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El Nino climate pattern intensifies in East Africa

April 26, 2024

El Nino's grip on East Africa has led to widespread flooding, submerging entire areas in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania and leaving behind a trail of destruction. Millions have been displaced and are looking for answers.

Residents of Nairobi's Mathare neighborhood are seen in a flooded street after heavy rains as they try to evacuate the area with their belongings
The homes of these Nairobi residents were submerged on April 24, with businesses and vital infrastructure also severely floodedImage: Gerald Anderson/Anadolu/picture alliance

Heavy rains and relentless flooding fueled by the erratic El Nino weather pattern have plunged East Africa into a humanitarian crisis. From Uganda's Mpigi District to Kenya's capital, Nairobi, and further south to Tanzania, many communities have been left to face the devastating impact of its widespread destruction.

In Tanzania alone, over 155 people have been killed and at least 200,000 affected by flood damage. Homes, infrastructure and crops have all been devastated.

In neighboring Kenya, flash floods in Nairobi have resulted in at least 13 deaths, as the search for missing people continues.

Uganda's communities submerged

In Uganda's Mpigi District, located near the capital, Kampala, a typically peaceful river has turned aggressive. A crucial bridge has been submerged, with the only road connecting the area to Kampala now impassable.

Trucks carrying vital supplies are stuck in a state of uncertainty, their progress halted by the relentless force of nature continuing to cause upheaval.

How El Nino contributes to drought in Africa

Local resident Frank Kagolo told DW about the destruction in the area, highlighting that many people had to abandon their homes.

"They can't stay because of floods. They are now refugees," he said.

Kenya struggles against the torrent

Meanwhile, the situation is just as worrisome for many in Kenya. From the luxurious confines of gated communities in Nairobi to modest dwellings in rural villages, nearly every corner of the country appears to have been affected by the devastating deluge.

Entire communities have been overwhelmed by the winds, floods and rains, leaving people stranded and isolated without any help.

Rhodes Aruba, a resident of Machakos County near Nairobi, shared his experiences with DW.

"When I was at work, I received an urgent call from my wife. She informed me about the sudden rise in water levels, which was causing a fast and forceful flow into our compound," he said.

The exact situation of his neighborhood remains uncertain. News from the area travels slowly, with key infrastructure affected by the destruction.

Tanzania battles the elements

Persistent rainfall has also caused widespread damage to homes and infrastructure across Tanzania.

From Dar es Salaam to Dodoma, residents have been compelled to evacuate due to the increasing level of floodwaters now entering their homes and businesses.

A river is seen rushing past a settlement, with parts of a street having succumb to a flood-related landslide
Heavy rains on the outskirts of Dar es Salaam caused a landslide on the banks of the fast-flowing riverImage: Emmanuel Herman/Xinhua/picture alliance

Esther Sinzwe, a resident of Dar es Salaam, told DW that she has been left homeless.

"My house is filled with water, and I have no place to live. I am currently staying with my neighbor for shelter," she said. "We are uncertain when the rains will stop. Our businesses have come to a standstill. We are genuinely afraid."

Arrival of El Nino fuels fears of food insecurity

The broader implications of the El Nino weather pattern were highlighted earlier this week by UN's Global Report on Food Crises, which stressed that the worst is far from over.

"Its full impact on food security — including flooding and poor rain in parts of East Africa and drought in Southern Africa, especially Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe — are like to manifest throughout the year," the report said.

Several food shortages in Africa have historically been linked to El Nino, such as the world food crisis of 1982–1984, known as the most severe on record.

It resulted in famines that affected entire populations in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel region, killing an estimated hundreds of thousands of people.

Severe drought in Zimbabwe threatens millions with hunger

Drought patterns in Southern Africa in 1992-1993 have also been linked to El Nino, affecting the lives of nearly 100 million people.

Between 2020 and 2023, three successive La Nina weather patterns — the counterpart to El Nino — resulted in devastating droughts in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, with millions still grappling with the consequences.

When El Nino meets climate change

The destructive effect of the El Nino phenomenon is made worse by the lack of sustainable responses to climate change.

Grace Ronoh, a climate activist from Kenya, said "developing countries are not able to prioritize a response to the climate crisis because in order for them to do this, they require financing.

"At this point in time, most of those countries are debt-laden, so they prioritize paying for debt," she told DW.

David Gikungu, director of the Kenya Meteorological Department, emphasized the urgent need for solutions such as early warning systems and taking proactive measures to minimize future disasters.

"The notices that we issue that are received by journalists are the same notices that we send out to governments and everybody else, so there are expectations that [...] and governments will advise their people," he told DW.

Those governments are beginning to listen. In Kenya, President William Ruto led a multi-agency meeting to coordinate interventions while in Tanzania, Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa issued directives in parliament to address the crisis.

However, with meteorological agencies predicting more rainfall in the upcoming days, the situation for flood-stricken communities in East Africa remains uncertain.

How do El Nino and La Nina come about?

Alex Gitta, Andrew Wasike and Thelma Mwadzaya contributed to this article.

Edited by: Sertan Sanderson