'Unprecedented' Rains In East Africa Offer A Glimpse Of The Climate Emergency

The aftermath of floods in Parua village in western Kenya in November. (Photo: Getty)

As world leaders gather in Madrid to come up with solutions to the climate crisis, the people of East African nations such as South Sudan, Kenya, and Somalia are feeling the effects firsthand. Incessant rains throughout the region have spurred flash floods, affecting millions across the region as families are displaced and killing more than 250 people, per the BBC.

Though countries on the African continent have contributed very little to global warming, they are among the most vulnerable to the changes happening. What’s happening in East Africa right now shows what that vulnerability looks like. Countries there have been dealing with extreme rainfall for months.

“It’s a bit unprecedented that it’s affecting such a large part of the African continent,” John Roche, the head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in East Africa, told Earther.

The type of flooding has also been abnormal for the region. River floods usually come on slowly, Andrew Kruczkiewicz, senior staff associate researcher at Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society, told Earther. The region has been facing flash floods in recent weeks, which many people in this region are just not used to seeing.

“We do see these heavy rainfall-induced floods from time to time,” Kruczkiewicz said. “However, the most common types of floods, if you’re looking from a regional or national scale, are these riverine types of floods, and people’s perceptions of risk are more likely pegged to that. These flash floods happen very quickly and catch people off guard and have much different impact, like mudslides and erosion from cliffs. That’s not going to happen with river floods.”

Indeed, a mudslide took the lives of 17 people in a single Kenyan village last month while 12 others died due to mudslides in another Kenyan district. Because the rains have been non-stop, Roche said authorities haven’t been able to sufficiently gauge the damage in more rural communities throughout the region. What officials do know is that climate change will almost surely make these types of disasters worse.

“It’s not a question of whether we’re waiting for the effects of climate change,” Roche said. “It’s happening.”

A report released on Monday by Save the Children underscores how extreme weather is putting millions at risk in southern and eastern Africa. Extreme weather events affected at least 33 million people in the region this year alone, the organisation said.

For the people of East Africa, these rains and floods not only threaten their lives directly. They threaten the crops that many farmers depend on to sustain their families and livelihoods. Without those crops, food insecurity is sure to become even more urgent in an area where millions already are in need of food assistance. Save the Children estimates 16 million children across the region are currently facing crisis or emergency levels of hunger with climate shocks like the floods and Cyclones Kenneth and Idai that battered Mozambique earlier this year playing a role.

“The balance of vulnerability here is such a thin thread between crises,” said Roche. “This is a region that has many, many crises, and now the actual flooding is just exacerbating and playing on those vulnerabilities.”

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