Flooding; A gender sensitive disaster in the Winam Gulf of Lake Victoria Basin

By Melvine Otieno

Climate change could not be more real at the Lake Victoria Basin. Negative impacts arising from the management of catchment are clear and they play out right before our eyes at the lake’s ecosystem. The intensive land use as the community’s sole source of income leads to clearance of new sensitive land ( steep slope conserved forest) which makes the land more vulnerable to degradation and overuse. Long-term mono-cropping is evident, leading to the depletion of nutrients from soil. Lake Victoria’s water level has risen highly as a result of the continuous land-use changes caused by the anthropogenic activities around it and heavy rains that are enhancing the flow. The encroachment on wetlands, lakeshores, and river banks, loss of vegetation cover, overgrazing, etc. have resulted in soil erosion leading to siltation of the lake ecosystem.

The Lake Victoria basin (LVB) is the second largest lake in the world, supporting 40 million ecosystem inhabitants. It is shared by Eastern African countries includingKenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi. The devastation caused by the water level rise of Lake Victoria is worrisome. Thousands of inhabitants have been displaced from homes that have been occupied for several generations, and the threats for further displacements is real. Townships, schools, hospitals, agricultural lands and business centers are submerged in water.

Fig 1: A submerged business shopping center at Kano plains, Kisumu, Kenya.

Climate change contributes to erratic rainfall which affects agriculture and food production, and heavy rainfall causes loss of soil which can impact human health. The transfer of nutrients and sediments to the lake compromises the lake ecosystem, while improper forest management practices such as deforestation may lead to flooding by compromising the ability of upper land areas to retain water.

While visiting the lake basin, during a joint research project of University of Eldoret, University of Plymouth and British Geological Survey supported by the Royal Society, I observed rampant deforestation to make way for farmland to unimaginable proportions. It is highly, likely the scenario could worsen with ongoing land use changes. The vulnerability of women, girls and children is glaring presently.They are disproportionately affected by these floods.

The risks that young children undergo are also unbearable. They have to wade through water to go to school, without protective shoes and proper gear for swimming. In most cases, children don’t even know how to swim.They also face health risks related to the increased presence of water and its secondary effects, such as the higher prevalence of water-and vector-borne diseases as well as skin reactions due to increased contact.

The majority of women that I had an opportunity to talk to, complained that they had difficulty traveling around the villages, market places, health centers or commuting in times of flooding. They were afraid of drowning. A fear, which is heavily impacting their daily lives and independence. In most cases, they relied on dugouts and water vessels to move from one place to another, which are also few in numbers and they have to incur a new cost of paying for transportation.

Fig 2: Flooded compound with only one dugout water vessel for transportation

The draining situation affects the mental health of local residents, increasing stress and fears. Some of these stressors may include worries about family members drowning, getting sick, or being bitten by poisonous snakes or insects. Additionally, many families are living in houses that are in poor condition, which are not strong enough to withstand the flood.

Fig 3: A collapsed house made of mud, not strong enough to withstand floods

Often, the concerns about the impacts of flooding on women and children are unlikely to be addressed. Women are not involved in decision-making forums where their priorities could be established; hence interests of women are often poorly represented.

Poverty is seen as a major driving factor behind social burdens placed for women, since more women’s participation in productive work amidst flooding disasters increases due to their poor economic status. There is an urgent need to increase the involvement of women in Disaster Risk Reduction programs as flooding is a gender sensitive issue.

Fig 5: Women at the shores of the Lake Victoria preparing fish for sale despite the disaster

According to the Rockefeller Foundation-Lancet Commission on Planetary Health report, Safeguarding human health in the Anthropocene epoch; one key important overarching principle states that “human health depends on flourishing natural systems and the wise stewardship of those natural systems.’’ Therefore, the Planetary Health Concept offers an opportunity to urgently apply transformative actions that protect the present and future generations by paying key attention to systems of governance and organization of human knowledge.There is an opportunity for the application of knowledge and experiences to tackle these clear and potent dangers that the vulnerable populations in Africa, especially among the Eastern Africa communities, are facing.Additionally, the ongoing comparative studies on river catchments, by the Society for Environmental Geochemistry and Health (SEGH) Early Career Researchers’ may reveal solutions to climate change that can be applied in Africa.

About the author: Melvine Anyango Otieno is an Associate at the Women Leaders for Planetary Health, the Founder of the Planetary Health Eastern Africa Hub and the Planetary Health Alliance Next Generation Fellow

This blog was also published on the Women Leaders for Planetary Health website.

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