Poor countries such as Kenya are most at risk of climate disaster as they struggle to battle the man-made crisis.

Jane Kalekye trudges through the narrow muddy alley to her tin-roof house in Mathare, one of Kenya’s largest slums. Ever since the devastating floods that forced her out of her home last month, she and other residents who live by the rubbish-choked Mathare River, which runs through their area of Nairobi, have begun an anxious countdown.

It is only a matter of time before their homes are brought down, they say, either by another bout of flooding, or by the government’s ongoing demolition of houses along riverbanks prone to flooding.

“Nyumba bado iko?” (“The house is still here?” in Swahili), the 37-year-old secondhand clothes seller asks her neighbour, who gives her a solemn nod back: “Iko” (“It’s still here”).

“These days it’s a pattern – it rains almost every night, and when it rains the house floods, maybe not as much as the first time, but enough to leave us without a home,” says Kalekye, who is staying at a temporary shelter in a school with her three children.

Since the wet season began in March, Kenya has seen some of its most catastrophic weather for years. Torrential rains have caused devastating floods, at least 228 people have died, thousands have been displaced and nearly 2,000 schools have been affected. All remaining schools have been shut indefinitely by the government.

Kalekye and her family are among at least 23,000 households displaced over the past two weeks. Kenya’s interior ministry and humanitarian organisations say that calls for rescue have been unprecedented.

“The number of people who need rescue is increasing every day – some who are almost drowning, some whose houses are flooded, some who are marooned,” says Venant Ndigila, head of disaster operations at Kenya Red Cross, who says the effects of the flooding cut across the capital.

“It is the first time we have been forced to use boats to go into [middle-income] estates – very different from what we usually respond to every season.”

Poorer communities are disproportionately affected. Mathare Valley, with roughly 70,000 residents, is just one part of the densely populated “informal settlement” in Nairobi, and people are still reeling from the impact of the flooding two weeks later.

The water supply has been contaminated by open sewers, and the medical humanitarian organisation Médecins Sans Frontières has warned that water- and mosquito-borne diseases such as cholera and malaria are “significant concerns”.

Streets along the settlement are lined with people’s belongings, muddy and battered by the continuing rain. Kalekye’s furniture is waterlogged beyond use, and the loosely held iron sheets are peeling off slowly from the shack’s walls. There is barely anything to salvage from the place she has called home for decades.

“I only have the clothes on my back now, and even these were given to me by the clothing shelter,” Kalekye says, fighting back tears as she stands in the alleyway. Most of her belongings, including important personal documents and a bale of old clothes she bought for resale, were swept away by the water.

She receives support from the grassroots organisation Mathare Social Justice Centre, which has run fundraisers, clothing drives and a community kitchen since the flooding.

“People are traumatised,” says Wanjira Wanjiru, an MSJC activist. “We’ve seen many things in Mathare but not like this.”

The government provides relief items to the area, but rights groups have criticised what they say was a slow response to the disaster, despite warnings from the meteorological department, which predicted last year that the region would experience an El Niño weather pattern through February, triggering extreme conditions.

Critics say the predictions were downplayed, with President William Ruto dismissing forecasts last October of heavy rain in the spring.

Ruto ordered government agencies to provide humanitarian support on Friday – including relief food, medical supplies and temporary shelters – and told the military and police to support rescue and evacuation efforts.

The meteorological department has predicted that the heavy rains are expected to continue through May in parts of the country, as the crisis brings new scrutiny to Kenya’s infrastructure and slum housing.

Edna Odhiambo, a climate-action lawyer, says: “We can attribute the intensity [of the rains] to the El Niño phenomenon and climate change, but what we need to separate is the cause and its effects – the havoc we are seeing caused by the floods is a planning problem.”

Unplanned or illegal housing developments that obstruct the flow of water, settlements on riverbanks, and poor drainage systems have worsened flood impacts, she says. Infrastructure – including embankments for rivers and sub-basins for dams – needs to be well built and maintained, she adds, to protect communities from the effects of the climate crisis.

About 70% of Nairobi’s residents live in informal settlements, which occupy about 5% of the city’s land. Congested living conditions push the poorest residents to the margins of the settlement, where they are most vulnerable.

“The people who live along the river are the poorest of the poor, because a river house is around 800 shillings [£5] a month, so this is a person who is already really struggling in their day to day,” says Wanjiru.

The government has ordered the evacuation of residents near rivers and other high-risk areas, announcing plans to take down the houses on riverside land and resettle displaced families. It did not specify details of the relocation plan.

The demolitions, which began on Friday, have prompted a backlash from rights groups and communities. They called the removals “discriminatory”, claiming that only the homes of poor communities were being flattened, while those in affluent neighbourhoods went “untouched”. They also said the removals were happening before relocation plans had been put in place.

“We are stranded and in the dark [about what will happen] to us,” says Kalekye, adding that residents were scrambling to pull down whatever building materials they could from their houses to avoid further losses.

“If our house is being demolished, the government needs to tell us where we will go next.”

Original source: https://www.theguardian.com

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