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Will Narok lose yet more people in floods next year?

Monday May 4 2015

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A squirrel anticipates winter and accumulates food for the lean times.  It prepares its hideout early enough to withstand any kind of weather.

It does so through accumulated knowledge of the past that is passed down from generation to generation.

It is pretty much the same for other animals. Sparrows dig their homes into cliffs. Elk grow fat. It appears like the entire animal kingdom anticipates adverse weather and plans for it, except us here in Africa.

This simple act of planning eludes us year after year and that is how we keep on losing lives like we did last week, when we lost 15 lives in Narok with scores more still unaccounted for.

These deaths would be non-existent if we developed a habit of anticipating disasters. At the very least, it is an embarrassment to not just the Narok leadership, but to the entire country.  We have simply failed to protect the lives of our people.

At a minimum, the laws protecting riparian land, historical data on flash floods in the area as well as the advent of urbanisation should have been used to bar people from settling in the lowlands that are likely to flood in the event of rains. 

Flash floods that occurred in the wake of heavy
Flash floods that occurred in the wake of heavy rains in Narok County. Three people were killed by floods in Talek Village, Narok County after a heavy downpour on Monday, November 2, 2015. PHOTO | GEORGE SAYAGIE | NATION

However, we often act like we suffer from selective amnesia.  The first thing any leader coming into office must do is establish the problems of a society and begin to solve them using both short and long-run strategies.

That is part of the reason devolved units have developed strategic plans that must be executed by the leadership. 

Unfortunately, most leaders are now preoccupied with the allowances for Members of County Assembly at the expense of strategic leadership of the counties, including plans for sustainable settlement and how to secure citizens.

Riparian water rights – or simply riparian rights – is a system for managing water resources among those who possess land adjacent to the water. It has its origins in English common law. Riparian water rights exist in many jurisdictions, including Kenya, which has a common law heritage.


According to the Law Resource Center, in the past the law relating to water management in Kenya was previously contained in the Water Act, Cap 372 Laws of Kenya.  In 2002, the Water Act was repealed and replaced by a new law which is known as the Water Act 2002.  It is in this law that riparian rights are spelt out:

The extent of the riparian owner’s right to water and the scope of reasonable use can be reduced to three rights:

  1. Right of Access and Navigation;

  2. Right to the Natural quantity of the water in the water course; and,

  3. Right to the Natural quality of the water in the water course;

These three rights are known as the riparian rights.  The right to navigate a tidal river belongs to all members of the public. A tidal river is one that is influenced by the movement of the waves, while areas around the river with no waves is referred to as non-tidal.

The reason for the rights belonging to all members of the public is because the ownership of the land beneath a tidal river is vested in the State, whereas the ownership of the land beneath a non-tidal river is vested in the riparian owner.

Going by this legal definition, it is evident from the many buildings that lie on the water path that we have exceedingly abused the law and as a result, endangered the lives of fellow Kenyans. 

Some of these buildings are commercial centres, especially in Westlands near Westgate, and have hundreds of people in their basements at any given time.

If, God forbid, there were flash floods, we are sure to lose many lives.  It is likely that we shall say it was an act of nature, whereas it is an act of unmitigated foolishness.

In Narok, it was clear that many of the buildings that were washed away were built on the water paths that everybody in the area knew were dangerous, especially during the rainy season.

A resident of Kigaathi village in Mukurweini,
A resident of Kigaathi village in Mukurweini, Nyeri County, views an area where a landslide occurred at a quarry on November 23, 2012. PHOTO | JOSEPH KANYI | NATION

The amazing thing is that we never learn from any of our experiences.  Just last year, several people lost their lives in Narok. You would have assumed that something was done to avoid the recurrence of a similar catastrophe.

Unfortunately, even as we mourn those who died last week, unless something is done now, we shall wait again like sitting ducks to watch more deaths on TV next year. 

We have never learned to use historical data to mitigate against future crises. This happens because no one takes responsibility for anything. There will be a huge, but brief, emotional outpouring of shock and grief.

The first responders will be blamed for slow reactions. The town planner will point fingers at the county government. The county government will point fingers at the national government and that will be the end of it.

The time to move those settling in risky flood-prone areas is now, when everybody understands the consequences of playing with nature, when the death and destruction is fresh in our minds. 

In the case of Narok, there is no justification for people to live in the valley when the topology of the area allows for safe housing on the plateau.


It is not just Narok that is putting people’s lives at risk. Several hilly parts of the country that have been deforested pose a serious danger. In some of those areas, such as Murang’a and Elgeyo Marakwet, landslides have killed a number of people in the recent past.

Already, residents of Nandi Hills are appealing for help, as land there is likely to give way in a landslide with terrible consequences.

A more sustainable policy is to permanently discourage people from settling and felling trees in hilly places. We must also develop a national building code, even for rural areas, and ensure proper regulation of construction in this country. 

At least every month in Nairobi, a high-rise building collapses. Some collapse at the passing of a heavy truck, meaning that most of the buildings cannot pass the test of safe buildings or survive earthquakes.

We have been watching the tiny mountain nation of Nepal go through a devastating earth quake. Are we learning anything?

In the recent past, the National Construction Authority (NCA) under the Ministry of Land, Housing and Urban Development that is charged with the mandate of streamlining, overhauling and regulating the construction industry in Kenya and establishing a code of conduct for the industry went round the country and condemned several buildings. 

There was a brief moment of showmanship, then the whole exercise went quiet.  Most likely, the contractors ignored the warnings and construction went on. 

It is said that owners of these death traps are powerful people.  They seem to be above the law.

This picture taken on May 2, 2015, shows
This picture taken on May 2, 2015, shows Nepalese soldiers clearing rubble from buildings at the damaged Swayambhunath temple in Kathmandu, following a 7.8 magnitude earthquake which struck the Himalayan nation on April 25. The disaster has claimed more than 6,300 lives. AFP PHOTO | NICOLAS ASFOURI

Once again, this takes us back to where no one takes any responsibility.  For us to succeed, we must uphold the rule of law.  If not, citizens must be empowered to take legal action against an ineffective NCA.

Leaders must wake up to the realisation that rapid, unplanned, urbanisation is the greatest enemy of sustainable development.  There is not enough affordable housing, no sewers, no plans for solid waste management, no water, no power, no schools. 

There is not even a plan or strategy to deal with the mushrooming informal settlements.  Where we have these settlements, the tin-roofed shanties act as water collection points that, in aggregate, become flash floods to those in the valleys.  This is precisely what happened in Narok.


The local government should have developed an anticipatory drainage system.  As citizens, we have a collective responsibility to point out to leaders that planning is an essential component of development.

Let me re-emphasise that most of the disasters we experience can be predicted using past data and common sense.  The deaths in Narok were unnecessary and avoidable, if only such data had been used properly and if the basic tenets of law had been upheld. 

We must rise to the occasion to contain the increasing problems of rapid urbanisation by making it attractive to live in the rural areas by building roads and providing electricity and security.

Above all, we must take responsibility for our actions in order to safeguard the lives of people.  We must develop a habit and a capacity to anticipate problems and plan for them.

Albert Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”  We have created far too many problems for ourselves. We need to move outside the box and deal with them differently.

The writer is an Associate Professor at University of Nairobi’s Business School.Twitter: @bantigito