SOLAI, Kenya (Reuters) – A dam burst on a flower farm in Kenya’s Rift Valley after weeks of torrential rain, unleashing a “sea of water” that smashed into two villages and killed at least 32 people, officials and survivors said.
The walls of the Patel dam, situated on a large commercial farm on top of a hill in Nakuru county, 190 km (120 miles) northwest of Nairobi, gave way late on Wednesday as nearby residents were sitting down to evening meals.
The floodwaters swept away powerlines, homes and buildings, including a primary school, a Reuters photographer on the scene said, as rescue workers picked through rubble and mud searching for survivors.
The bodies of two female victims were found several kilometers away. Interior Ministry spokesman Mwenda Njoka put the death toll at 32.
After a severe drought last year, East Africa has been hit by two months of heavy rain, affecting nearly a million people in Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia and Uganda as bridges have been swept away and roads turned into rivers of mud.
In Solai, Veronica Wanjiku Ngigi, 67, said she was at home brewing tea with her son at around 8 pm (1700 GMT) when his wife rushed in to say the dam had burst and they needed to get to higher ground immediately.
“It was a sea of water. My neighbor was killed when the water smashed through the wall of his house. He was blind so he could not run. They found his body in the morning,” she said. “My other neighbors also died. All our houses have been ruined.”
Nakuru lies in the heart of Kenya’s fertile Rift Valley, home to thousands of commercial farms that grow everything from French beans to macadamia nuts to cut flowers, nearly all of which are exported to Europe.
The region is dotted with irrigation reservoirs built in the last two decades to meet the demands of the rapidly expanding agricultural sector, the biggest foreign exchange earner for East Africa’s biggest economy and a major source of jobs.
Nakuru governor Lee Kinyanjui said 450 homes had been hit by the floodwaters and safety engineers had been sent to inspect three other dams nearby.
Wanjiku said at least one looked like it too was ready to burst. “There is another dam which is also overflowing which is looking risky,” she said. “We are scared.”
One primary school had been closed as a precaution, education officials said. Arriving at the scene of the disaster, Interior Minister Fred Matiangi pledged central government assistance to those affected.
Even before this week’s dam-burst, heavy rains had caused havoc in Kenya, killing 132 people and displacing 222,000, according to the government. Roads and bridges have been destroyed, causing millions of dollars of damage.
The United Nations UNOCHA disaster agency said 580,000 people had been affected by torrential rain and flooding in neighboring Somalia, while the Somali region of eastern Ethiopia had taken a hammering, with 160,000 people affected.
UNOCHA said the flooding could get worse, with heavy rains forecast to continue in the Rift Valley and the Lake Victoria basin over the next few weeks.