Fifteen people have died, a school and a trading centre have been flattened and over four thousand people are homeless from the 20 April 2020 landslide which swept through Chesegon area, a heavily deforested escarpment in Kenya’s Rift Valley.
Not too far from the area of the incident, fifty people were killed by another landslide in November 2019, just five months ago. Records at the Elgeyo Marakwet County Disaster Management Department indicate that more than 50,000 households live on the escarpment with at least 4,000 of them living in high-risk zones that have clear fault lines leading to disasters like this latest one.
Roads that were destroyed in the november mudslide were still being reconstructed when disaster struck again.
“The problem can be summed up as failure of physical planning” says Simon Onywere, a Professor of Environmental Planning and Management at Kenyatta University.
“If you look at the area where the school was and even the trading centre, it is greener. It means there is more moisture there; this is riparian vegetation. There is a river on either side of the school and another one very close to the trading centre,” he adds.
The Chesegon Trading Centre and Liter Girls Boarding Secondary School that were both destroyed by the mudslide were just less than three kilometres apart and on a straight line – north-south of each other.
What destructive force could the sludge of the mudslide possibly have had to flatten a whole trading centre, and still retain the force to flatten a whole school, three kilometres away? I pose this question to Professor Onywere.
“The escarpment is very steep; you see that in every one kilometre, ground elevation rises five hundred metres and the resulting slope is what gives the water the potential to flow down,” he responds.
“When the water gets to the low lying areas it loses its impending energy and the first thing it does is drop the load it is carrying; boulders and soil, and if there is any settlement in the area, that serves as the barrier to these rocks and that is just a tragedy,” he further explains, stretching a ruler over the area between the school and the plateau in a Google Earth Pro session on his computer.
“This is where the police station was. There were quite a number of officers who stayed there. I think there were 20 officers or so. Next was the chief’s office. Not far from there was a big shop that the owner had just restocked on Saturday, just before tragedy struck. That tree is where the goat auction was always done on Wednesdays and Sundays,” said Mr Allan Korir, a witness who spoke to The Daily Nation.
The area of the incident is high rising with the Elgeyo Marakwet and Tugen Hills escarpments overlooking each other. It is a part of the Cherang’any Hills, a range of hills in the western highlands of Kenya and one of the country’s five main forests and water towers. But today, whenever dark rain clouds hover over the hills, villagers brace for the worst. Chesegon location, where the mudslide happened lies astride the West Pokot – Elgeyo mArakwet Counties borderline in Kenya’s Rift Valley.
Through years of deforestation and uncontrolled cultivation and settlement, what used to be a forest now is bare, exposed and dangerous. Landslides that have become common here, have claimed over five hundred lives over the past decade according to Elgeyo Marakwet County Disaster Management Department.
“In sloped areas like this, landslides occur when soils are over-saturated with water from heavy rainfall. The land is then disposed from the density of the soil. Being without a mechanical root support, the soil simply runs off from simple impact like vibration from moving water.” Professor Onywere explains, showing images in the map, of a plateau that used to be a forest and now is a grassland; burnt vegetation and escarpment slopes left with only scattered shrubs.
In Chesegon, an area with multiple Rivers, the sludge and rocks from various mudslides and massive erosion is deposited downstream, blocking river passage. Water therefore moves haphazardly in the plains creating even greater risks.
According to Professor Onywere, the county governments of Elgeyo Marakwet, West Pokot and Baringo in their County Integrated Development Plan (CIDP) need to know the areas that are prone to flooding.
“This is especially if we have the big 15, 30 to 50-year-old cycle of floods. Identifying areas that could potentially be flooded and those they should never allow any physical development is also important. This is something that you can define through models or memory of the people.”
His recommendations are in line with the priorities outlined in the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–2030, the global blueprint to achieve substantial reduction of disaster risk and losses in lives and livelihoods, to which Kenya is a signatory.
The framework recommends that policies and practices for disaster risk management be based on an understanding of disaster risk in all its dimensions of vulnerability, capacity, exposure of persons and assets, hazard characteristics, and the environment. Such knowledge can be leveraged for pre-disaster risk assessment, for prevention and mitigation and the development and implementation of appropriate preparedness and effective responses to disasters.
In 2017, the Directorate of Resource Surveys and Remote Sensing in Kenya’s Ministry of Mining published a report entitled Landslide Risk Mapping in Elgeyo Marakwet which recommended among other things a land-use policy that would prohibit settlement and farming in the escarpment and prioritization of conservation by the local authorities.
While these are yet to be implemented, Prof. Onywere notes that successful prevention of such disasters in the future will require even more than these recommendations. The local communities will need to be sensitized on the dangers of their actions and their role in reversing the degradation. The national government will need to come up with legislation that makes the escarpment a protected area and provide an alternative settlement for the families and the local authorities will need to take their rightful role in physical planning and reclamation.
Until these are done, the cycle of disaster and loss will continue, with worse impacts; especially because the escarpments are heavily eroded exposing rocks and flow of rivers downstream heavily affected by siltation.