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UNHCR workers head for high ground as flood waters rise in Kenya camps

UNHCR workers head for high ground as flood waters rise in Kenya camps

UNHCR staff move to higher ground as flood waters rise in north-east Kenya camps. The UN refugee agency, meanwhile, plans to begin airlifting plastic sheets and health kits this weekend to tens of thousands of mainly Somalian refugees cut off for days by the floods
17 November 2006
Refugees stand in the floodwaters at Ifo camp while waiting for food to be distributed.

DADAAB, Kenya, November 17 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency on Friday withdrew all its staff to higher ground after water levels again began to rise in flooded camps housing tens of thousands of mainly Somalian refugees.

UNHCR workers had earlier in the day distributed emergency supplies in the Ifo and Dagahaley camps near Dadaab, whose three camps house some 160,000 refugees. Most are Somalis who have fled fighting in their country, including some 32,000 who have sought safety in Kenya this year alone.

Heavy rains last week caused floods that displaced some 78,000 people in two of the camps, while the road linking Dadaab to Nairobi was cut by the floodwaters. It was not known if the rising waters would affect UNHCR plans, announced on Friday, to begin airlifting supplies to Dadaab at the weekend.

On Friday morning, UNHCR staff reached the camps and distributed supplies from existing stocks at Dadaab - including plastic sheets, sleeping mats and other items - to the neediest refugees.

"The level of water this morning was appreciably higher than earlier in the week," one of the UNHCR workers said, adding: "The water level continued to rise and then rose very quickly." The cause, he said, might be linked to the opening of floodgates - on presidential orders - of a large dam upstream of the camps.

The order was given to move to higher ground and all UNHCR staff reached Dadaab safely despite difficulties on flooded roads. UNHCR protection staff said some of the women refugees in Ifo approached them and asked to be permanently relocated.

UNHCR's field team also reported that four trucks carrying evacuated refugees from a border transit centre made it safely to Dadaab and would proceed to Hagadera camp, which is reportedly flooding in parts for the first time.

Meanwhile, UNHCR plans to fly emergency supplies to Dadaab from Nairobi on Sunday. A chartered twin-engine de Havilland C-8 Buffalo cargo aircraft will make three flights to deliver 2,500 plastic sheets, emergency health kits and 7.2 tonnes of fuel.

Sunday's initial delivery of supplies is critical since there is a desperate need for plastic sheets to help refugees reconstruct their shelters, according to senior UNHCR officials in Nairobi and Dadaab. If roads in the region remain impassable, UNHCR expects to mount further flights next week.

The sick and elderly were to be given priority in Friday's distribution, targeting up to 4,000 people at Ifo and Dagahaley camps. It was not clear if everyone received the aid before the evacuation order came. UNHCR also agreed to help Kenyans living around the refugee camps.

UNHCR staff have been using a mechanical digger to reinforce the dykes surrounding Dagahaley camp, while the UN World Food Programme is providing 20,000 sandbags to protect hospitals and clinics in Ifo and Dagahaley.

Health workers report that diarrhoea cases are on the rise, but remain within acceptable limits. Ifo camp's hospital has been badly damaged by the floods, necessitating moving some patients into less affected parts of the facility.

Food rations were being distributed to refugees in both camps on Thursday and Friday. Aid agencies have enough food stockpiled in Dadaab to last until the end of the year.

In a related development, UNHCR announced on Friday that the German government had pledged to contribute 500,000 euros towards helping the new influx of Somali refugees to north-east Kenya.