May 11, 2018 / 7:51 AM / 15 days ago

Burst dam at Kenyan rose farm lacked permits, police investigate

SOLAI, Kenya (Reuters) - A dam on a Kenyan commercial farm that burst this week, killing at least 45 people, was built illegally, the water resource regulator said on Friday, as police opened an initial investigation into the disaster.

The minister in charge of water also ordered other dams on the property to be drained immediately.

The earthen dam on the farm, which grew roses for export to Europe, burst on Wednesday night after heavy rains, sending a wall of water roaring down a hillside and obliterating everything in its path. Another 40 people are reported missing.

The disaster is likely to put a spotlight on the regulation of Kenya’s cut-flower industry, which has grown dramatically in the last two decades to become one of its biggest foreign exchange earners and a major source of jobs.

One in three of all roses sold in Europe comes from Kenya and more than 100,000 people work in flower farms, many of which lie in the fertile Rift Valley.

Elizabeth Luvonga, a spokeswoman for the Water Resources Management Authority, which oversees private dams, said other reservoirs on Patel’s Farm in Solai, 190 km (120 miles) northwest of Nairobi, also lacked the necessary documents and were illegal.

Water and Sanitation Minister Simon Chelugui said the burst dam and others on the property did not meet regulations, and that the Water Resources Authority had been pursuing the owner to make them compliant. He ordered all the others to be drained as a precaution.

Chelugui added that a team would inspect dams countrywide.

Vinoj Jayakumar, general manager of the 3,500-acre farm, blamed the collapse on torrential rain and denied that the dam had been defective or lacked the necessary approvals.

“How can they say it is illegal?” he told Reuters. “It was not built today or yesterday. It was built 20 years back.”

Amid domestic reports that the dam had not passed government engineering checks, the chief prosecutor ordered police to open an immediate investigation and report back within a fortnight.

Military officers prepare to drain water from an adjacent dam after another dam burst its walls, overrunning nearby homes, in Solai town near Nakuru, Kenya May 11, 2018. REUTERS/Jackson Njehia

SAVED BY TREE

Sacks of rice arrived on lorries on Friday to provide for hundreds of families whose livelihoods had been swept away.

In the village health center, distraught doctor Veronica Achoka recounted the suffering of the community.

“Yesterday was rescue and evacuation all day. The water swept people 10 km downhill. Many bodies were found that far away. There’s so much property destruction,” she said.

At the hospital in the nearby town of Bahati, dozens were being treated for injuries ranging from fractures to internal bleeding, she said.

Further away in the provincial town of Nakuru, Isaac Mwaniki had to identify his wife at the mortuary.

“I think the water’s force and soil is what got her,” he said. Rescuers managed to save his daughter after the water subsided. “She had hung onto a tree and was tired but, thank God, she is okay,” Mwaniki said.

After a severe drought last year, two months of heavy rain have affected nearly a million people in Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia and Uganda. Bridges have been swept away and roads turned into rivers of mud.

Military officers drain water from an adjacent dam after another dam burst its walls, overrunning nearby homes, in Solai town near Nakuru, Kenya May 11, 2018. REUTERS/Jackson Njehia

More than 150 people have been killed and 300,000 displaced in Kenya, where the damage runs into millions of dollars.

“We all breathed a sigh of relief when the rainy season started strong in early March,” said Lane Bunkers of Catholic Relief Services. “But now - two months later - we are seeing the consequences of the drought-ravaged land’s inability to absorb all the rain.”

Reporting by Duncan Miriri, Humphrey Malalo, Jackson Njehia and Maggie Fick; Writing by Duncan Miriri; Editing by Ed Cropley and Kevin Liffey

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