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Trapped in Budalangi flood plain

Makunda Primary School is one of the institutions of learning that have been submerged by floods following the bursting of the banks of the river Nzoia in Budalangi, Busia district. Kenya,  Septermber 2007. Ann Weru/IRIN

For Grimanus Otuka, a father of four and resident of Budalangi, in Hakati division of Kenya's western Busia district, the area is not a comfortable place to live because of the floods every few years.

"We are continually rebuilding our houses only for the floods to affect us again," said Otuka. "We keep losing our property and unfortunately this time round some people also died. We are always starting from scratch."

Otuka's family is one of hundreds displaced after the recent flooding. At least 20,000 people were forced to leave their homes, according to the Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS). Budalangi has an estimated population of 64,000 people.

Otuka recalled the latest inundation on 15 August. "The river burst its banks suddenly, with so much force, people were screaming, running from the market," said Otuka.

The flooding occurred when the southern dyke on the River Nzoia was breached for the second time in four months. The dykes were constructed in the 1970s.

"I was only able to save my family but lost most of my household goods," said Otuka. "Will you run for the sufuria [cooking pot] before saving the child?

"We live in a precarious location, between the river and the swamp," he said. “The water from the swamp comes to our homes, with the area that seems a bit higher being closest to the river."

Marooned villages

According to Otuka, the recurrent floods are sinking the area's residents into even deeper poverty. Most people in Budalangi subsist on maize, beans and millet.

"Following the floods we are hard-pressed and wondering whether to rebuild our houses or pay school fees for the children," he said.

''I was only able to save my family but lost most of my household goods ... will you run for the cooking pot before saving the child?''
It is estimated that 800 families have been displaced while an additional 900 are indirectly displaced (their farmlands and homes are partially submerged), according to the KRCS. An average family has seven members.

The entire southern part of Budalangi is completely submerged with the Maduwa, Bukhuma, Bulwani, Iyanga, Runyu, Khajula and Bubamba villages marooned.

The displaced people have settled in six camps. "Life in the camp is hard; we just sit and do nothing, we are not used to this," said Otuka, who worked as a carpenter before the flooding but is now at the Mukhobola Health Centre camp.

Moreover, the flooding in Budalangi has also affected the education of hundreds of students in the area. So far, a primary and a secondary school have been closed. At least 12 schools are submerged, as are four health centres, according to the KRCS.

Otuka is worried about the children's education: "We have children sitting for the class
8 and form 4 examinations at the end of the year and we are worried about their performance in the national exams."

With the flooding taking place just before the harvesting season, most of the residents of Budalangi have been forced to rely on aid from the government and relief agencies such as the KRCS, World Vision and MSF-Spain.

Local resident Paul Olonda, a father of 16, said the recent flooding had become more severe: "Before, we never used to go to the camps as we were not many. We would go to those places that were not flooded to stay there," he said. "The waters used to recede quickly then; the rains seem to go on throughout the year in the upper catchment nowadays."

Catchment area

The rainfall intensity in the area had not increased but the dykes were not coping as they should due to the increased speed of water flows attributable to the loss of vegetation cover on the River Nzoia's upper catchment areas of Mt Elgon, Cherangani and Kaptagat hills, the regional manager of the Lake Victoria South Water Regulatory Management Authority, Margaret Abira, said.

Normally the Nzoia is a small shallow river, with 90,000 million cubic metres of water in the high season. However, the destruction of the wetlands was increasing the amount of water coming to the river as trees were replaced with maize, which does not hold water adequately.

"The water comes down ferociously," she said. Budalangi has an annual average rainfall of about 600mm while the catchment areas receive triple that.

Photo: Ann Weru/IRIN
Grimanus Otuka outside his temporary shelter at the Mukhobola Health Centre in Hakati, Busia, Kenya
The increase in the population had also encouraged the encroachment on flood plains, endangering lives and causing the loss of property, she said.

According to Abira, ideally the dykes should be relocated to give the river its space although the investment needed was significant.

Political will

According to Nichodemus Okango of the KRCS in Busia, there is a lack of political will to finding a lasting solution to the flooding problem.

Moreover, there is no adequate flood-response mechanism. "Sometimes we need aircraft but our stakeholders, such as the army, are using them elsewhere on duty," Major SK Sane, the operations officer at the national disaster operations centre in the Office of the President, said.

"Often our own priorities conflict with those of our seconders, preventing us from responding promptly to emergency situations and leading to disasters," Sane said.

A holistic approach was needed, said Abira, including dyke-building, catchment management, observation of environmental rules in road construction and possible relocation.

"Vegetation should be planted in the catchment areas to reduce flash run-off because no matter how strong the dykes are they will break if there is no management of the upper catchment to reduce the speed of water flows and retain some of the water upstream," she said.

Moreover, she suggested the use of the water upstream for electricity generation to reduce the water speed, along with the introduction of artificial banks to decrease the flow energy of the water.

The rampant poverty should also be addressed as it is the reason the people are exposing themselves to risk, she said. "There is a need for the improvement of livelihoods in harmony with the environment."

According to Abira, the flooding problem will not disappear as interventions, such as reforestation, take time.

Dam solutions

In the long term, water harvesting on the upper catchment through the construction of a multi-purpose structure such as a dam should be considered to reduce the amount of water reaching the low-lying areas, Sabuni Wanyonyi, the regional manager of the Lake Victoria North Catchment area, said.

"The management of the flooding problem should also be synchronised from the source point to the end point," he said, "When do the rains in the catchment translate into floods?"

The government is conducting a study to establish a 10-year donor-funded project to help control the flooding and improve the livelihoods of local residents. In the meantime, the residents of Budalangi will continue to live with the flooding.
"As much as people are attached to the land, there is a need for us to live in a better place," Otuka said. "The floods are tiring.

"If I could afford it, I would buy land in the upper areas to move out of the lower regions affected by the floods," he said.

"Already, those with a bit of money, such as the teachers, have moved to the higher areas. For the rest of us, where do we go?"


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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