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Environment & Climate Change , World

From drought to floods: Climate crisis after crisis keeps women on edge in East Africa

by Allan Olingo June 3, 2024

This article was republished from a Fuller Project newsletter on June 3, 2024. Subscribe here.

Unprecedented rainfall has hit much of eastern Africa over the past nine weeks, causing some of the worst flooding the region has seen in almost two decades.

Many had hoped the wet season would bring much-needed relief for a region already reeling from its worst drought in 40 years. Instead, the heavy rains that lashed Kenya, Burundi, Somalia, Rwanda, and Tanzania have caused enormous destruction, with flash floods claiming more than 500 lives and displacing almost half a million people.

With sudden flooding increasingly preceded and followed by severe droughts, especially for those in the drylands — areas defined by a scarcity of water — climate change is giving East Africa’s residents whiplash.  

“This is the second time in less than eight months that floods have forced us out of our homes and into a camp,” said Farhana Hassan. 

The resident of Kenya’s Tana River County, southeast of Nairobi, has seen unpredictable weather patterns ravage her community for the past two years. Last April, the family was forced to move hundreds of kilometers away in search of food and pasture for their livestock — their main source of income. At the time, the East African region was experiencing one of its driest periods in decades.

From drought to floods, food shortages to outbreaks of malaria and cholera, women in climate-vulnerable communities like Hassan must now cope with repeatedly disrupted lives, spending much of their time away from home — searching for food or seeking refuge with young children. At the same time, they must look after their households, with little room for respite.

On top of this, they contend with strained access to health services, especially for pregnant mothers and those with newborns. Those living in makeshift camps must also endure overcrowding and unsafe spaces that expose them to sexual harassment and gender-based violence.

John Wafula, a humanitarian specialist at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), says sexual and reproductive health services are often limited or unavailable during crises, resulting in more women giving birth without medical assistance.

Aid agencies are trying to adapt. Following last December’s floods, which affected more than 500,000 people in Kenya including nearly 60,000 pregnant and lactating mothers, UNFPA and the Kenya Red Cross jointly distributed life-saving sexual and reproductive health supplies to these women. 

The adverse effects of climate change also put women across the region at risk of gender-based violence (GBV) as livelihoods are upended and home provision roles reversed. 

In response to the latest flooding, UNICEF, together with governments and civil society organizations, is working to ensure the availability of services such as referrals, case management and psychosocial support for survivors of GBV.

“We are also making continuous efforts to identify and mitigate GBV risks in affected communities,” says Etleva Kadilli, Eastern and Southern Africa regional director at UNICEF.

For the women in the region trying to rebuild their lives, increasingly unpredictable weather patterns mean their efforts are mired in uncertainty.

“It is raining now, and we are homeless and dependent on well-wishers and aid agencies,” said Hassan of Tana River County, as she thinks about her future. “In a few weeks the drought will start, and we will be beggars again.”

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