Field visit to understand interacting hazards and hazard impact on infrastructure in Kenya and Malawi

Faith Taylor's picture
Dominic Kamlomo from Mzuzu University shows Faith and James the dyke which was built to protect Karonga from flooding

In August of this year, Faith Taylor, James Millington and Bruce Malamud of the KCL Urban ARK consortium visited Kenya and Malawi. The purpose of the trip was to meet local partners working on the Urban ARK project, see some of the study cities (Nairobi, Kenya and Karonga, Malawi) and talk with local stakeholders about how hazards are managed there. In this blog post, Faith, James and Bruce reflect on their trip.

The visit to Nairobi was packed with meetings with local government, planners, NGOs and academics. Time and time again, we heard the same issues with raised around rapid urbanisation in informal settlements resulting in hazardous living conditions for many.

At present around 60% of Nairobi’s population of 4 million people live in these informal settlements, where there is very little access to infrastructure and services. A message that really hit home for us was that due to informal connections to the electricity network, fires are a very common problem  - yet when a fire breaks out, emergency services find it difficult to identify and access the location due to narrow roads and unplanned access routes. On the final day of our visit to Nairobi, we toured many areas of the city and visited some of these informal settlements to see first-hand some of these complex interactions between physical hazards and human systems. 

After 4 days in Nairobi, we travelled to Malawi, where our first stop was a visit to our Urban ARK partners in Mzuzu University. Here, we delivered a workshop on multi-hazards, free spatial data and GIS. It was great to get such detailed local knowledge and feedback on our research from those at Mzuzu University, and really showed the value of working with partnership with local academics on large projects like Urban ARK – hopefully this will be a two-way-street to share expertise and resources. 

We then visited our Malawi study site, which is a small city in the North of Malawi called Karonga. Karonga is rapidly urbanising but also regularly experiences a variety of hazards such as earthquakes, floods, hail, lightning and drought. We met with a variety of local agencies and NGOs working in the area with the aim of identifying how these hazards interact and may trigger other hazards, and how this impacts the infrastructure network of Karonga. Following these meetings, we took some time to tour around Karonga and the surrounding countryside – including an impromptu cross-sectional survey of a dry river channel – an irresistible task for physical geographers!

We took the ‘long way’ home to the airport and stopped off in several small towns along the way which helped us to build a broader picture of what urban life in Malawi is like. Malawi is an incredibly beautiful country – with steep hills and mountains that drop down to the crystal-clear Lake Malawi, which is full of over 1,000 varieties of endemic Cichlid fish.

Certainly, life is hard in Malawi, and issues like access to water, health care and education are never far from thought. However, the somewhat cheesy slogan that Malawi is “the warm heart of Africa” really rung true, as we were made to feel at home wherever we visited.

What was most promising was seeing the number of well-educated Malawians who have chosen to work in education, NGOs and policy with the hope of reducing the impact of disasters in their home country, and the excellent work they are doing, often with limited resources.

We have returned to KCL with lots of ideas and contacts and are excited to start working on these to better understand the impact of interacting hazards on infrastructure networks in urban Africa.