We must make disaster preparedness top priority

Kenya’s disaster preparedness is itself a disaster. One only needs to look at the effects of the current drought ravaging the country to realise how poorly the country has prepared itself to deal with such emergencies.

What speaks volumes about the priority Kenya accords disaster preparedness is that despite the country’s budget moving from Sh350 billion 14 years ago to the current Sh2.6 trillion, disaster preparedness has hardly changed from its status of being virtually non-existent.

Why is disaster preparedness important? The first reason is obvious. It is important to secure lives and property during emergencies. The better prepared a country is to deal with disasters, the quicker it is able to respond, and the more lives it is able to save. Also, the quicker a country is able to recover.

The second reason is critical for a country’s stability, and its long term growth prospects. Disaster preparedness secures a country’s development gains and its economic future. The huge bills the government is forced to incur to deal with disasters can be avoided if it had prepared in advance. The government would also avoid having to divert substantial budgetary resources to deal with disasters as it now does.

It is not an accident that developed countries have instituted disaster preparedness measures that are premised on years of disruptions due to adverse events.

Kenya needs to prioritise four areas in its disaster preparedness.

The first is drought preparedness. This should be the simplest and most straightforward.  The government should develop a strategic reserve of at least five years’ worth of cereals. Currently, the country is dealing with a twin problem — high prices of maize flour because of the high prices at which millers are buying maize due to a shortage, and food relief for people facing starvation.

A five year stock of maize would have seen the government stabilise maize prices to millers early enough to ameliorate this crisis, as well as distribute enough food to those threatened with starvation. This should have happened as a matter of course without all the chaos and hardship that the country has been forced to endure.

As it were, the government has been forced to part with a huge chunk of the strategic grain reserve, which has opened another door to a further crisis. The country cannot continue to be run in a crisis mode. It is asking for, well……a disaster!

The second intervention is oil stocks. The country literally lives from hand to mouth where stocks of oil are concerned. The government needs to institute a reserve of a minimum of one year’s consumption as a strategic reserve, with storage facilities  staggered across the country for purposes of security and ease of delivery. Such a reserve will stabilise prices and supplies even if the country was unable to import oil for months.

The third intervention is emergency medical supplies. Kenya has seen several emergencies in the last few years, especially arising from terrorist attacks, as well as accidents from road crashes, to collapsed buildings.

The emerging picture from all these scenarios is that Kenya is ill equipped to deal with medical emergencies. Victims have to be flown to Nairobi, wasting valuable time. The government should create a system of medical facilities fully equipped to deal with medical emergencies of all kinds. The five national referral hospitals, plus the level five hospital system should be designated disaster centres, and equipped accordingly. The government only needs to tweak its current hospital leasing equipment contract to facilitate this.

The police should be equipped with air ambulances for rapid evacuation of victims to the nearest medical disaster centre. The military system, itself premised on crisis, should be incorporated into the disaster preparedness system, and conscripted into service as necessary.

The country should also conscript a disaster corps of Kenyans across the country who will be part of a national database available for immediate deployment during disasters.

The fourth intervention should be water. One failed rain season later, and the whole country is choking with thirst. How poorly prepared can a country get? Countries such as Libya, Egypt, Sudan are deserts, yet they manage to satisfy their people with water for irrigation and domestic use year in, year out. Some of these countries have populations much bigger than Kenya. Where did Kenya lose the plot? What would happen if two rain seasons fail?

Kenya must put in place water reserves that can take the country at least a whole year even if not a single drop of rain fell. This could be a system of dams and boreholes across the country, many of which can be held in reserve for use only during such emergencies.

There should be enough water for people and animals without any rationing. The current rationing in Nairobi is a terrible indictment of our state of preparedness.

The first step towards disaster preparedness system is budgetary allocation. The government must dedicate a percentage of the budget every year to this. If this happens, the situation will be drastically different in five years, and will have changed Kenya’s trajectory. The money will go both into putting in place the necessary infrastructure, training personnel, and creating a disaster kitty so that money does not have to be diverted from other projects to fund disasters.

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