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Why managing Africa's natural disasters is taking on urgency

May 4, 2024

Africa is particularly vulnerable to suffering natural disasters, such as floods, severe storms and droughts. These are not only crippling economies and people's livelihoods but also costing lives across the continent.

Two men stand in brown swirling floodwaters and sort through items on a concrete platform that was a house
Kenya is the African nation country to be lashed by a natural disasterImage: Monicah Mwangi/REUTERS

After the worst drought in decades, East Africa is now being pounded by heavy rains. At least 180 people have died in floods and landslides in Kenya since the rainy season began in mid-March, with hundreds of thousands forced to leave their homes.

"The flooding in Kenya is absolutely out of control," reporter Andrew Wasike told DW's Africalink program. "The rains just won't stop. Whole villages across Kenya have just disappeared. And the worst part? Roads are gone, bridges are completely washed out, people are cut off. It's heartbreaking, and the forecast says this rain isn't going to let up anytime soon."

Tanzania and Somalia have also been hard hit by torrential rain and severe floods, displacing tens of thousands and inundating crop lands.

In contrast to that, southern Africa is suffering from prolonged dry spell at the same time, which has scorched crops during what is supposed to be the growing season, threatening food security.

These are only a few of the natural disasters currently clobbering the continent.

Kenya floods displace at least 190,000 people

Why is Africa so vulnerable to natural disasters?

The reasons for Africa's propensity to suffering natural hazards are complex but include the reduced capacity of governments and institutions to protect communities from and respond to disasters.

The vast majority of Africans are also dependent on rain-fed agriculture for their food, making them especially vulnerable to suffering the negative effects of flooding and drought.

Recurring disasters, which can wipe out crops and cause massive displacement, often leave poor nations picking up the pieces of one event when they are being slammed by another.

For instance, in 2023 Malawi was lashed by Cyclone Freddy, which dumped six months of rainfall in six days and triggered mudslides and floods across the nation, killing more than 1,000 people. But Freddy came hard on the heels of two prior cyclones in 2022.

In total, Malawi, which is still one of the world's poorest countries, has experienced 16 major flooding events, five storm-related disasters and two severe droughts since 2010, according to the World Bank.

"This has left almost no time for the country to recover and has resulted in a severe erosion of food security at the national level," finds the World Bank.

Why are natural disasters particularly hard on Africa?

Climate change meanwhile is increasing the frequency and severity of natural hazards on the continent, find numerous experts, including the UN's World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

The likelihood of severe droughts, for instance, has increased 100-fold on the Horn of Africa. In southern Africa, the impacts of the El Nino climate phenomenon, which brings drier and warmer weather and low and erratic rainfall as well as floods, are becoming "more intense and prolonged" due to global warming, writes climate change expert Tadadzwanashe Mabhaudhi in a 2024 article for The Conversation.

Congo Basin: Africa's largest forest under threat

At the same time, man-made changes to both rural and urban environments are also worsening the effects of natural disasters.

 "Some of these disasters are caused by environmental degradation, loss of wetlands, loss of forests, and so any little amount of rain that comes causes floods," climate change expert Sosten Chiotha, told DW.

Factors such as increased settlements, deforestation, livestock grazing and clearing for crops are dramatically altering the landscape in many rural areas, making it susceptible to the effects of erosion after severe weather events.

In urban areas, on the other hand, the unchecked expansion of many of Africa's cities is seeing people building shelters along rivers and on wetlands, destroying natural buffers for floodwaters. Informal settlements also fill in green spaces, resulting in a lack of drainage to carry away floodwaters.

Drainage systems clogged with plastic pollution, a reality in many African towns and cities, also add to the growing flood risk.

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What can Africa do to better prepare for natural disasters?

As with most issues, there is no single solution to address everything; however, certain approaches have come up repeatedly in public debates on Africa's levels of preparedness.

Improved evaluation of weather data is one way to be better prepared, says Chiotha, who is also the regional director for Southern and Eastern Africa at Regional Director at LEAD, a leadership non-profit.

"Let's enhance our monitoring and the collecting of long term data. Many of the disaster issues in Africa don't appear in the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] reports because basically there is very little data," he said.

Improving on early warning systems would also help people on a continent where more than half the population aren't covered by such a system.

The damage caused by a disaster can be reduced by nearly one-third if an early warning is issued within 24 hours, according to the World Meteorological Organization. Last year, the organization launched an initiative to try to give more Africans access to an early warning system about impending disasters.

Nature-based solutions, such as preserving forests and wetlands to reduce flooding, are also being hotly discussed.

"But for that to happen, you need to ensure that the services that people derive from these forests and from these wetlands [such as wood for energy or clearing for agriculture] can be found elsewhere somehow," said Chiotha. 

Josephine Mahachi contributed to this article.

Edited by: Sertan Sanderson

Kate Hairsine Australian-born journalist and senior editor who mainly focuses on Africa.