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El Niño in Kibera




The El Niño.

After months of anticipating the coming of El Niño, the intensified, heavy rainfall has arrived in Nairobi as expected. Already the annual long rains has caused noticeable flooding in a number of places in Nairobi and in the country at large. These rains caused both loss of life and property worth millions of shillings.

You may wonder what makes this year an El Niño year?

The origin of El Niño is signaled by a slight warming of the surface waters of the Pacific. It is opposite of La Nina, which is a cooling of the surface waters. As the ocean is one of the biggest influences in global weather patterns, both phenomena have a dramatic effect on the weather around the globe.

El Niño was discovered far earlier than La Nina, as it had a direct impact on the Peruvian fishermen. They noticed that every three to seven years, in the months of December and January, there would be a significant decrease of fish in the seas. This change was noticed during the Christmas season, and so they named this phenomenon El Niño (Spanish for ‘the baby boy’).

Recent news coverage has been contained a lot of emphasis on safety and risk reduction to be able to handle and respond to the damages.  The county governments in Kenya have engaged in clearing the drainage channels around the city.

In Kibera, residents are taking the initiative to protect their structures from flooding because a number of residents have experienced El Niño and its magnitude in recent history. The strength and intensification of El Niño conditions and its impacts on the communities can vary dramatically, and in the last 35 years, eight El Niño events have been reported since 1980.

The strongest El Niño event that on record occurred in 1997 – 1998. Its impact was felt in many parts of the world. Indonesia and other islands in the western Pacific faced droughts so severe that they triggering uncontrollable forest fires. Peru suffered deadly flooding. Record-breaking rainfall emerged in California, USA, causing mudslides and flooding. Kenya was hit by severe flooding and cholera outbreak.

El Niño and Kibera

Kibera residents cope with these rains seasonally and are forced to find solutions for their temporary and semi-permanent structures, not only to protect themselves from the rains but also from the incessant flooding.  More than 300,000 people are estimated to live in the settlement, around 30,000 of which live within 30m of the main watercourses (Nation, 2009; KDI, 2013). The Ngong is one of three major river systems in the Nairobi River Basin, with an upstream catchment of 6,000 hectares. Organic pollution levels driven by the unchecked disposal of solid and human waste from the settlement is equivalent to raw sewage (NRBP, 2008).

From March 2015, Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI) conducted research on flooding in Kibera to determine the areas of heightened flood risk and vulnerability of the population.

Urban climate threats facing Kibera are as follows:

SHORT-TERM – Every year, residents in Kibera face the risk of flooding, which causes disease, death and destruction of property.  Rents are cheaper along rivers and streams where flood risk is higher, attracting the poorest and most vulnerable residents who are willing to risk their lives and assets to stay in the city (KDI, 2015).

MEDIUM-TERM – Nairobi’s urban population is projected to double by 2025 (KNBS, 2008), with the majority of the new arrivals expected to be housed in informal settlements. Flood risk is projected to increase, due to a combination of continued densification in both the formal and informal city, riparian encroachment and reduction of pervious surfaces in Kibera and upstream.

LONG-TERM – Under climate change scenarios, flood risks are expected to increase. Although the rate of change is still uncertain, almost all results point to an increase in mean precipitation rates and intensity of high rainfall events in East Africa (Shongwe et al, 2011; Cook and Vizy, 2013), increasing the likelihood of the flash flooding and overloading of drainage systems that are characteristic of urban flood risk.


With the expectation of flooding in this rainy season, there was a number of resident-led solutions that could be seen permeating Kibera. Some local solutions which KDI has observed throughout the settlement includes:

  • Gabions:  made using wasted aluminum cables from Kenya Power, local craftsmen weave these cables together to create a gabion box filled with stones to protect the river from breaking the banks;
  • Sandbags:  made of plastic sacks that carry large quantities of sugar and maize and filled with sand, these bags are used to raise structure floors; and
  • Wall plastering: cement is used to plaster the lower walls of the structures to flood-proof the interior from rising waters.

More local flood protection measures happening in Kibera.

In supporting community mitigation efforts, KDI demonstrated simple structural techniques that could be carried out a household/compound and community level to reduce the impacts of flooding, through demonstrations, role-play, poster display and simple technical guidelines on waterproofing, drainage and waste management last month.  In three days approx. 600 people attended the workshop and information-sharing series, becoming sensitized on ways to increase community resilience to flood risk including. Many attendees took part in the pre- and post-rains household surveys in March and June 2015.

You can get more information on this project via the following links:

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