Hunger looms as floods destroy crops, sweep away animals in East Africa

Saturday May 12 2018

Farmers inspect a farm where floods destroyed crops in western Rwanda. FILE PHOTO | CYRIL NDEGEYA | NMG

By Johnson Kanamugire

East Africa could face a major food crisis, as the ongoing heavy rains have hit the region’s food baskets.

The torrential rains, which began early in March — have since turned disastrous, killing hundreds of people and animals, displacing thousands others and destroying acres of farmlands.

Last week, in Kenya, 48 people were killed and hundreds others were displaced from their homes, after a dam burst its banks and swept through a village about 190km northwest Nairobi after heavy rains.

Irrigation schemes especially in low-lying areas of Kenya, like Tana River, Kilifi, Kwale, Turkana, Nakuru and  Baringo have been destroyed by the flooding, which is expected to worsen the food crisis in these areas.

According to estimates by the Kenya Red Cross Society, more than 21,000 acres of crops have been destroyed and some 20,000 animals mainly in the drought-prone northeastern and coastal regions have been swept away by floods.

The country’s Agriculture Ministry has deployed surveillance teams to analyse the full extent of the damages caused by the flooding on agriculture, even as it prepares to rebuild destroyed agricultural systems.


“We are facing a serious situation whose full extent and repercussions we are yet to determine,” Crop Development Principal Secretary Richard Lesiyampe told The EastAfrican.

“Kenya and its neighbours are interdependent in terms of sharing food resources. We are bracing for the likely effects that it will have on crop production,” Mr Lesiyampe added.

The floods have also affected the country’s Galana Kulalu Food Security Project, where planting of about 20,000 acres of maize and cotton has been delayed.


The Kenya Red Cross Society is appealing for about $5,000 to help the 271,000 people who had already been displaced by the flooding. The floods have killed 120 people by May 8.

In Rwanda, at least 128 people have died since April 1, as floods and landslides wreaked havoc in parts of the western, northern regions and the capital Kigali, causing devastation of rice and sugarcane farms on the lowlands.

Rwanda’s rice farmers’ co-operatives federation estimates that close to 3,000 of more than 10,000 hectares of rice planted this season have so far been lost to flooding.

“The losses are huge because the biggest concern currently is that rice farming infrastructures like dykes and water canals either got completely destroyed or covered with sand. There is little chance that we can hope to get much out of the remaining plantations unless we get some urgent help,” said Apollinaire Gahiza, head of the federation.

Sugarcane farms have also suffered severe damages likely to paralyse the production of Kabuye Sugar Works — the sole sugar miller the country.

The firm’s managers had not disclosed the scale of the damages by press time, but the plant had not fully recovered from the floods of this scale in 2015 that caused annual production to decline to 12,000 tonnes.

Agriculture Ministry officials were yet to determine the total losses, which had initially been estimated at over $4.6 billion before the rains intensified, but admitted this constituted a threat to food security. Data from Rwanda’s Ministry of Disaster Management and Refugee Affairs indicate that more than 11,000 acres of food crops have been destroyed while more than 700 livestock were killed by the rains over the period.

State Minister for Agriculture Fulgence Nsengiyumva said replacing the damaged crops was not possible as the planting season was over.

Under water

In Somalia, the flooding which has already affected more than 718,000 people including some 220,000 who have been displaced in the Bakool, Banadir, Bay, Hiraan, Juba, Shabelle regions, has seen President Mohammed Abdullahi Farmaajo declare a national emergency.

President Farmaajo cancelled his trip to Burundi earlier this month to coordinate relief efforts.

Rivers Shabelle and Juba — the country’s two main rivers — which provide the much needed irrigation water for the alluvial plains of the Juba and Shabelle —Somalia’s food basket — have since broken their banks, flooding large areas of farmland and washing away crops.

According to the UN office for Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), most of the farms from Doolow to Gobweyn areas along the Juba river are reportedly under water while agricultural assets, including irrigation equipment have been damaged, a situation likely to affect crop survival in the heavily irrigation dependent region.

In Uganda, the situation is no different, the rains pounding different parts of the country have already killed three people, washed away tens of bridges, killed livestock and swept away hundreds of acres of farmlands.

“The heavy rains are still on and we advise people to take precaution. Farms have been destroyed and roads made impassable. This will cause food prices to go up as we have already experienced in some parts of the country,” said, Musa Ecweru, Uganda’s Minister for Disaster Preparedness.

Heavy rains have also hit Tanzania, where 15 people have been killed, while more than 700 acres of tomatoes and maize crops were swept away in the northern Tanzania region of Kilimanjaro early last week.

Rainwater harvesting

But as the heavy rains pound and flooding continues in various parts of the region the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) remains confident that the situation is still at manageable levels.

“Thousands of people have lost their means of livelihood in many parts of Kenya and wider East Africa, which is experiencing heavy rains and increased incidence of flooding. Although the rains have not stopped and I can confidently say that so far, there is no indication that floods will lead to widespread food security,” said Dr Gabriel Rugalema,  FAO representative in Kenya.

While statistics show that the rains experienced this year are significantly higher than what the region has been receiving in recent years, much of the blame for the damages caused by flooding has been placed on lack of preparedness, poor agricultural practices and under investment in flood mitigation measures.

“It is not inevitable that floods must always result in huge economic losses and social disruption. Kenya and indeed the East African region also need to invest in practical and integrated flood control measures in flood prone areas,” Robert Allport, the Programme Co-ordinator FAO Kenya says.

“Measures such as reforestation of upper catchment areas, flood forecasting and proper management of river basins should inform future investment within the agricultural sector,” Mr Allport said.

In a joint conference, Rwandan ministers handling the infrastructure, agriculture, disaster management, environment, local government, among other dockets last week, issues around poor settlements as well as rainwater harvesting were cited as exacerbating vulnerability in the wake of increasing rains.
“The floods that wreak havoc, is an indication that rainwater harvesting needs to be given required attention in cities and rural areas while we make sure that resilience to adverse weather events is factored in our infrastructure planning,” said Dr Vincent Biruta, the Minister of Environment.