By Maggie Fick
SOLAI, Kenya, May 11 (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 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 have been reported missing.
The disaster is likely to put a spotlight on regulation of Kenya’s cut-flower industry, which has grown dramatically in the last two decades to become one of the biggest foreign exchange earners in East Africa’s top economy 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 the same property in Solai, 190 km (120 miles) northwest of Nairobi, also lacked the necessary documents.
“None of them have permits. That is why they are illegal,” she said.
Earlier, Vinoj Jayakumar, general manager of the 3,500-acre Solai farm, blamed the collapse of the dam’s earthen walls on torrential rain and denied that it was defective or lacking 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.
As muddy brown water coursed along Solai’s central street, engineers drained water from a second dam nearby to prevent another collapse. Sacks of rice also arrived on lorries to provide for hundreds of families whose livelihoods had been swept away.
In the village health centre, distraught doctor Veronica Achoka recounted the suffering of the community since the floodwaters hit.
“Yesterday was rescue and evacuation all day. The water swept people 10 kilometres 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 with 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, East Africa has been hit by two months of heavy rain that has affected nearly a million people in Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia and Uganda. Bridges have been swept away and roads turned into rivers of mud.
More than 150 people have been killed and 300,000 displaced in Kenya, where roads, bridges and crops have been swept away, causing millions of dollars of damage.
“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 Janet Lawrence)