Kenya: Warning Kibera residents of floods using flags, Whatsapp and Facebook forecasts
Sokomoko team leader Leo Odhiambo raising a green flag near the river, meaning floods are unlikely.

Weather Mtaani localizes weather and climate information to build resilience in Kenya’s largest informal settlement 

By Sharon Atieno

In the fifteen years that Nancy Atieno has resided in Kibera, rains have demolished her house several times, forcing her to relocate. In one instance, her house was flooded so much that she had to dry her mattress for a whole month.

“We had not started receiving weather information, so we were not aware. It was during daytime, and it started raining. At that time, we had not even cleaned the drainage. All the waste entered the house including faeces from the sewage,” she recalls.

Atieno is also a mandazi vendor; during the rainy season, she arms herself with an umbrella as the business is her only source of income. “If the rains become too heavy, I am forced to relocate to another position,” she says.

She adds that not knowing how the weather will be is an inconvenience to the business, because she will incur losses if the mandazi she has prepared for that day are not sold. Atieno resides in Kibera, an area in Nairobi, Kenya where the Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI) is running a project in partnership with the Kenya Meteorological Department (KMD) to make weather information timely and understandable to people living in informal urban settlements.

Map of Kibera informal settlement. In each sub-area, team leaders lead weather forecasting and clean-up activities

The World Bank’s Climate Knowledge portal observing data from 1900-2018 indicates that floods are the most prevalent natural hazard occurring in Kenya at 47%, followed by epidemics , drought, landslide, earthquake and storms.

Floods and drought, which are the main climate hazards, account for 3 percent of economic losses in the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).

In Kibera, the biggest slum in Kenya, heavy rains spell doom for families as some of the poorly constructed houses allow water to leak through the tin roofs or sip in through the ground, as in the case of houses situated along the river banks.

Children near a river in Kibera

“Our forecasting threshold for flood to occur in general is the occurrence of cumulative rainfall of 20 millimeters or more in 24 hours,” says Dr. Richard Muita, Assistant Director, Public Weather Services at KMD.

“However, for informal areas like Kibera, the amounts leading to flooding may also vary depending on drainage infrastructure where drainage is poor. Even 10 millimeters or less of rain can lead to runoff and flash floods.”

In a household panel survey conducted in 963 households in high-exposure areas of Kibra, 50 percent of respondents reported that their houses flooded in the 2015 March-April-May long rainy season.

The World Bank estimates that in the same year, around 245,299 people were affected by floods in Kenya.

Bridging the gap between meteorologists and riverside residents

The United Kingdom Aid-funded project dubbed DARAJA (Developing Risk Awareness through Joint Action) was developed to bridge the gap between scientists producing weather and climate information, and people on the ground not being able to understand and take preventative action on all the scientific technical information being produced by the meteorological department. 

People in the informal settlements in urban areas are more vulnerable to extreme weather events and climate change, which often result in increased occurrences of floods and extreme heat compared to those living in formal areas. Thus, understanding weather information was essential, says Sabrina Ohler, KDI’s Project Manager.

Dr. Muita notes that the initiative was started to improve the awareness of the local communities in Kibera so that they can be more ready and prepared to manage flash floods whenever they occur.

“It was intended to see if they can limit the damages and the losses that result from flooding whenever it rains,” he says.

Through the co-production process by the two organizations, a survey was carried out in the local communities to understand the perceptions, needs and requirements about weather information. The responses generated led to re-packaging of the weather information.

“We identified how to improve the forecast through key informant interviews, focus group discussions in various informal settlements, a large household survey conducted in Kibera and a series of co-production multi-stakeholder workshops. The forecast is now released in a new format,” Ohler says.

“The layout has changed; different weather icons are used which were developed through the project. The language of forecast has changed and there is also a section for advice messages. The improvements also include downscaling the Nairobi forecast by dividing the city region into two: western and eastern zones.”

KMD’s Assistant Director notes that they have also improved the response time.

“Previously, the information might not have reached the local communities in good time and therefore, after working together with the local communities we realized through the surveys that they required the information in good time so that they can prepare. Therefore, we give weekly and monthly forecasts.”

Weather Mtaani: forecasting the weather over Whatsapp, SMS, Facebook and radio

Under the DARAJA project, KDI is running two pilot projects: one at the settlement scale and another one at city scale, which covers Nairobi. 

The pilot projects run under the name Weather Mtaani. At settlement level, various channels of communication are used to enhance access to weather and climate information, including radio. Community activities such as clean-ups and an SMS system are being implemented in four areas within Kibera: Makina, Sokomoko (Gatwekera/ Kisumu Ndogo), Andolo (Lindi/ Silanga) and Laini Saba. The pilot projects are running until May, 2020.

Through the SMS system, KDI is working with a group of around 22 community leaders – identified by residents of these areas – who share a summary of weather forecast through short messages with the other residents. 

Among the community leaders, there are five team leaders who are in charge of the other community leaders within their areas.

According to Makina team leader, Christopher Aboch, their work as leaders is to spread the weather information through SMS, word of mouth and Facebook or social media.

“The five team leaders after receiving the message from KMD, meet and draft the message in a way that the locals can understand. We shorten the message,” he explains.

One of the regular Whatsapp messages advising residents on weather conditions

Being that the message is given on a weekly basis, the team leaders meet every week. Each team leader and the community leaders within his or her area have a list of contacts of different residents to whom they are supposed to reach out to with the weather forecast and advisory message.

“We give different advisories depending on the amount of rainfall. When we see that the rain will be heavy, we advise those living along the river not to allow their children to play near the river. When it is cold, we advise them to put on warm clothing; when it is hot, we advise them to carry water with them,” notes Aboch.

As poor maintenance of the few drainage systems available in the slum is a major contributor to the flooding, the main advisory message to the residents is to clean the drains and ensure proper collection of rubbish.

Kibera residents cleaning a drain. Clogged drains can worsen flooding.

“I clean the drains and I try to advise my neighbours to do so too. Previously, the rains would find me off-guard, and I would clean the drains when it started raining. But now, I get the message early; I take my rake and my shovel and clean the drains,” says Dancun Nyakundi, a Makina resident of almost 30 years.

“Ever since we started receiving the messages, we have seen a lot. The drains are cleaned early and the rubbish is collected,” narrates Atieno. “Before the messages, the drains were not being cleaned and we were experiencing a lot of difficulties with rubbish piling up even in places where you’ve set up your business.”

Leo Odhiambo, Sokomoko team leader, notes that as each message is sent, they encourage the recipient to share it with other residents in the area.

A red flag to warn of floods

Kibera is located adjacent to the Ngong-Motoine River, one of the three major river systems in the Nairobi River basin, with an upstream catchment area of 4500ha. Data estimates collected by KDI in 2018 suggests that around 22,000 Kibera residents live within the 30-meter buffer of the Ngong river.

This is because despite the risk of flooding being highest in such places, the cheapest rents are found along the rivers and streams.

Sokomoko is one of these areas. Meshack Ngaira has borne the brunt of heavy rains, having lived here since 2002. His worst experience was in 2019. His neighbors – a woman and her child – were swept away by ravaging waters which made the walls of her house cave in when the river burst its banks. As this was happening, he was in the middle of his house lifting his children through the roof to get to safety on the other side.

Despite this, he says that he cannot move to another area because the houses in other areas are expensive and he does not have the money.

When it rains heavily, he is at times forced to seek shelter from some of his relatives who reside in higher grounds within Kibera. He stays with them for some time until the waters have subsided.

2015 statistics showing households reporting flooding in red, with households reporting no flooding in green. Map by KDI (2018).

Sokomoko, which lies in the southern part of Kibera, is among the areas where residents with the support of KDI have put up a flag to act as an additional warning sign for the residents.

“The flag has helped me because when I see them change it, I know that it will rain and I move for some time because the river floods and reach even the house,” Ngaira said. 

According to the Sokomoko team leader, he raises the red flag when there is a possibility of floods due to enhanced rainfall which exceeds the normal amount. However, when it is sunny, he changes it to green.

“When the flag is red, it means that the river will fill up and those people who live near the river have to move so that they are not affected by the water,” says Odhiambo.

The project also engages the community radio station, Pamoja FM as well as social media pages that directly speak to Kiberians to help in disseminating weather and climate information. In some instances, some of the listeners call in at the radio station to get clarity about the weather and advice on what action to take.

The Sokomoko team leader and his counterpart in Makina are in agreement that the biggest hurdle they face in sending the message is doubt from some of the recipients.

Aboch says that some people ignore the messages, as they do not believe that he got the message from KMD because he is not an employee there. 

However, Dr. Muita is hopeful that given enough resources and funding, the project can be scaled up to reach other areas beyond Kibera and Nairobi.

This story was produced in partnership with InfoNile and Code for Africa with the support of the National Geographic Society.