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Dozens killed in Kenya as weeks of heavy rain devastate region

<i>CNN via CNN Newsource</i><br/>A screengrab taken from video shows an overturned car and collapsed trees in the aftermath of a flash flood in Mai Mahiu
CNN via CNN Newsource
A screengrab taken from video shows an overturned car and collapsed trees in the aftermath of a flash flood in Mai Mahiu

By Larry Madowo, Irene Nasser and Helen Regan, CNN

Nairobi, Kenya (CNN) — At least 71 people have been confirmed dead and 110 people are in hospital following floods near the town of Mai Mahiu in Kenya’s north-western Nakuru county, Nakuru governor Susan Kihika confirmed to CNN on Monday.

According to Kihika, flooding in the region was exacerbated by the bursting of a dam, though locals and first responders have told CNN that the disaster was caused by water blowing through a tunnel under a railway bridge with a clogged culvert.

Kenya has grappled with weeks of heavy rains and devastating flash floods.

A CNN team on the ground in Mai Mahiu has seen overturned vehicles, uprooted trees and homes which had been swept away in mass flooding.

CNN witnessed damage to one of the most affected areas from flooding in Nakuru county, which spanned several kilometers in every direction. A distraught man told CNN that he feared several of his family members were still buried under the mud and debris.

Rescue teams are digging through the mud and debris trying to find survivors, Kihika told CNN, warning that the death toll could rise significantly.

The incident comes as flooding has inundated large swathes of Kenya, killing at least 103 people and forcing thousands of residents from their homes since March, government spokesperson Isaac Maigua Mwaura said Monday.

In Mai Mahiu, Kihika said a serious situation was unfolding as floodwaters swept away people and homes.

“We are trying to get a handle on the situation but it’s a bit overwhelming but we’re doing the best we can especially to reach those who have been carried away because we hope that some are still alive,” Kihika said.

Access to Mai Mahiu, 20 miles north of the capital Nairobi, had been difficult as part of the road had been cut off from recent heavy rains, Kihika said. Teams are clearing debris as they try to reach survivors and pull out bodies, she added.

On Monday, the Kenya Red Cross Society said several people were taken to a health facility in Mai Mahiu due to the flash floods affecting Kamuchiri village.

“The floodwaters are reported to have originated from a nearby river that broke its banks,” the group said.

Kenya has registered heavy rain since mid-March but downpours have intensified over the past week, leading to mass flooding.

“Kenya is facing a worsening flood crisis due to the combined effects of El Niño and the ongoing March-May 2024 long rains,” IFRC Secretary General and CEO Jagan Chapagain said in a post on X, referring to the climate pattern that originates in the Pacific Ocean along the equator and impacts weather all over the world.

“Since November 2023, El Niño triggered devastating floods and river overflows, causing more than a hundred deaths and widespread damage.”

A another climate fluctuation called a positive Indian Ocean Dipole, similar to El Niño but which originates in the Indian Ocean along the East Africa coast, is also intensifying the rains, said Joyce Kimutai, a researcher at Imperial College London’s Grantham Institute the former principal meteorologist at the Kenya Meteorological Department.

And behind these natural climate patterns, the long term-trend of human-caused global warming is “highly likely” to be influencing the heavy rainfall, as warm air tends to hold more moisture, Kimutai told CNN.

The Horn of Africa, a region of East Africa that includes Kenya, is one of the most climate-vulnerable regions in the world.

The deadly rains across the Horn of Africa at the end of last year, which killed at least 300 people, were about twice as intense as they would have been without climate change, according to a December analysis from scientists at the World Weather Attribution (WWA) initiative.

The impact of Kenya’s most recent rains also may have been worsened by falling on very hard, dry soils after years of catastrophic drought, which affected many parts of Kenya, killing livestock and crops and causing widespread hunger and water insecurity. This drought was made 100 times more likely by planet-heating pollution from fossil fuels, an April WWA analysis found.

“When people are still reeling from one extreme weather event, it makes them highly vulnerable to another,” Kimutai said.

Some 131,450 people have been affected as floods swept through almost half of Kenya.

Images and video from Nairobi, which has been badly impacted, show people stranded on rooftops or salvaging what they can from homes destroyed by the flash floods.

Other video shows vast flooding around the Tana River, with large parts of the surrounding area underwater. Roads, buildings and vehicles are submerged.

The Ministry of Education announced Monday that all primary and secondary schools would postpone the start of the new school term for one week until May 6.

On Sunday, the Kenya Red Cross Society said 23 people had been rescued and others were missing after a boat capsized at Kona Punda while heading to Mororo, Tana River County, on Sunday.

As of Friday, the group said it has rescued more than 300 people since the onset of the rain in March.

Heavy rains in East Africa have also affected Tanzania and Burundi. Tanzanian Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa said on Thursday that at least 155 people have been killed by flooding in the country.

CNN’s Laura Paddison contributed to this report.

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