Floods and landslides in Kenya have killed nearly 200 people, displaced 100,000 and strained critical infrastructure, with unprecedentedly high water levels at two dams forcing the evacuation of villagers at risk, officials said on Wednesday.
The heavy rain, which accelerated in mid-April, is expected to continue in already hard-hit areas in the coming weeks, the Kenya Meteorological Department said in its most recent forecast. May usually marks the end of the rainy season.
In Budalangi, western Kenya, residents have had to carry their belongings away from their submerged houses using boats and motorbikes, after the Nzoia River burst its banks, spilling over the land for kilometres.
Government spokesperson Cyrus Oguna said on Twitter that over the past three weeks, floods had displaced 100,000 people — complicating efforts to protect against the spread of the coronavirus, which has killed 24 people in the country.
The government is providing food and water to the displaced people and has also requested the health ministry provide them with masks as a precautionary measure.
The floods and landslides have been concentrated in western Kenya and have so far killed 194 people, said Eugene Wamalwa, the minister in charge of relations between the regional leadership and the national government.
“Yesterday alone, we have lost 30 people in a matter of 24 hours,” Wamalwa said.
Twin effects of floods, coronavirus
Energy Minister Charles Keter said the water levels at two major Kenyan dams were unprecedentedly high.
The two dams, Masinga and Turkwel, represent about six per cent of Kenya’s total installed capacity.
As Masinga also feeds into several other dams, officials advised people living near those downstream reservoirs to evacuate.
“We are telling people who are downstream, Garissa all the way to Tana River — things are worsening,” Keter said about residents of the two eastern counties.
“We are asking them to move. Let them not wait for water, because this is historical.”
Security officials were already evacuating residents in high-risk areas, Interior Minister Fred Matiang’i added.
“We are not waiting for people to move — we are moving some people away from danger,” he said.
The floods have also destroyed 8,000 acres of rice fields, said Sicily Kariuki, the cabinet secretary for water and irrigation.
Kenya was already facing a looming rice shortage due to shipping disruptions caused by the coronavirus outbreak.
The heavy rains and landslides could also lead to water shortages, Kariuki said.
“The infrastructure to deliver water has been washed away … pipelines have been clogged,” said Kariuki, asking residents of several cities, including the capital of Nairobi, to use their water in a “rational” manner.
“The children. Thousands of children under the trees.”
That’s the answer that came crackling back from Dr. Tammam Lodami on the phone from the northern Syrian town of al-Dana when asked for a description of conditions on the ground.
North of Idlib city and west of Aleppo, the town is caught between a two-pronged advance by Syrian government troops and their Russian backers as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad seeks to regain control of the last opposition enclave in the country.
“This is the case,” Lodami said as he struggled to convey the scale of the crisis he’s witnessing, the arrival of tens of thousands of Syrians displaced by the conflict and headed towards a closed Turkish border with no shelter and temperatures dipping as low as –7 C.
“My English is humble,” he said. “I want to reach my voice to the world.”
But very little seems capable of permeating the indifference of the world and that elusive body known as the diplomatic community these days, not even when warnings sound of another possible escalation in a war about to enter its 10th year.
“You can consider these days as a catastrophe,” said Lodami, a dentist by trade who now works for the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations (UOSSM).
“Families leave their towns and homes for fear of indiscriminate bombardment. [The Syrian regime forces] target hospitals, medical centres, ambulances, schools, markets and civilians. Everything.”
Syria has spent the war systematically corralling rebel opposition fighters, extremist groups, political activists and hundreds of thousands of displaced people into Idlib province.
Now the Assad regime seems to be coming for its opponents, among them al-Qaeda-linked miliants, with Russian airstrikes paving a brutal path for troops on the ground.
Regime forces began their advance in April 2019, but it has been picking up steam. Some 800,000 Syrians have fled their homes in northwestern Syria since early December, according to the UN’s office for humanitarian affairs.
On Tuesday, spokesperson Jens Laerke described it as the largest number of people displaced in a single period since the start of the Syrian crisis almost nine years ago.
It’s “the fastest-growing displacement we’ve ever seen in the country,” he said at a news conference in Geneva.
It’s not difficult to understand why when faced with the daily images of the damned coming out of Idlib: relatives weeping over the charred bodies of loved ones killed in airstrikes, White Helmet rescue workers plucking bloodied and crying children out of the rubble.
Roads leading toward the Turkish border are clogged with vehicles loaded down with families lucky enough to have them or to clamber on carrying what they can.
Many are headed toward Atmeh, a sprawling camp of about one million people along Syria’s still-closed border with Turkey.
Dr. Okbaa Jaddou, a pediatrician there, said their hospital has only 40 beds.
“On [these] beds, we put 80 [children] or maybe 120 [children], because [there are] so many people now,” he said in a Skype interview on Wednesday. “We are operating in emergency conditions.”
Originally from Hama, a city further south, Jaddou has been living at Atma for two years.
“I was displaced and I [haven’t] found any place more safe than the Syrian-Turkish border because the [Syrian] regime has bombed everywhere.”
“If the situation [continues], we are going to see a very big crisis on the Turkish-Syrian border.”
Idlib was supposed to be a “de-escalation zone,” agreed to in a ceasefire deal worked out between Turkey, which supports some rebel groups inside Idlib, and Russia.
An estimated 1,800 civilians, according to new reports, have been killed since then.
The recent deaths of a number of Turkish soldiers killed by Syrian shelling has raised tensions considerably. Earlier this week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered troop reinforcements to the border.
“If there is the smallest injury to our soldiers on the observation posts or other places, I am declaring from here that we will hit the regime forces everywhere from today,” he said to thundering applause in the Turkish parliament, “regardless of the lines of the [ceasefire].”
The prospect of Syrian and Turkish troops trading fire in a direct confrontation has sounded alarm bells.
“What we must absolutely prevent is this developing into wider conflict between the Turks, the Syrians and the Russians,” said Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a director of the group Doctors Under Fire and an adviser to NGOs working in Syria.
An ex-soldier and chemical weapons expert, he would like to see NATO countries, including Canada, do more to support Turkey in the current crisis.
But Turkey has also angered Western allies in recent months by moving against Syrian Kurds in the northeast credited with helping allied troops fighting the Islamic State or ISIS.
De Bretton-Gordan said the view in the United Kingdom at least is that it shouldn’t get involved until it’s all over and then help to pick up the pieces.
“You know, I’ve had meetings with British government ministers asking for this but there is a view certainly here in London that the whole of Idlib that’s not under Turkish or Russian control is being run by the Jihadis. That’s just not the case.”
Doctors on the ground at the Bab al Hawa hospital near the Turkish border estimate that 95 per cent of the victims of the latest offensive are civilian, with two-thirds women and children.
“Three million civilians trapped,” said de Bretton-Gordon. “If there’s no medical support to help them, their morale completely goes. And as we know at the moment, most of them are rushing towards the Turkish border.”
The presence of a stronger Turkish military presence along that border offers comfort to those sheltering nearby, according to Jaddou, but few believe Turkey is strong enough to face Syria given the Russian and Iranian allies supporting Damascus.
“Ten minutes ago, I heard four bombings from Turkish cannons,” he said.
“But these four bombings cannot change the situation because Russia supports the Assad regime with their war planes.
“Idlib, the last opposition castle, is going to surrender. Because people with only rifles cannot fight war planes.”
In al-Dana, Lodami doesn’t want to talk about the Turkish-Syrian confrontation. It’s a political question and he is concerned with helping the needy, he said.
“How we will [face] our God with the children?” he asks. “All the world. All the world there is a very big problem. They don’t give any care or interest in these children and women under the trees.”
Ask him what their immediate needs are and the answer comes without a pause.
More than 140,000 Syrians have been displaced in the past three days alone by violence in the country’s northwest, bringing the total of those uprooted in a Syrian government offensive against the last opposition stronghold to over 800,000, the United Nations said Thursday.
The UN said at least 60 per cent of the more than 800,000 displaced since Dec. 1 are children. The humanitarian crisis in the already overcrowded opposition-held enclave is compounded by freezing weather and a lack of supplies.
The government offensive, backed by Russia, has intensified and expanded to include southern and eastern Idlib province as well as southern and western Aleppo, an area home to an estimated four million people. Most have already been displaced from other parts of Syria because of the ongoing conflict.
The humanitarian situation for people in northwest Syria is “at the most critical points,” the UN said, as the massive scale of human displacement over such a short period of time has increased needs exponentially.
David Swanson, UN regional spokesperson for the crisis in Syria, said more resources, including funding, are immediately needed to save lives and alleviate suffering. He predicted the 800,000 figure will rise in the coming days as the government offensive continues.
“This level of displacement couldn’t come at a worse time as more and more people are squeezed into an increasingly smaller area of land with little more than the clothes on their back,” he said, describing people fleeing in the middle of the night to avoid detection in temperatures below zero.
“The crisis is deepening by the minute, but the international community remains indifferent,” Swanson said.
Government forces, with Russian support, have focused their offensive on areas along a strategic highway that runs through opposition territory and connects the country’s south to the north. The M5 highway, now secured by Syrian troops, had been out of government control since 2012 and accessing it was part of a now failed 2018 ceasefire agreement. Calls for a ceasefire have failed to stop the violence.
On Thursday, government troops continued to advance through the Aleppo countryside to secure their hold on the highway. Most of the villages and towns that sit alongside the highway are now empty, while hundreds of thousands are squeezing into displacement camps, open fields and tents to move away from the front lines.
The UN said 550,000 of the displaced are living in Idlib towns and villages already packed with displaced people. Another 250,000 have moved to northern Aleppo in areas administered by Turkey and allied Syrian groups.
Turkey, a sponsor of the ceasefire and a backer of the opposition, has sent thousands of troops into the area to stall the advances, sparking rare direct confrontations with Syrian troops.
The Syrian war, now in its ninth year, has pulled in international players including the U.S., Russia and Turkey. Russia has supported the Syrian government troops while the U.S. has led an international coalition fighting ISIS militants.
Also on Thursday, the U.S. military acknowledged its troops fired on and killed a Syrian combatant when government supporters attacked an American convoy in northeastern Syria a day earlier.
The clash Wednesday was a rare direct confrontation between a Syrian pro-government group and U.S. troops deployed in the increasingly crowded terrain near the border with Iraq and Turkey.
A convoy of U.S. armoured vehicles drove into a government-controlled area and was attacked by pro-government supporters, including armed men who fired at the soldiers and pelted them with stones and Molotov cocktails.
Col. Myles Caggins, spokesperson for the U.S.-led coalition, said the person killed was a combatant. He said the U.S. soldiers had come under fire and responded in self-defence. Syrian government media maintained the person killed was a civilian.
The U.S. maintains hundreds of troops in the area. In recent weeks, and following a Turkish invasion of villages and towns along its borders, the area has been swarming with Russian, Syrian government and Turkish troops. They are deployed in part to maintain the peace but also in the latest tug over territorial control in Syria’s conflict.
Caggins said the patrol was planned, and the route passed through a pro-government area. The convoy of U.S. armoured vehicles passed through a Syrian military checkpoint, but government militia were also present.
The U.S. maintains lines of communication with Russia, Damascus’s ally, to avoid such confrontations.
Videos showed government supporters attacking the vehicles and two men firing small arms at the convoy, which was flying the U.S. flag. Some residents pelted the convoy with stones, while another dumped a bucket full of dirt on the back of one vehicle.
U.S. soldiers were seen standing in the middle of the melee, trying to disperse the crowd. One U.S. vehicle was stuck in the dirt, apparently having veered into a ditch, while another had a flat tire.
“Despite U.S. troops’ repeated de-escalation efforts, local militia members attacked U.S. troops with small arms weapons from multiple firing positions,” Caggins said. “Coalition forces always have the right to self-defence and fired back at armed aggressors, killing one adult male combatant.”