods in Marsabit following the heavy rains that were experienced in the region,” said the Kenya Meteorological Department last week.

“In Gilgil, a mudslide from the Eburu Mbaruku hills swept through Ol Jorai village, killing seven people. While flash floods in Weiwei village, Pokot Central and Ortum (Pokot South) killed two people on March 23,” the department added.

The most affected areas are Baardheere district in Gedo Region, Jubaland State, and Baidoa district in Bay Region, Southwest State. Flash floods have also been reported in parts of the Southwest State.

Tong village in Bentiu, South Sudan

Internally displaced people on February 7, 2023 use a boat in flooded Tong village in Bentiu, South Sudan. PHOTO | SIMON MAINA | AFP

Stagnant water in towns

Authorities have reported that stagnant water in towns has exacerbated the risk of waterborne diseases.

According to Somali’s Federal Ministry of Health, at least 4,000 suspected cholera cases and 17 associated deaths have been reported from 27 districts since January.

Read: Somalia drought killed 43,000: Study

As of April 10, the rains in Somalia and the Ethiopian Highland have increased the water levels on the Shabelle River, surpassing the high flood risk threshold in Belet Weyne town, Hirshabelle State. Local authorities report that about 12 villages east of the town have been impacted by flood water and people have started relocating to higher grounds.

By last week the Somalia Disaster Management Authority (SODMA) was still warning of possible flooding in riverine areas along the Shabelle and Juba rivers.

“Should heavy rains continue in Somalia and in the Ethiopian highlands through the current gu season, flash and riverine floods could affect up to 1.6 million people with over 600,000 displaced. Most displacements would happen in hotspot areas along the Juba and Shabelle rivers, and parts of Bay and Banadir Regions with localised flooding in Galmudug, Puntland and Somaliland,” said UN OCHA.

Not fully established yet

Yet reports from the UN indicate that the gu rains while commencing with sudden riverine flooding, are not fully established yet and drought conditions are persisting in areas of Somalia.

According to the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad) Climate Prediction and Applications Center (ICPAC), the overall performance of the gu season will be below-average. It is hoped however the rains will recharge surface water sources and regenerate vegetation crucial for human and livestock survival.

According to ICPAC, since mid-2021, at least 3.8 million livestock have died due to prolonged drought, devastating livelihoods in Somalia. In Kenya, according to the State Department of Livestock 2.5 million head of livestock were lost.

A study released in March this year by the Somalian government said that 43 000 “excess deaths” may have occurred in 2022 from the drought in Somalia.

Local officials said homes, material possession and food supplies were damaged or destroyed in Kwikuyu after floods on April 3. A stretch of the Musoma-Makojo-Busekera highway was blocked, leaving some communities isolated.

In the Mtwara region, flooding struck parts of the Mtwara district in early April after the Ruvuma River broke its banks. Media reported that hundreds of people were displaced. The Tanzania Red Cross Society reported 1,400 people were displaced and about 60 houses collapsed.