Words from Kenya

Flooding in Isiolo Town

Flooding in Isiolo Town

Over the last two days the town of Isiolo has experienced damaging floods, though little rain has fallen on the town itself. This strange phenomenon of floods without rain is not so unusual here. Isiolo is located on the northern base of the slopes of Mount Kenya. To the south the land rises and is much more rain prone than the dry and semi desert environment at the foot of the mountain where Isiolo lies. Heavy rain to the south can cause flash floods that pour down the mountain and often pour right through the town.

It is odd, on a completely dry day with blues skies, to find the centre of town awash. The water flooding through the main streets and right across the main north road that travels through the centre of the town. When they upgraded this road, a few years ago, they put in a large drainage ditch which now carries almost all of this water safely through the centre of town; the road no longer floods and business no longer comes to a grinding halt.

However, also during the last few years the town of Isiolo has been expanding at a dramatic rate. Low lying areas to the south of town, that have always been a pathway for any flash floods that come off the mountain, have been extensively built on. In the last two days much of the water that has come off the mountain has flooded through new urban areas. A new petrol station was badly damaged and a couple of large building complexes, built right in the path of what would have been described as a dry lugga (a seasonal river) that accommodates such floods, have been dangerously undermined. Thankfully nobody has died in these recent floods but several families have lost their homes to the water.

These floods were not as bad as some that Isiolo has witnessed in the past. Were a more severe flood to occur, or were the floods to occur at night, it is almost certain that lives would be lost.

Isiolo town has been earmarked for big development projects; a resort city, an oil refinery (if those two can be imagined together) and the hub for a rail, road and oil pipeline network that will connect across East Africa. Land prices have gone through the roof on the mere speculation of these projects. Land has been grabbed indiscriminately by locals and outsiders alike. It seems that almost every plot has at least 3 competing legal claims. Many people think that if they build something on the land quickly (and generally very cheaply and poorly) and live in it (or get some relative to live in it) then their claim to the land will be stronger.

The result is an ugly expansion of urban sprawl, mostly tin shacks and badly built block houses, and often in the most inappropriate places. If Isiolo is really to have the grand future that Kenya’s leaders and developers envisage somebody needs to get a firm grip on the urban planning to avoid serious issues in years to come.

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