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Heavy Rain Strains Dams, Causes Flooding in Kenya

A flood alert has been issued for eastern Kenya, as heavy rain threatens to overflow three large dams along the Tana River. Thousands have already been displaced, and the Red Cross is urging residents in affected areas to evacuate as water levels rise.

Just months after a severe drought crippled agricultural production across much of Kenya, an unusually heavy rainy season has produced unexpected bounty for farmers and subsistence communities across the east-African nation.

But the rain has not brought good fortunes for all. The "long rains" in Kenya, upon which farmers depend for prosperity, usually last from the middle of March until the middle of May. This year, it has been raining heavily since January, flooding villages and displacing thousands of families across the nation. The Kenyan Red Cross has recorded 81 deaths since the New Year, due to the floods, and said that 128,000 have been affected.

Though nearing its traditional end, the season shows no sign of abating. In Kenya's capital, Nairobi, torrential downpours are a near daily occurrence, and the Kenya Meteorological Department warns rain will continue this week. The department says areas of western Kenya could expect nearly four inches of rain in the coming days.

The Eastern and Northeastern districts of Kenya are already feeling the effects. Kenya's longest waterway, the Tana River, has swollen to dangerous levels, and is now threatening to overflow three dams along its course.

According to Kenyan authorities, the water level at the Masinga Dam is within one meter of running over, which would push the down-river Kiambere and Gitau Dams past capacity and flood the surrounding areas.

In addition to the destruction, the floods also carry the risk of disease. The standing pools left by the water are potential breeding grounds for illness such as cholera and malaria. According to the Red Cross, displacement shelters and water treatment facilities are being prepared to prevent disease from spreading.

The rain also is creating unexpected challenges. According to the head of the National Disaster Operation Center, Vincent Anami, the high volume of water is causing rivers to change course and flood unexpected areas.

"Right now, I think we are prepared, but the disaster seems to be overwhelming us because it is coming in areas that we least expect," said Anami. "What happens is, during our normal preparedness, we have planned in flood-prone areas. But, the rivers are changing course, and so we are having floods in very unexpected areas." Anami adds, "It has really become a major challenge for us and the country."

Saturday, some residents in Garissa, a city located along the Tana River, were stranded by the rising water and had to be evacuated by the Kenyan Air Force.

The Kenyan Red Cross has urged people living near the river to move to higher ground, and has prepared to receive up to 200,000 people who could be displaced by flooding. Kenyan disaster relief officials are preparing for the worst.