Natural Disasters in Kenya: Past Catastrophes and Future Risks
Kenya has become a very popular tourist destination in recent years. Every year more and more people come to the country to go on safari, relax on the beaches, learn about the culture and customs of the locals and admire the beautiful nature. They should find out in advance what natural disasters or catastrophes they might encounter. Disasters always come unexpectedly, but knowing their potential can help you prepare for them.
Climatic Characteristics of Kenya
Kenya is an East African country that lies directly on the equator. However, the country’s topography and location change Kenya’s climate. Instead of the usual equatorial climate, most of the country has a tropical climate and only a few places have a sub-equatorial climate.
The tropical climate is characterised by two seasons – rainy and dry. Kenya has a dry season for most of the year when rainfall is low. In the northwestern parts of the country, rainfall is so low that drought is common.
Along the Indian Ocean coast, rainfall peaks in spring, with March and April being the wettest months. This often leads to severe flooding.
Kenya’s coastline is not very long, about 600 kilometres, and is protected by a wall of coral reefs. As a result, ocean storms, cyclones and possible tsunamis do not cause much damage to the country.
A large rift fault runs through the central part of the country. This is a tectonically active zone where the earth’s crust continues to move. In the distant future, this rift will split Africa in two, but this process takes a long time. As a result, there is no great tectonic activity here and almost all the volcanoes on the rift are considered dormant.
Kenya has a lot of forests and grasslands. The problem of forest fires in the dry season is therefore a topical issue for the country.
Potentially Hazardous Factors That Can Cause a Natural Disaster Include
1. Seismic activity. The Great Rift Valley is not currently tectonically active. However, it is widening by several millimetres every year. The risk of earthquakes is therefore present, but not very high.
2. Long coastline. It is protected by shallow waters and coral reefs. However, it remains a source of increased risk in terms of storms, cyclones and tsunamis.
3. Volcanism. Kenya’s volcanoes are not currently erupting and are considered dormant. However, this may change with increased tectonic activity.
4. Seasonal cyclones and storms. These almost never hit the Kenyan coast. They cause no real damage.
5. Heavy rains. Can cause short-term flooding and the overflowing of many rivers.
6. High mountains and plateaus. Increase the likelihood of landslides and rock falls, threatening transport links and settlements.
7. High forest cover and long savannahs. The potential for forest fires to occur and spread.
The Importance of Studying Natural Disaster History
The history of natural disasters is important information to learn before travelling to your chosen country. Knowing the potential hazards you may face will not only help you choose the right location, but also the time of year and season when the risk of being at the epicentre of a natural disaster is minimal.
For example, if you know that the rainy season, when flooding is most common, begins in late February and lasts until early May, you can choose a different time to travel to Kenya.
This article provides a chronology of natural disasters that have occurred on the island in the past.
Earthquakes and Tsunamis
In 2018, the world community was alarmed by the news of a giant fissure in Kenya. It appeared for no apparent reason between the cities of Nairobi and Narok and was the result of the activation of tectonic processes in the Rift Zone. This is an alarming sign that could herald a further increase in seismic activity and a series of major earthquakes.
So far, Kenya remains a rather quiet country in terms of seismic activity. Underground tremors are recorded here, but most of them go unnoticed by the population. This was the case with the earthquake in early August 2023. The tremors, with a magnitude of up to 5, had an epicentre in neighbouring Tanzania. Kenyans did not feel it.
The strongest earthquake in Kenya’s history occurred on 6 January 1928, when the country was still a British colony. It measured 7 on the Richter scale. It was followed three days later by an aftershock with a magnitude of 6. The epicenters of the quakes were in Baringo County, in the north-west of the country. There were no reports of casualties, which is not surprising as the area is sparsely populated.
22 January 2012
This is a typical Kenyan earthquake, which occurred near Lake Rudolph, also in the north-west of the country. The magnitude was small, -5.2 points. The depth of the epicentre was quite close – 15 kilometres. However, there was no destruction or loss of life.
Tsunami of 26 December 2004
The consequences of the catastrophic earthquake in the Indian Ocean in the last days of 2004 were felt in many countries. Even areas as far away from the epicentre as Somalia and Madagascar were affected. But Kenya was successfully protected by coral reefs and there was no destruction on its coastline. Only one person died in the tsunami.
There have been no eruptions in Kenya in the last hundred years, but everything we said about earthquakes above applies to volcanism. There are now at least two dozen dormant and inactive volcanoes in Kenya. Some have only recently become active, others erupted many thousands of years ago.
This volcano is located at the southern end of Lake Turkana, which is in the area of most intense volcanic activity in Kenya. There are several other volcanoes around Barriere, all of which can be active. Barriere itself last erupted in 1921. The volcano’s cone is 1,032 metres high.
This volcano is located in the rift zone, south of Barriere volcano. Its height is 1,285 metres. The volcano is currently fumarolic and its last eruption was in 1910.
Storms and Cyclones
Kenya lies to the north of the Indian Ocean tropical cyclone basin. Cyclones curve south from the equator and hit Madagascar and neighbouring countries without affecting Kenya. As a result, devastating hurricanes or severe storms are virtually non-existent. There have been no reports of damage or casualties from such storms in the last 50 years.
Flooding is a regular seasonal disaster in eastern Kenya. They peak in March and April when heavy rains inundate the country, but are also common in autumn. The most devastating floods are those that follow severe droughts. The worst floods in recent years are listed below.
Record rainfall hit Kenya, causing widespread flooding and associated landslides. On 9 May, high water levels caused the Petel dam to collapse, while 4 other dams on Lake Baringo were affected later in the month. Torrents of water swept away houses and destroyed roads. The total death toll exceeded 180 people and damage was estimated at $200 million.
Heavy rains hit West Pokot County in northern Kenya. Thousands of people were left homeless, and torrents of mud and water washed away roads and destroyed entire settlements. More than a million people need help.
Major flooding affected 29 districts across the country. Rivers burst their banks and landslides destroyed homes and roads. About 100,000 people were evacuated and another 800,000 were affected. 160,000 homes were destroyed or damaged. 237 people died.
Once again, the heaviest rains paralyse life in the country. This time, more than 36,000 people were affected and many had to be evacuated to safer places. The heaviest rains hit the north-east of the country. Sixteen people died there.
Drought and Fires
The drought and the associated forest fires are the country’s second disaster after the floods. During the dry season, any ignition is enough to start a fire.
A huge fire sweeps through Longonot National Park, located in the crater of the extinct volcano of the same name. The fire threatened the unique ecosystem of monkeys, rabbits, snakes and mongooses that had taken root there. Most of the animals were not even killed by the fire, but by the smoke that covered the crater.
A fire engulfed the slopes of Kenya’s highest mountain. Hundreds of hectares of heathland burned. The fire was even visible from satellites. Strong winds prevented the fire from being fought, and only March showers helped to extinguish it.
About 600 hectares of forest burned in Aberdare National Park, 100 kilometres north of Nairobi. The park’s black rhino population was severely threatened, but no people were injured. The same park has gone up in flames many times before. Similar fires occurred in 2017, 2018 and earlier.
The biggest threat to tourists holidaying in Kenya is the spring rains and the floods that come with them. Every year people die in torrents of water and often mud, and with flooding more common along the coast, tourists need to be careful.
The risk of earthquakes is still low, but potentially possible. Activation of seismic activity can happen at any time, and scientists are reluctant to make predictions. The risk of volcanic eruption is also low.
Tropical cyclones avoid Kenya, although hurricanes do occur. However, the coast is well protected from storms by numerous coral reefs.
Forest fires occur in the dry season, but damage only unique ecosystems, plants and animals.
The best time to visit Kenya is between May and January. This is the period when rainfall remains at an acceptable level without causing severe flooding. The coast is always warm and in winter and summer the winds are strong enough for active holidays.