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Let’s prepare adequately for El Niño

We are all waiting with bated breath to see whether scientists’ dire predictions of El Niño will happen. Of course it the responsibility of the scientist to warn us, and ours to prepare.

What raises eyebrows is our reaction to disaster predictions. We react the same way our great grandfathers would have reacted, with characteristic fatalism borne of our cultures.

We attribute occurrence of future events to God. We throw our hands in the air and say, ya mungu ni mengi.

It is a defeatist cultural belief. Many countries have accumulated enormous amount of data to be able to predict many future events. We must take it as a certainty and begin planning for its occurrence.

National and county governments are showing off with their huge budgets set aside to fight El Niño. In any strategy, it is not the budget that fights – it is hearts and minds that are important.

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I would hope by now that residents of Budalangi and Nyando river catchment areas, lower Tana delta and informal settlements along the river banks of Nairobi, especially in Kibra, Mukuru and Mathare have been moved to higher grounds.

We also must be cognisant of changing patterns of flooding. Torrential rainfalls in Ngong Hills will devastate residents of Ongata Rongai more than ever before.

This is because we now have many people living on the slopes whose houses act as water collection points that feed the raging floods downstream.

It is imperative that we map out patterns of settlement and their environmental impact. We are seeing more and more flooding in the Rift Valley that has never had a history of flooding.

Last year, flooding in Narok killed 15 people even as we failed to address the bigger issue of environmental degradation.

We have refused to relate our own actions to the effects of climatic change and what we see on the ground. Flooding in Narok was a direct consequence of the depletion of the Mau Forest and settlement patterns.

In April 2012, seven church youths died in Hells Gate, which lies a few kilometres from Naivasha and Mau. Yet we never use historical facts to inform and prepare those who may be affected.

We must connect the dots of disaster points to problem sources if we want to deal sustainably with environmental disasters. Nairobi and its environs are growing haphazardly when virtually every city on the globe aspires to be a smart city.

A smart city as defined by Southampton City Council, “uses digital technologies or information and communication technologies to enhance quality and performance of urban services, to reduce costs and resource consumption, and to engage more effectively and actively with its citizens.’

Unfortunately, we politicise even the science of planning. Recently, a prominent politician opposed the Kidero drums. This traffic experiment was conducted by a globally respected firm that has executed many smart cities plans globally but its work was threatened by a political populist.

Although initially frustrating, it has worked in Westlands and other areas by unclogging the flow of traffic in key arteries.

It is such experiments that we must emulate now in order to get it right during emergencies. Even without an emergency, you can die in the traffic jam in Nairobi today while being taken to hospital in an ambulance.

Most drivers, perhaps because they never went to proper driver training schools, find ambulances a bother and hardly create any space for them to pass.

So no matter how much money we have as a war chest for any disaster, it is pointless if our culture on the roads remains backwards. We need multiple simulation and punishment to ignorant drivers to attain the level of preparedness needed to see us through El Niño and similar disasters in the future.

Many of the drainage systems are clogged in major cities including those that are claiming to have set aside funds for the impending disaster. Logic would dictate that some of the money be used to unclog the drainage systems.

Big cities must link up with mobile network operators and broadcasters to collaborate especially in the use of SMS as well as broadcasts to inform people in disaster points.

In the past, we have been stuck on an impassable highway for hours when SMS or broadcast can inform people to use alternative routes. By law, broadcasters are supposed to give a few minutes for public information such as emergency and disaster broadcasts.

This facility must be used ahead of time to educate drivers to avoid using roads and to allow emergency vehicles deal with problems more effectively.

Former British PM Winston Churchill once said: “Plans are of little importance, but planning is essential.”

The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s Business School.

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