East Africa: Heavy rainfall causes devastation

Almost one million people in Kenya, Burundi, Tanzania and Somalia have been affected by floods and landslides. UNICEF and other humanitarian organizations are stepping up life-saving emergency aid for children and affected communities.

A child walks through the floods
A child walks through the floods in Gatumba, Burundi.

Unusually heavy rains, exacerbated by the 2023-24 El Niño climate phenomenon, have claimed hundreds of lives and highlighted the urgent need for humanitarian aid.

Large numbers of people have been displaced and significant damage has been reported, including to homes, schools and infrastructure, as well as loss of crops and livestock. Many families have been forced to leave their homes, seeking refuge in makeshift shelters or evacuation centers. These are the individuals already most vulnerable, often living in informal settlements, close to riverbanks and without resilient water and sanitation. The situation has further exacerbated the lives of women and children, who already face high levels of discrimination in access to protection services and resources as well as vulnerability to violence, abuse and exploitation.

In Kenya, schools were closed for several weeks and due for reopening next week. The floods have also led to another cholera outbreak, with 48 cases reported. In Somalia, more than 160,000 people have been affected by the latest flooding, two-thirds of whom are children.

“The heavy rains and subsequent floods have disrupted lives, posing significant risks to children in the affected regions. Currently, safety and health, as well as access to food, clean water and vital services remain paramount. UNICEF is working closely with governments and local partners engaging with affected communities to identify the most urgent needs and ensure children are safe, able to continue learning and receiving psycho-social support as needed,” said UNICEF Regional Director for Eastern and Southern Africa Etleva Kadilli.

In flood-affected countries, UNICEF is working with government and civil society partners to provide life-saving emergency relief to children and other vulnerable groups in affected communities. Efforts include cash assistance, technical support, and provision of clean water, hygiene kits and medical supplies. UNICEF is also working with partners to identify needs that will emerge once the floodwaters have subsided. This includes:

  • Ensuring the continuity of safe learning where schools are destroyed, closed or unable to be accessed; as well as support rapid school assessments, recovery and rebuilding efforts to get children back to school as soon as possible. In addition, UNICEF will work with partners to promote accelerated and recovery learning to help children catch up.
  • Protecting children from forced family separation, increased exposure to violence, including sexual violence as well as keeping children safe from exploitative activities such as child labour and abuse. 
  • Ensuring access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services, enhancing infection prevention and control measures against outbreak of infectious diseases, as well as strengthening the capacity of community health workers.
  • Enhancing access to lifesaving, high-impact, and quality health services that improve health status of affected communities.
  • Establishing and strengthening access to essential nutrition services, including support to government to ensure provision and access to quality diets, practices and services.
  • Strengthening risk communication and community engagement (RCCE) with local governments and partners in El Niño-impacted areas.
  • Ensuring the availability of services for gender-based violence (GBV) survivors including referrals, case management, psychosocial support and continuous efforts to identify and mitigate GBV risks in affected communities.

Over the past decade, climate change has intensified extreme weather in Eastern and Southern Africa, such as the prolonged drought across Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia from 2020 to 2023, followed by severe floods since late last year. In Eastern Africa, El Niño-induced heavy rains have intensified riverine and flash floods. In Southern Africa, El Niño has worsened dry weather conditions and caused lower rainfall, leading to states of emergency declared in Madagascar, Malawi, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

To help children and vulnerable communities cope with changing climate patterns, UNICEF is working with regional and national partners to facilitate and implement climate-resilient solutions, empower children and young people, including those with disabilities, to have their voices heard and improve their adaptive capacity, as well as advocate for a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, use of nature-based solutions and restructuring of international Climate Financing to be child-sensitive.

"Amid the escalating crises of droughts and floods wrought by El Niño, the vulnerability of communities across Eastern and Southern Africa intensifies, posing grave concerns about the future of children in the region," said Kadilli. "Children, young people and women, including those with disabilities are particularly at risk of violence, abuse and exploitation as humanitarian needs continue to increase. Thanks to the invaluable support from our donors and partners, UNICEF is actively engaged on the ground. Together with governments, civil society, and local communities, we are delivering lifesaving interventions and bracing for potential surges in humanitarian needs.

“However, the cost, scale and complexity of climate crises are only going to increase across the region.  Sustained and flexible support from donors and multilateral climate funds, including joint investments and other innovative financing with governments in climate prevention and preparedness programmes, will be vital in saving lives and strengthening the resilience of children repeatedly hit by climate emergencies.”