The safari trip was much more adventurous than Heike Schönfeld had planned: Instead of the “Big Five” and, above all, the numerous big cats in the Maasai Mara, the German Kenyan holidaymaker and her husband experienced first-hand the effects of the heavy rains and floods in East Africa. On Thursday they were able to book a flight to Nairobi. “The main thing is to get away. It would be impossible on the street for the next few days,” Schönfeld told the German Press Agency.

This Friday we continue to the coast – before that there was emergency shopping in Nairobi. Because while the holidaymakers had money and passports with them, their holiday luggage was gone. And everything that was in a suitcase that had been recovered from the flood was covered in mud.

Escape from safari paradise

The drive to the safari camp on the Talek River over the weekend led over tracks that were under water, said Schönfeld. But things were still moving forward and the hope remained that the safari would bring beautiful nature experiences.

The Talek was already a raging river when we arrived on Saturday, said Schönfeld. “But it was probably not foreseeable that things would get so bad in such a short space of time.” Employees at the camp and nearby accommodations regularly checked the water level, and flashlights shined on the river in the dark. Things had to happen quickly on Sunday night; employees had to get them to a higher point through ankle-high water. The two Germans were only able to take their hand luggage backpacks with them in their hurry.

The location right on the river, which is so important to many tourists, especially during the great wildebeest migration, has proven fatal for a total of 14 camps in the Maasai Mara alone given the heavy rains. At least: There were no fatalities there. And given the important role tourism plays in Kenya’s economy, local authorities quickly deployed two helicopters to ferry holidaymakers and camp staff to safety.

Floods hit the poorest people particularly hard

In other parts of the country, people were running for their lives on rivers and dams. A dam burst around the Rift Valley alone killed 50 people, and numerous people died in the urban slums of Nairobi. The consequences of the storms particularly affected the poorest: The slums are what city planners call informal settlements – many buildings are built without a plan, there is no sensible infrastructure, and many people live in very small spaces.

It is not only there that urban planning is too often affected by corruption, criticized the hydrologist Sean Avery in a comment published on Thursday. Quick profits are put above safety concerns, drainage ditches for heavy rain are not maintained or are clogged with rubbish.

Destroyed infrastructure

Dozens of roads are interrupted and railway lines are also affected. According to media reports, numerous companies have asked their employees to work from home if possible or are letting them leave work earlier so that they are not caught in the heavy rains that often occur in the late afternoon and early evening. Because if roads are suddenly under water, buses and matatus, the minibuses used by many commuters, can also be swept away by the floods.

Life has become more expensive, especially for many low earners: when the weather is bad, matatu operators increase prices. “The journey is 100 shillings (69 cents) more expensive each time,” complained Mary Odoto, who works as a chambermaid in a hotel in Nairobi and commutes to one of the suburbs every day. The daily travel costs of 250 shillings became 450 – no small feat for the single mother.

El Niño and its consequences

Heavy rain during the “long rainy season” that begins in March is not uncommon in East Africa. This year, however, the severe rain is being intensified by the El Niño weather phenomenon, which has repeatedly brought untypical rainfall and caused destruction since last October. Experts suspect that climate change has also exacerbated the regularly recurring weather phenomenon.

More than a year ago, meteorologists in East Africa warned of the consequences of El Niño and called for preparations. Between October and February, nearly 1,800 people died in Kenya alone as a result of floods, landslides and other impacts, according to the International Federation of the Red Cross. For comparison: According to a government spokesman, there have been around 200 flood deaths in Kenya in the past two weeks. Across East Africa there will soon be 400, if you add up official figures.

Lack of precaution?

The human rights organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) criticized the Kenyan government’s lack of preparedness for the foreseeable disaster on Wednesday. East Africa and the Horn of Africa are among the regions severely affected by the impacts, with the region suffering from severe drought for several years in a row. Despite all the expert warnings and the experience with the floods in 2023, preparations for the new announced floods were inadequate and too slow, according to HRW. It was only on April 24th – a month after the rainy season began – that the Kenyan government set up a crisis team. At this point, opposition politicians and church leaders had already called in vain for a disaster to be declared.