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CEPHAS MUTAI: Lessons Kenyans can learn from past El Niño rains

El Nino is used to refer to oceanographic phenomenon in which there is extensive warming of the upper ocean in the tropical Eastern Pacific Ocean lasting for three or more seasons accompanied by changes in the atmospheric pressure over the western and central regions of the pacific. These changes alternate periodically and are referred to as Southern Oscillations.
El Niño risk counties 2023.

An El Nino event occurs as a result of interaction between the surface layers of the ocean and the overlying atmospheric pressure in the tropical Pacific. El Nino and Southern Oscillations are related events and are normally referred to as ENSO. The ENSO system oscillates between warm (El Nino) and Cold (La Nina) phases within a period ranging from 3 to 5 years.

Related Similar Events

Past strong El Nino events were recorded in Kenya during; 1957/58, 1965/66, 1972/73, 1986/87, 1991/92 and 1997/98. The ENSO has strong influence on rainfall in Kenya. The El Nino phase tends to enforce rainfall on most parts of the country while the La Nina phase suppresses the rainfall over of the country.

Forecast of 1997/98 El Nino

The Kenya Meteorological Department predicted the heavy OND [October November December] short rains of 1997/98 as early as July 1997. Several ministries and parastatals were served with this forecast for the purposes of planning and communication to Kenyans. The predictions were not taken very seriously due to the reputation of KMD [Kenya Meteorological Department] getting the forecasts wrong in the earlier years. This shortcoming was associated to the technology used then. The department used data from foreign satellites for earth observation.

The first Kenya satellite to be launched into the space was done on 26 April 2023. This is expected enhance earth observation therefore more reliable data will be available for predicting the weather among other functions. 

Kenyans started taking the warnings seriously after a South African Climate Forum held in Zimbabwe warned that the El Nino was imminent. The El Nino was blamed for almost every problem that individuals, groups and the Kenyan population was facing including worsening of the national economy, social ills and diseases, retarded national developments and domestic hardships.

The Most Affected

The 1997/98 EL Nino affected the low income earners the most. Populations living in slums and those squatting along flooded and landslide areas were most hit. Poverty affects the resilience to disaster given the constant challenges of survival faced.

Negative Impacts of El Nino in Water sector

Destruction of property, increased soil erosion in areas with poor land use and management practices, increased frequency of mud/landslides especially in the slopping areas, surface and ground water pollution, destruction of small storage earth dams, and the increased sedimentation and siltation in the rivers and streams that was eventually deposited to major water storage reservoirs.

Positive Impacts of El Nino

Reduction of pollution loads through washout effect of the rainfall, soil water for agriculture production was enhanced, water reservoirs were adequately recharged boosting levels of hydroelectric dams.

Negative Impacts to Agriculture by El Nino 

Increased plant and animal diseases that affected livestock and crops in several regions. Waterlogging in the farms leading to low crop yields, destruction of livestock water facilities.

Positive Impacts of El Nino in ASAL areas
Areas in Arid and Semi-Arid Lands [ASALS] welcomed a relief from perennial drought situation leading to development of good pasture and resultant improved livestock performance.

Agricultural production increased owing to availability of moisture for the crops. The rains enhanced and prolonged the time of moisture availability for biological soil and water conservation structures to take up. Tree planting and survival rates were generally increases by nearly 100%.

Negative Impacts on Transport and Communication sector

Several bridges and roads were destroyed leading to a general paralysis of the transport system in most parts of the country. Aviation and shipping industries were disrupted due to poor visibility and the submergence of the navigation equipment and runways by floodwaters. Docking facilities were submerged making it impossible to offload merchandise from ships.

Telecommunications were affected by falling trees that destroyed the cables. Interruption of electrical energy supply as some equipment were destroyed by water, falling trees and collapsing buildings.


Recharging of hydroelectric dams and hence the enhancement of the electricity production

Negative Impacts of El Nino on Health sector

Over 300,000 families were adversely affected. The country's health resources were stretched beyond manageable levels. Several health facilities were physically destroyed, water sources were contaminated and there were increases in the number of stagnant water ponds, overgrowth around homesteads and market centres, blockage of sewers and open drains and increased fly breeding due to decomposition of refuse. These factors led to upsurge of diseases and increase in the morbidity and mortality rates

Negative Impacts of El Nino on Society, Economy 

The Education was sector hit with schools being inaccessible due to flooding, leading to closures or low attendance rates. End year exams were adversely interfered with.

Businesses were seriously affected through transport and energy disruptions. The 1997 General Elections were rescheduled due to problems in the transport sector.

Social functions like weddings, church services, funerals and syathi were also adversely affected.

Considering the impacts of 1997/98 El Nino event on various sectors in Kenya, it is evident that Kenyans were not adequately prepared and had no facilities in place to cushion the adverse impacts. 

Although the forecast was out in July 1997, no mitigation or emergency procedures were put in place. 

Due to low frequency of widespread flooding problems in the country, the GoK had neither a flood disaster management policy nor the institutional framework to monitor and manage disasters prior to the 1997/98 floods.

2023 El Nino Forecast

The Kenya Meteorological Department has predicted that there is a very high likelihood these short rains will be enhanced with El Nino. Communities of Kitui, Machakos and Makueni are encouraged to take advantage of the rains and grow food crops as well as planting trees. A decent harvest is expected from well guided farmers from Ukambani.

The Kenya Red Cross Society has prioritized the community’s basic needs including prepositioning materials for emergency construction of emergency shelters, water, hygiene and sanitation materials and other Non-Food Items including training of local response teams in key skills like aqua rescue among others.


CEPHAS MUTAI is a Geospatial Engineer with nava spatial solutions 

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