The need for disaster preparedness in Kakamega County
In the stillness of one night in January 2007, the village of Kuvasali awoke to a loud noise that sounded like the eruption of a volcano. This was followed by the movement of large chunks of earth that seemed to swallow everything on the way. The ensuing melee was one of fear and confusion as villagers were caught up in the midst of a massive landslide. The landslide hit again in the early hours of morning, leaving a trail of unprecedented destruction and burying ten villagers alive, including children.
Kuvasali village is located at the foot of the Nandi slopes in Kakamega County, Kenya. Most of its homesteads lie along the steep Nandi Hills escarpment and the majority of its residents are small scale peasant farmers. Dorcas Khasiro remembers the events of that night like a scene out of a horror movie. Right before her eyes, the earth shifted and swallowed everything. With nowhere to run or hide, she was engulfed by a deep feeling of helplessness.
In the months preceding the disaster, Dorcas remembers that the villagers had slowly and systematically encroached the forest on the escarpment destroying trees to create farming areas for their crops and burn charcoal for a living. The forest, now devoid of cover save for a few shrubs and thin forest trees, experienced severe soil erosion, a predisposing factor for landslides.
Landslides are the movement of earth caused by when soil, rock, and other earth debris can no longer hold it together and gives way to gravity. They can be triggered by earthquakes, volcanic activity, changes in groundwater, a disturbance or change of slope and intense rainfall over a short period. Kakamega County, one of Kenya’s 46 counties is highly predisposed to landslides. In the last three years the County experienced two major landslides resulting in the loss of thirteen lives.
Kakamega County receives 1200 mm – 1700 mm of rain per year, thanks to the Kakamega forest which covers about 238 square kilometers. When the rains came to Kuvasali that particular year, it was like the heavens opened up: it rained continuously, for three consecutive days, confining the busy and boisterous villagers to their homes.
“The downpour was so heavy that artificial rivers formed, filled and eventually burst, causing the landslides”, says Dorcas.
On that fateful night ten villagers lost their lives and many others their property.
“Information on emergency preparedness is a felt need in my community and other vulnerable communities”, says Dorcas.
“It was the Bungoma County Red Cross volunteers who came in to save and salvage whatever little was left in the aftermath of the disaster”, Dorcas explains, acknowledging that the government also played a part in providing food and temporary shelter for the victims.
Soon after the disaster, and inspired by their Bungoma counterparts, Dorcas and ten other volunteers came together to form the Malava Kenya Red Cross Group. The group has received training from the Kenya Red Cross (KRC) on basic first aid, HIV, nutrition and firefighting skills. The KRC organises two to three rounds of training every year in Kakamega County.
Dorcas’ greatest lesson from this encounter is that preparedness is a must. There is no shortcut if communities are to be equipped with the right knowledge and skills to survive both natural and manmade disaster.
In order to facilitate the training of the next generation of humanitarian responders, the Humanitarian Leadership Academy has unveiled an online learning platform known as Kaya. The courses offered on Kaya will be localised and translated for accessibility and scalability within the East Africa region so that people like Dorcas in their communities can access knowledge and resources needed before, during and after a disaster.
In 2016, nine years after the Kuvasali landslide, the Kakamega County Government passed a Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act, specifically focused on preventing, mitigating, and responding to disasters in the County. The Humanitarian Leadership Academy has joined hands with the County and other stakeholders to implement this Act and to enhance stakeholder capacities in improving resilience in the County. The County is currently setting up a disaster management center which will house a knowledge and learning resource center on humanitarian issues.