Kenya: Preventable disasters - why they keep occurring

The New Humanitarian

Nairobi - Fires, road accidents and collapsed buildings made September 2011 a particularly deadly month in terms of avoidable disasters in Kenya.

IRIN spoke to experts and officials about the chronic lack of adequate disaster prevention and response mechanisms and distilled their comments into five broad themes.


“The reasons why Kenya keeps getting it wrong are pretty clear,” wrote the Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS) in an e-mail to IRIN. "The main one is impunity, not just on the part of the authorities, but on the part of ordinary people as well.

“There is a culture of people not taking responsibility for their actions. Some people believe they can use their positions, connections in the ‘right places’, and even money, to escape justice.

“In the case of the Sinai [Nairobi slum] pipeline explosion, this attitude, combined with politicians’ quest for votes and reluctance by the authorities to defy prevailing opinion, produced catastrophic results.

“The tragedy is not that this disaster happened; it is that it could have been prevented," the KRCS says. Plans by the Kenya Pipeline Company (KPC) for residents settled near the oil pipeline to vacate in 2008 failed due to political interference.

The blind eye generally turned by police to speeding and drunk driving, especially when money changes hands (driving licences can be bought with little regard to aptitude) contributes to Kenya’s 3,000 or so annual road traffic accidents.

Early warning, late action

Droughts cannot be prevented, but they are easily predicted and Kenya has a functioning early warning system. Yet the alarm bells consistently fail to stop droughts degenerating into disasters, such as the current crisis in which 3.7 million people require food aid.

“The warnings were clear from the onset,” said Edwin Kuria, Save the Children UK’s Regional Emergencies Manager. "[But] these early warning systems are not always accompanied by early action…

"If we become proactive, we will be able to do adequate pre-positioning of resources and supplies, build relationships, manage risks, monitor triggers and programme sustainable interventions. We cannot be exchanging business cards in the middle of a disaster,” he added.


There is a clear correlation between the poor infrastructure and low socio-economic indicators prevalent in northern Kenya and the tendency for weather shocks there to become crises.

“There is a need to link humanitarian response to development,” says Choice Okoro, head of communications and advocacy at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Kenya.

"In drought management, the government has to take leadership. Drought is a slow onset disaster requiring a strong policy-oriented response," Okoro said.

"Northern Kenya can be said to be under a permanent crisis; it's a region with fewer than 10 doctors, no specialists; only the rich can access required healthcare services and many lives are lost daily whether we are in a disaster or not," Mohamed Ahmed, a project officer for the Nomadic Communities Rehabilitation Programme, told IRIN in 2010

Laws in limbo

A detailed National Disaster Management Policy was drafted in 2006 but turf wars between politicians and government departments have prevented it being enacted into law.

The document calls for establishing a national disaster strategy, stockpiles of food to add to grain reserves, disaster trust funds, district contingency plans and insurance initiatives.

The document is now being revised by the Ministry of State for Special Programmes.

According to Robinson Ocharo, a professor at the University of Nairobi, implementing the policy would enable the setting up of a central body to “coordinate all institutions in activities of prevention and mitigation… At present, each [organization] moves with its own idea of quick action.”

“Without it, we don’t have the structures; there is nothing much we can do,” added Maj. Jason Nyandege of the National Disaster Operations Centre.

Information gap

“Have we packaged persuasive information on hazards?” asked Ocharo. Such information, he said, needed to be drawn up with consideration for different target audiences based on their vulnerability levels.

An element of fear also needs to be included in the messages to make them more persuasive. “The fear element is what the hazard will do to you if you act in a certain way or if you fail to act,” Ocharo said.

In 2008, three years before the Sinai slum fire tragedy, a local television station highlighted the risks in a feature. Residents interviewed appeared oblivious to the dangers.

“We hear there is a pipeline here, but people still live here… If the pipe was above the ground we wouldn’t work here. But the pipe is underground, our small fires can cause no harm,” said one resident.

In the wake of the latest fire, residents reported it was not unusual to see petrol running through sewage pipes – “This time it was Super,” one man told a TV station, referring to the blend in question – yet this phenomenon appears not to have been brought to the attention of the authorities.


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