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The lived experience of a flood: What does climate change feel like?

WASH Research

Dr Celia Way, Research Fellow. Follow Celia on Twitter: @DrCMWay

*This post is about research conducted as part of the HyCRISTAL project.*

The Lake Victoria basin is feeling the effects of changing global climate patterns, and especially so in Kampala (Uganda) and Kisumu (Kenya).  These cities, as with urban areas across East Africa and beyond, have all of the elements of a “perfect storm” – rapid, unplanned development, burgeoning populations and inadequate WASH services.  These already stressed and barely functional systems are then experiencing increasingly sporadic, high intensity rainfall, which in the context of an uncertain future climate, makes planning prospective service delivery even more complex and challenging.

Householder in Nyalenda showing flood levels

Work done under the HyCRISTAL project explores the impact of climate change on sanitation in East Africa, and is unpicking some of these complexities. Drawing on community workshops conducted during HyCRISTAL fieldwork, this post highlights the everyday lived experiences of flooding in informal (sometimes referred to as “slum”) settlements in Kampala and Kisumu – areas particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. While these impacts are increasingly well documented, the workshops revealed some important insights for WASH practitioners and those working with these communities. The resignation that is felt by those impacted is striking – what meaningful options do communities have to protect themselves and their families from harm? They cannot make interventions at a city or district scale that would alleviate the floods in their areas.  This means they can only protect their families and property at a household scale, as and when the inevitable flood events occur.  This mismatch between those affected, and those in a position to tackle the root of the problems is a key challenge to the WASH sector when considering system and service delivery in urban communities vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

During the workshops, we heard stories from people living in lower income areas of Kisumu and Kampala about their lived experience of flooding.  We asked about what happened in their communities and households, before, during and after a flood event.  Prompt questions were given, such as:

  • Does anything get damaged? In what way?
  • How do people find out that flooding is happening?
  • Do people do anything to protect their houses?
  • What changes in your normal routine? (i.e., can you get to work?)
  • Do any organisations/ government bodies help you? How?

This generated some interesting insights going beyond the obvious damage to infrastructure and general disruption.  Water supplies, sanitation systems and hygiene practices are all affected by flood events, both directly and indirectly.  The less obvious indirect impacts may be overlooked by WASH practitioners, and some of the insights we gained are shared here to help inform future interventions and practice:

  • Floods often happen immediately after a dry period, when communities are already in a weakened state (from socio-economic and health perspectives).
  • Few residents take meaningful precautions due to a lack of trust in forecasts/ predictions, and absence of effective response mechanisms.
  • The impact of floods on power and telecommunication networks can be just as impactful as physical damage to the built environment. When coupled with poor road conditions, communities and families can become socially separated and disorganised.
  • Following a flood event the cost of everyday items increases. The ensuing food and clean water shortages exacerbate health issues.
  • There is a huge loss of assets (household items, animals, crops, food), but also a loss of/ limited ability to work or pursue education.
  • Involvement or support from NGOs and Government bodies was inconsistent across the communities, with some areas receiving support, and others not.
  • From a health perspective, people recognised the favourable environment for mosquitos during periods of flooding, and the outbreak of diseases that starts during this time.
  • Food shortages coupled with contamination of drinking water inevitably exacerbate existing and emerging health issues.