Kenyan troops and emergency workers picked through mud and debris on Friday in search of some 40 people still missing after a dam burst its banks, sending muddy waters raging through homes and killing 45 people.
Kenya’s top prosecutor has ordered a probe into the collapse of the dam on Wednesday night, as questions mount over the quality of construction of the private reservoir on a vast farming estate.
A portion of the earthen wall of the dam collapsed, sending millions of litres of water coursing down a muddy slope, engulfing nearby settlements and destroying power lines over a stretch of some 10 kilometres (6 miles).
“The number of people dead from this tragedy is 45 after the recovery of the body of a teenage boy,” on Friday, said Rift Valley Regional Coordinator Mwongo Chimwanga.
Earlier Nakuru county governor Lee Kinyanjui said around 40 people were still reported missing and that at least one other local dam had “to be discharged to avoid disaster”.
Weeks of heavy rains have caused flooding and mudslides across the country that have left 175 dead, with no sign of a let-up in the deluge.
The search and rescue operation, involving emergency services as well as volunteers digging through the mud by hand, was disrupted by further heavy rainfall on Thursday and resumed on Friday morning.
The dam is situated on an area of about eight acres (three hectares), according to Water Resource Management Authority boss Simon Wang’ombe, with a capacity of 200,000 cubic meters (200 million litres).
Residents told AFP they had long been concerned about cracks in the dam, situated on Patel Coffee Estates, where coffee, macadamia nuts, flowers and other crops are grown.
“Every time it rained, some water could discharge from the dam down to the lake passing through the homes and farms but it was not a lot and it came through the side cracks,” said one resident Moses Mwangi.
– ‘Hell on earth’ –
Many of the houses affected by the disaster were rickety structures made of wood and tin that stood little chance against the raging floodwater.
The torrent hit while people were in their homes, or sleeping, with one survivor describing it as “hell on earth”.
“During the floods I managed to rescue my two sons, their mother was swept away by the floods along with two girls. After the flood had subsided, we managed to rescue my wife alive with injuries but we found the girls dead,” said another survivor, who identified himself only as Josphat.
Another victim, Philip Koech, told AFP he lost his home and all his livestock.
“I was coming back from work when I got home I heard the thundering … I thought it was rain,” he said, adding he and his family and managed to seek shelter in a nearby building from the raging floodwaters.
The Kenyan Red Cross estimates that up to 500 families were affected by the disaster.
On Friday morning Kenya’s chief prosecutor Noordin Haji ordered the opening of a police investigation into the tragedy “to establish cause and culpability”.
Government statistics released this week showed that more than 220,000 people have been displaced by flooding as heavy rains hit the country after three consecutive failed rainy seasons had left it in drought.
Since March, at least 21,000 acres (8,500 hectares) of farmland have been submerged in water with an estimated 20,000 animals killed, the Red Cross said last week.
The floods have also destroyed road networks in some parts of the East African country.