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From fast to slow risks: Shifting vulnerabilities of flood-related migration in Lodwar, Kenya


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Figure 1. The dry riverbed of the Kawalasee river, Lodwar.

As I walked under the scorching sun on the dry riverbed in semi-arid Lodwar, a small town in the Turkana region of Northern Kenya, I could see women and children slowly scooping water from wells dug into the dry riverbed. And yet, during the rainy season, this currently dry river would become powerful enough to flood the town. The banks appeared eroded, and it was clear that some of the houses near the river would be in danger of being destroyed. 


Flood-related migration is a common adaptive strategy in Turkana, particularly Lodwar, the region’s capital, which is located between two rivers. However, migrating or staying are complex processes for the poor and it is thus important to understand how, why, and with whom people negotiate their decision to move or to stay. What kind of risks are evaluated by people exposed to floods and institutions managing the hazard? And finally, how are various vulnerabilities and inequalities reproduced or challenged?


Many of the respondents in Lodwar are frequently unable to afford two meals per day. People typically make a living from casual opportunistic jobs in town, micro-entrepreneurship, some farming and small-scale pastoralism. Many of them are pastoral nomads who migrated to Lodwar from rural or remote areas, driven by ethnic or political violence, droughts, and family conflicts. 


Flood risks and related vulnerabilities are apparent. However, what is not obvious and often not considered is: in adaptation to floods, what other risks and vulnerabilities become imminent? 


Three processes in the last five years have been developing around the discourse of migration. 

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In November 2020, extreme rainfall filled the Turkwel Hydroelectric Power Station (located more than 200 km south of Lodwar on the Turkwel river gorge) up to a historical high of 92%. The dam was predicted to flood, displacing 300,000 people, according to the Water Resource Authority (WRA) of Kenya Chief Executive. The WRA urged people to move to higher grounds. Plans to secure water were made. Many people resisted, fearing the difficulties of moving to a new place and being unable to secure income. Fortunately, the overspill-related flooding did not occur. 


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Figure 2. National news on the Turkwel Gorge Dam and its potential spillage.


In addition to the threat of catastrophic flooding from an overflow of the Turkwel Dam, periodic destructive floods (e.g. in 2016, 2019 and 2020) have been pushing households to relocate to safer grounds. Sometimes relocation is fully supported financially by INGOs (although many respondents perceived the process to be unfair, corrupted and entangled in the local systems of nepotism and exclusion), partially funded by another organisation (e.g. a church), or by one’s own means. One of the places of relocation is Lokaparparae, on the other bank of the river, far from places of business, or places where community members find occasional jobs, water, electricity, and acceptable schools. When people relocate, they need to rethink their daily lives and income and adjust to time-consuming water collection (half an hour to the river well for scooping), mostly done by women. Most of the women who relocate are not able to continue with their usual income source. Though water tanks have been secured by the government, water has not been provided for months. 

Thirdly, the river’s floods and diversion processes have been particularly endangering one densely populated yet poor locality, Napetet. To protect it, the government has initiated a river diversion by building a channel through a sparsely populated small community called Natambusio on the opposite bank and suggesting that they should relocate if needed. Natambusio residents have fiercely opposed this through demonstrations, but have been losing the power struggle against the more populated, politically connected and influential community. After being silenced and threatened, residents of Natambusio have decided upon a strategy to wait, experience floods and prove the destruction of the community, expecting the government to witness and take responsibility for the destruction.

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Figure 3. Diverting the river.

These cases share common features. The power negotiations of migration have been shifting vulnerabilities through responsibilisation within the struggles for environmental resources. The concept of responsibilisation emerged from Michel Foucault’s ideas on governmentality and implies linkages between governing, subjectification and responsibility-taking, as well as the transfer of responsibilities (but not power) to people who are expected to resolve socially produced risks themselves. With the aim of adaptation, people have been pushed from immediate and spectacular flood-related risks to slow and incremental risks occurring through difficulties to secure living, water or chances to equalise income generation by men and women within the house. In cases 1 and 3, communities have been responsibilised; forced to adapt to flooding through migration that they cannot afford due to financial and environmental constraints. 


While vulnerabilities shift at the community levels in cases 1 and 3, in the second case the shift happens within the household, and thus is more nuanced and subtle. Responsibilisation falls specifically on women to secure vital resources such as water for the family or access to markets. While everyone bears new risks with relocation, women experience environmental difficulties embedded in gender roles: access to water infrastructure and reduced ability to earn their own income. In the evaluation of risks within the household (income, floods, infrastructure, education, etc.), gender justice has been traded for other crucial necessities. Occasionally, risks are distributed, and families agree to split: women, children and the elderly migrate while men take the main income-earner roles in the town centre. In any decision, gender roles become reinforced and less flexible. For some, a transfer of vulnerability is impossible; for example, single mothers cannot share water collection duties and income generation activities, and thus they choose not to relocate and to face the risks of floods. 

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Figure 4. Emptiness, heat and lack of water in the area where people are meant to relocate.


How does agency manifest in the negotiations of power and migration? Vulnerability is dynamic, as Stephen Devereux, Bob Baulch, Ian Macauslan, Alexander Phiri and Rachel Sabates-Wheeler note, and complex. Vulnerable people are excluded from power though not powerless, as they can have political agency and act in the middle region between passiveness and activity, according to Judith Butler. The nuanced responses of people at risk of floods can be understood through the conceptualisation of agency by Cindi Katz: acts of reworking, resistance, and resilience as they refuse to fully comply and insist on considering slowly unfolding risks. They resist by demonstrating or refusing to migrate, reworking their expectations and becoming resilient to the difficulties of living in the new location. However, these processes are poorly supported by resources, access to information and infrastructure. Thus, people’s response balances free choice and having no other choice. As a result, responsibilisation approaches continue to deepen socio-economic inequalities and jeopardise people’s pathways out of poverty. 

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Marina Korzenevica

Dr Korzenevica has explored issues of migration and mobility since 2013, at first researching how young men and women negotiate their life chances via migration, and how they contribute to transformations of the socio-political space of their communities in eastern Nepal. Since 2019 Dr Korzenevica has conducted work in Turkana (Kenya) on the issues of flood-related environmental justice with a particular focus on flood-triggered processes of migration. Dr Korzenevica was previously affiliated with Copenhagen University and she is currently a part of the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO)-funded project REACH: Improving water security for the poor at the University of Oxford, School of Geography and Environment.

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