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Plugging the gaps in disaster preparedness

Huge clouds of smoke go up when an inferno gutted Nairobi's Nakumatt supermarket and the neighboring buildings, 28/01/2009
(Tom Maruko/Flickr)

Kenya's failure to put in place a comprehensive disaster preparedness policy means its response to high-risk events such as droughts, floods, epidemics and major accidents tends to be slow, poorly coordinated and unnecessarily expensive, say specialists.

As a result of the policy gap, most disaster response initiatives tended to be ad-hoc and short term, mainly comprising emergency relief, Col Joseph Kingori, deputy director of the National Disaster Operations Centre (NDOC), said.

Julius Kabubi, head of the Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Unit of the Kenyan Meteorological Department, told IRIN that gaps in disaster preparedness had been a development challenge for decades.

This gap was evident in January 2009 when a supermarket in downtown Nairobi caught fire, killing scores of people and injuring many more. Fire fighters arrived late, in insufficient numbers and without enough water, prolonging the time and effort to reach those affected.

Based on worsening climate trends affecting Kenya, Kabubi said, the government had recognized the need to establish an institutional, policy and legal framework to effectively manage disaster risk and preparedness. A national policy had been reviewed and redrafted over the past 10 years but never reached parliament, he added.

Internal Displaced persons arrive at the Nakuru show ground to seek shelter, Kenya, January 2008. An estimated 250,000 people have fled their homes and are in need of food, shelter and essential medicines.

Manoocher Deghati/IRIN
Internal Displaced persons arrive at the Nakuru show ground to seek shelter, Kenya, January 2008. An estimated 250,000 people have fled their homes and are in need of food, shelter and essential medicines.
Wednesday, January 16, 2008
Les habitants de Nakuru, déplacés dans leur propre ville
Internal Displaced persons arrive at the Nakuru show ground to seek shelter, Kenya, January 2008. An estimated 250,000 people have fled their homes and are in need of food, shelter and essential medicines.

Photo: Manoocher Deghati/IRIN
Displaced people in Rift Valley province: Violence-induced displacement and drought are some of the crises Kenya has dealt with in the past (file photo)

Draft policy

“With a policy framework, our response would be faster and more coordinated as a result of the necessary role distinction,” Kingori said. “In the past, this forced us to rely on international support. And this has not been without its (financial) costs.”

He said a new draft of the National Disaster Management policy had been forwarded to the Cabinet in September 2009 and was due for discussion in Parliament.

The policy’s main recommendations included setting up a national disaster strategy, stockpiles of food to add to grain reserves, disaster trust funds, district contingency plans and insurance initiatives.

“Ultimately, a need exists to harmonize disaster management programmes at all levels, have the right allocation of resources, implement the use of early warning systems, map disaster-prone areas, strengthen disaster management institutions countrywide and enforce laws and bylaws,” Kingori said.

“This entails a shift from the short-term relief responses to development,” he said. “We are conducting one-week sensitization programmes in selected districts. Last week, we were in Nakuru with programmes on flooding for district commissioners. When a policy framework is implemented, these types of activities could be done in a more concerted way.”


A study, The Cost of Delayed Response: Lessons from the 1999-2001 Drought in Kenya, conducted by disaster management experts Helen Bushell and Mike Wakesa in 2002, estimated that the drought - one of the worst in 20 years – killed at least 60 percent of livestock and caused crop failures in parts of the Rift Valley, Coast, Eastern and Central provinces, costing the government some US$343 million in food and non-food emergency aid.

1. 1971 Drought
Widespread 150,000
2. 1975 Drought Widespread 16,000
3. 1977 Drought Widespread 20,000
4. 1980 Drought Widespread 40,000
5. 1982 Fire Lamu 4,000
6. 1982 Floods Nyanza 4,000
7. 1982 Fire Nairobi 10,000
8. 1983/4 Drought Widespread 200,000
9. 1985 Floods Nyanza 10,000
10. 1990 Fire Lamu 20 Dead
11. 1991/2 Drought NEP, East, Rift and Coast Province 1.5m in need of assistance
12. 1992 Train Accident Mtito Andei 31 died/207 injured
13. 1994 Ferry Accident Mtongwe Mombasa 270 died
14. 1995/6 Drought
Widespread 1.41m in need of assistance
15. 1997/8 El-Nino Floods Widespread 1.5m in need of assistance
16. 07 Aug 1998 Terrorist Bomb American Embassy Nairobi 214 killed and 5,600 other injured
17. 1999-2000 Drought Widespread 4.4m in need of assistance
18. 2002/3 Floods Nyanza, Western, NEP 24,000 displaced
19. 2004 Fire City Hall No Deaths Document burned
20. 2004 Drought Widespread 2.3 million people in need of assistance
21. 2005 Drought Widespread 3,500,000 in need of assistance
22. 2006 Building collapses in Nairobi Nairobi 14 dead, 100 injured
23. 2008 Post Election Violence Widespread 1200 people killed, 350000 displaced
24. 2009 Fire Nakumatt Nairobi 30 People died

Further, the study revealed that only $171 million would have been required to effectively respond to the drought had there been an effective disaster management system in place. The extra amount was attributed to poor preparedness and delayed response.

A disaster management policy would also help vulnerable communities by developing coping mechanisms and diversifying their livelihoods, Kabubi told IRIN.

Bushell, regional disaster risk reduction focal point for Oxfam-GB, told IRIN: “Kenyans should start questioning why a country like Ethiopia has had a DRR [disaster risk reduction] policy since 1974 and is now about to pass a second one, whereas Kenya has been waiting for one since 2002.”

She said the delays were due to continuous amendments being made to the draft policy to include new issues affecting the country, such as climate change, earthquakes and political violence. However, she warned against making decisions on these issues without a policy as DRR projects had been funded by the World Bank since the late 1990s. "What would happen to disaster response in the country should the priorities of the World Bank change before a policy is approved?"

Structural problems

In the event of a disaster such as last month’s earthquake in Haiti, sources at the Architectural Association of Kenya said 70 percent of buildings outside central Nairobi would collapse in a five-degree earthquake, adding that the structural stability of buildings countrywide was "very poor".

Kingori said the country would most likely have to ask for assistance from search and rescue teams from the USA, Israel and UK as well as neighbouring countries. In January 2006, when a five-storey building collapsed in downtown Nairobi, Israel sent 80 search and rescue personnel.

Kingori told IRIN there were inadequate controls and enforcement mechanisms in the application of the Building Code in the construction industry, with many ill-qualified contractors, and building regulations were frequently bypassed. A policy would be useful in this regard as well, he added.


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: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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