The 2015-2016 El Niño was one of the strongest on record. Worldwide, more than 60 million people were affected by floods, droughts and other weather extremes linked to the El Niño event. Coastal Kenya experienced intense flooding, including the communities of Vanga (Kwale county), where the SPACES project has worked over the past few years. In April 2016, hundreds of families in Vanga were cut off from the outside by floodwaters, leaving them in dire need of health services, food, clean water and other basic items. Although we don’t know whether this terrible event is directly caused by El Niño, it is typical of the consequences of extreme weather events normally associated with the phenomenon.

The SPACES project has received a supplementary grant to work alongside another ESPA-funded project – CESEA – in identifying how people and ecosystems in southern Kenya have been affected by the recent El Niño event.

El Niño – or, more correctly, the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) – is a periodic climate phenomenon associated with anomalies in sea surface temperatures and climate variability. The UK Met Office explains ENSO in the below video.


El Niño has had major impacts in Kenya in the past. During the 1997-98 episode, more than 300,000 families were directly affected, and total estimated losses for agriculture, transport, communication and water resource sectors amounted to US$915 million. There were also major impacts on coastal ecosystems. These included heavy sedimentation events leading to mangrove death and widespread coral bleaching, with Kenyan corals suffering between 50-80% mortality, making them amongst the most affected in the world.

We have a unique opportunity to build on our SPACES and CESEA data to understand the impacts of El Niño on coastal Kenyan social-ecological systems. This will include monitoring the changes in coral reefs and mangroves by re-surveying sites we assessed for SPACES and CESEA. We will also explore how different communities and households are able to cope with shocks, such as the Vanga flood, and what makes them vulnerable or resilient. It will uncover what preparations – if any – were made in response to the Kenya Government’s earlier warnings about El Niño.