Reflections of a Young Researcher on Impacts of 2015-16 El Niño Rains in Laikipia, Kenya

Reflections of a Young Researcher on Impacts of 2015-16 El Niño Rains in Laikipia, Kenya

Written by Jackson Wachira, Edited by Lydia Cumiskey


When my article on why and how we must always be prepared for disasters was published by the Daily Nation on October 16th 2015, observation and intuition prevailed in communicating and creating a discussion around the 2015-16 El Niño rains preparedness.  My friend and colleague in the Water Youth Network (WYN) , Lydia Cumiskey was however quick to point out that an evidence based inquiry would further enrich this discourse.

Having conducted scientific enquiries towards both my undergraduate (Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology, Kenya) and postgraduate (King’s College London, UK) degrees as well as engaging with various development research activities as junior consultant, the idea of conducting research was not new at all. However, the suggestion by my colleague that we should conduct an investigation to validate (or invalidate) a perspective I had already published in a national newspaper was not only novel but also very exciting. The potential for collaboration with a WYN colleague with complementing experience on flood early warning was further thrilling.

In our research, we firstly intended to test the assertion that many Kenyans had received El Niño early warning information and further investigate the nature of investments undertaken by at-risk populations to minimize El Niño related disruptions.  Additionally, the research aimed at employing the minds and efforts of recent graduates and university students in the collection and synthesis of data related to the El Niño.

Before embarking on our research journey we had to make a few decisions based on the small grant for research logistics advanced to us by the Water Youth Network. Foremostly, as my article had been based on observations made in Laikipia County (Rift Valley), we chose this county as our target research area. We also wanted to target other higher flood risk counties such as Kajiando (Rift Valley),Kwale (Coastal Strip), Busia (Western Kenya) but the resources at our disposal was limited.  This idea was also suppressed by our desire to work with homogenous population that shared a similar to close-to-similar ecosystem.

To settle on our specific location of study, we undertook review of existing and emerging literature and held discussions with key development actors such as the County level meteorological office, National Drought Management Authority (NDMA) and the Kenya Red Cross Society. This enabled us to situate our research objectives within the prevailing contexts.  Development of the research tools was perhaps one of the most engaging pre-research tasks. As the process of development of the tools demanded objectivity and holistic coverage the research objectives, we thought that the contributions of more experienced and independent researchers would enhance the quality of our tools. Thanks to the great support (and encouragement) by  Mickey Grantz and Arielle de la Poteries of the  Consortium for Capacity Building, University of Colorado and Stephen McDowel and Roop Singh of the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, we  developed and streamlined the research tools towards obtaining valid and consistent results.  We subsequently trained a team of university students and graduates to support the data collection process at minimal remuneration.  This was based on the premise that young volunteers and university students are a powerful and knowledgeable resource in any community.

Our research plans almost got distracted when I accepted a new job offer and was posted to Marsabit County, 356 kilometers away from my previous work station, the heart-beat ofour research work. In their youthful years, many professionals work towards strengthening their professions with new experiences and qualifications, which like in my case sometimes result into relocating to far regions within the national borders or overseas. While this is certainly a welcome trend for professional progression, the irony is that it may limit ongoing, localized investigations and undertakings. One would need to be innovative to concurrently promote professional growth and context specific research.  For our case, we agreed to recruit an experienced team leader whom I would work closely with to supervise the team of research assistants collecting data. This demanded prolonged daily phone communication and frequent travels to the field to ensure quality of data collection and storage processes. From this challenge, we learnt the value in activation of trusted professional networks that can focus on professional development. We found that most of our students were much more interested in on-the–job- learning, expanding their networks and contributing to knowledge development as compared to the immediate monetary benefit.

The research findings have been compiled into a field report available in the link below. There was a positive relationship between the main hypothesis and research finding:  the Kenya Meteorological Services (KMS) played a fundamental role in originating El Niño weather related early warning information.  We further found out that the early warning messages were cautionary and struggled to deal with the uncertainty. As the onset of the short rains neared, the KMS’s warning messages became more specific with a repeated warning that the impact of the El Niño rains of 2015-16 would not be as that of the 1997 El Niño.  However, at the national level, the messaging would conflict with other early warning messages originators such as the county government environment departments and politicians indicating the need for one authoritative voice to avoid confusion. Early warning messages were mainly disseminated through local radio stations, whose effectiveness may have been curtailedby simplistic, populist and sometimes erroneous messaging.

Other key findings were that the El Niño Weather was more helpful than destructive as largely anticipatedby the residents of the study location. Notably the extent to which the residents were able to take advantage of the enhanced rains was limited by low financial capacities to respond.

We also learnt that  that the early warning lead time was significantly short as a majority of respondents only first received the early warning messages in September 2015, one month away from the onset of the short rains.  One would presume that one month is sufficient time to prepare for a disaster emergency. However, our research showed that a majority of the respondent in our research area were so poor to mobilize quality investments within that warning window.  As a result, cheap, short term preparedness investments were undertaken. While these investments may have been helpful in the short run, they are problematic in that they did not provide a sufficient buffer to protect the at risk population from the adverse impacts of similar hazards in the future. Indeed, many respondents indicated that it would take deliberate investments by the government to reduce future risks and enhance adaptation.

Young people have a pivotal role to play in advancing research initiatives for their own benefit and that of the wider community. For me, this study provided unmatched experience in the design and actualization of scientific research as a young Disaster Risk Reduction practitioner.  It particularly shed important light into the limitations of undertaking scientific research in development orientated environments, where a researcher has to work in the context of limited research-related resources, yet be able to balance work and research demands. By funding and allowing the flexibility to undertake this study, the WYN has contributed immensely towards generation of new knowledge on the El Nino Early Warning in Kenya, and enhanced more participation by young people.

Find the final report here: KENYA EL NINO-FINAL REPORT

Poster presented at the Multi-Hazard Early Warning Conference, Cancun Mexico: WYN_KenyaDRR_Cancun poster_final



About the authors

Jackson is a graduate in Disasters, Adaptation and Development (King’s College London). He coordinates a DRR and Livelihoods Project at FH Kenya. Lydia Cumiskey is a PhD Candidate at The Flood hazard Research Center Middlesex University, UK. Both authors are members of the Water Youth Network. They can be reached through, and respectively.

1 Comment

  • Armara Galwab May 30, 2017 at 2:24 pm

    Good piece of information for policy actors. Great work. I have read through your work and its worth informing on DRR preparedness

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