Coping with the Parallel Threats of COVID-19 and Climate Change in Kenya


Dr. Sarah holds a PhD in Rural Studies with seven years of experience in interdisciplinary climate change impact research. She is a seasoned  researcher in land cover change analysis, vulnerability assessment, and multi-stakeholder engagement.

Kenya is simultaneously facing two crises; the unprecedented impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, including the resultant effects of instituted containment measures and climate change.  The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a global health crisis that has inadvertently caused the shutting down of economies, straining of health systems and a change in the social order.

The prescribed containment measures of social distancing have occasioned the closure of businesses in both the formal and informal sectors, with workers losing jobs and others forced to “work from home” regardless of the capacity to do so or not.

This has brought to the fore, the inextricable linkage between the health, food, economy and livelihood sectors, the same sectors that are directly and indirectly impacted by climate change.  On the other hand, the impacts of climate change continue to be witnessed in Kenya, with erratic rainfall patterns and extreme weather events such as droughts and flooding occurring.  The common factor in both crises is the human impact.

Poor populations with lack of access to clean water, lack of emergency reserves, lack of access to health care systems are disproportionately impacted by both crises, thereby compounding their vulnerability to both the health and environmental risk.

The containment measures of COVID-19 are not only meant to lower the rate of the spread of the disease, but also to prevent health systems from being overwhelmed by an increasing number of positive cases.  However, climate change impacts make it difficult to deal with the corona crisis as they add another layer of impact on the already destabilised system.  In essence, the crises have revealed the fragility of our systems and how interconnected they are.  Consequently, this paper aims to answer the question of how climate change impacts have affected COVID-19 containment measures and to address policy gaps that would address the COVID -19 and climate change nexus.

Impacts of climate change on COVID-19 containment measures

The impacts of climate change are evident in Kenya and many communities have had to put in place coping and adaptation strategies in order to build their resilience.  However, these measures are not always in tandem with the Kenyan government’s aim of controlling the spread of the disease. The flooding currently being experienced in Kenya has caused the displacement of people from their homes. In a bid for survival, families have had to seek shelter without due regard to the social distancing rules.

This not only increases the chances of transmission of the disease from one person to the other, but it also complicates the contact tracing component of the disease control as people might migrate from the flood prone areas to higher ground.  With priorities shifted to survival and household asset recovery, little thought is paid to sanitation measures of disease prevention such handwashing.

Further to this, adaptation measures taken with regards to flooding result in the migration of persons from rural to urban areas. It is estimated that majority of this population ends up in informal settlements, characterised by high population density, and lack of access to basic amenities such as water.  This impedes their capacity to institute the disease containment measures effectively.

Climate change directly impacts on the access to clean water, yet a major recommended practice against infection of the coronavirus is improved sanitation through handwashing.  For example, residents of Nairobi City have been on a water rationing schedule due to water scarcity before the advent of the long rains.

This has meant an added cost to their budget as they have to buy water for domestic use at a higher cost.  However, even with the beginning of the long rains, residents have still lacked access to water.  The Ngethu water treatment facility was closed as a result of intensive rainfall in the Aberdare Ranges, the facility’s main catchment area.

The heavy rainfall resulted in increased turbidity of the water, which caused the clogging of pipes at the facility .  Furthermore, in Kawangware, an area that is slowly emerging as a hotspot area of coronavirus infection in the city, residents do not have access to clean water, and families that can afford it opt to buy it at a cost of approximately KSh. 5 per 20 litres, this against the need of about 100 litres a day,   with the cost increasing in some areas to KSh. 100 per 20 litre dependent on demand.

Climate change impacts threaten to overwhelm an already overburdened public health care sector.  Flooding also has an increased risk of the spread of water borne diseases such as typhoid, diarrhoea and cholera.  As at February 28th 2020, seven counties among them Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu had reported cholera outbreaks.  In addition, on 29th April 2020, Mandera had reported 20 cases of cholera infection.

These diseases increase the mortality rate of vulnerable individuals such as children and the elderly, which raises their mortality rate.  Increasing infection rates of other diseases with a high potential of spreading through a population leads to further constraining available resources for the health sector.

The lock-down of four counties in Kenya has also disrupted the social safety nets that are usually in place for people living in urban areas.  Although this is a direct impact of the containment measures, climate change impacts have also compounded this disruption by destruction of crops in the farms due to heavy rainfall over a short period of time coupled with the interruption of food supply chains. Whereas, a family could organise to get food supplies from the rural areas as a coping strategy during the pandemic, the destruction of crops on the farm portends a shortfall of food reserves in the coming days.

The most vulnerable population to food shortages are the poor, which means that they lack access to basic services such health services and access to clean water, services that are essential to prevent the spread of the disease.  The lack of food causes hunger and eventually malnutrition, this in turn weakens the immune system which makes individuals susceptible to infection.

Climate change will continue to aggravate economic damage and the consequential effect of diverting funds from the prevention of the spread of the coronavirus in the country in the short term.  In the long term, it will hinder sustainable development due to climate related loss and damage which leads to poverty, a higher debt and lowered adaptive capacity.  In turn, this will hamper recovery efforts to the economy in a post-COVID-19 environment.

Recommendations for addressing the COVID-19 climate change nexus

Both the COVID-19 and climate change crises are cross-cutting in nature and require a multi-sectoral approach in policy frameworks in order to adequately tackle the challenges.  The multi-sectoral approach should also include the private sector, civil societies and target communities. This will enable the development of a comprehensive approach and prevent replication or clash of measures instituted to prevent climate impacts and coronavirus disease spread.

The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change pose a continued threat on the poor and vulnerable people in the society.  The interplay of the corona virus disease and climate change have magnified the inequalities present in Kenya.  The poor communities are more susceptible to infection, yet lack the capacity to absorb its financial impact, while at the same time, their social safety nets have been degraded.

It is therefore prudent to begin by the reduction of vulnerability of the people who have been affected by both risks.  Building the climate resilience of such communities will have the residual impact of lowering the impacts of the coronavirus disease.

The capacity building networks that are in place for climate change resilience can be used for educating the communities on the impacts of the corona virus disease and best practices for prevention of infection.  For example, in helping communities harness clean water for use, through roof rainwater harvesting technologies, clean water for handwashing purposes will be available for use in the home.

Timely data acquisition is important.  The Kenyan government should take up the use of early warning systems in the monitoring of high impact risks such as climate change and pandemics.  Use of this data will enable the government to institute measures to combat such high impact crisis more effectively.  Early warning systems allow for time in decision making as well the formulation of response strategies that are region specific and not copy pasted from other regions.  Furthermore, the present economic costs and changes in behaviour should be well documented.

This will enable the modelling of future climate impacts as well as behavioural patterns of people during a pandemic. The resultant effect would be a database of information that can be used to institute country specific measures that are cognizant of the prevailing conditions in Kenya and therefore stand a better chance of being effected by the populace.

Lastly, the government should “improve the wheel” rather than reinventing it.  By using the groundwork already laid for combating the climate change impacts, and the building of community resilience, the government can cut down on response time to vulnerable groups. Research that has been conducted on the socio-economics of vulnerable groups, their location and the attendant challenges can be co-opted in addressing the challenges of containment of coronavirus disease.

In particular, use of community adaptation networks would help in conducting rapid vulnerability assessment tests and respond with targeted measures to build resilience and slow down the spread of the novel coronavirus.  In so doing, there will be the added benefit of addressing both the corona virus disease spread and the climate change impact on communities.

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