Home Climate Change Threat of fresh landslides looms large in Uganda’s Mount Elgon region

Threat of fresh landslides looms large in Uganda’s Mount Elgon region

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Residents of Bududa stand near River Sume, eastern Uganda. They live in perpetual fear that mudslides could strike anytime. Photo by Gilbert Mwijuke

Fresh cracks on the banks of River Sume in Bududa district in Uganda’s Mount Elgon region have caused panic as residents fear that landslides may wreak havoc again as heavy rains increase in frequency.

The Mount Elgon region, which is located on the border with Kenya, is no stranger to extreme weather disasters, but it’s the terrain in the Bududa area that has borne the brunt of escalating extreme weather events in the past two decades.  

“There are many cracks that have developed along this river in the past days and it’s very scary for us. We are now living in perpetual fear that mudslides could strike anytime from now because that’s how they usually start,” said Peter Tsatsoni, a 79-year-old resident of the area who has survived a string of landslides that have rocked his home area in the recent past.

Over the past two decades, Bududa has suffered a spate of catastrophic landslides that have left in their wake a devastating trail of hundreds of people dead, thousands displaced, and millions of shillings lost in destroyed property.  

“We are now surviving on God’s mercy,” said Michael Namutambo, another resident of the area. “Nowadays most people who live near this river take refuge to other areas whenever it’s about to start raining.”

Mr Namutambo said that residents of the area have reported the latest eminent danger of more landslides to government authorities “several times” but no action has been taken, leaving the more than 1,000 residents of the villages through which River Sume meanders at risk.

No more funds

For the part of the government, Hillary Onek, Uganda’s State Minister for Disaster Preparedness and Refugees, said that there is nothing his ministry can do now because “we have run out of funds”.

“The only advice we can give them now is that they should move away to avoid danger,” he said.

In the recent past, the Ugandan government has relocated some Bududa residents to safer places such as neighbouring Bulambuli, Nakapiripirit and Kiryandongo districts.

Patrick Macheme, 60, is one of the 280 families that were lucky to be relocated to Bulambuli district where the government built for them free houses about three years ago.   

“We now feel safe in Bulambuli and only come back to this place to take care of our farms,” said Macheme, who owns two acres of Arabica coffee near the Sume River.

But as the likes of Macheme revel in the safety of Bulambuli, the majority of the natives still live in the area – and they are living on tension as the threat of more landslides continues to loom large.

“The government has relocated only about 30 per cent of the residents of this area to other areas and yet many of us wish to be relocated as well. The threat of more landslides is now real,” said John Namwonso, 39.

Mr Namwonso suggested that if the government has halted the relocation programme, “They should at least set up for us an early warning system up in the hills to prevent another catastrophic disaster,” he said.

According to Mr Namutambo, the threat of landslides is now high because this hilly terrain usually receives heavy rains during the months of April to November. As the ground gets saturated, he said, the soils and rocks become shaky and can easily be washed downhill once it rains heavily. 

And while landslides are most common whenever it rains heavily, Mr Namutambo says they can occur at any time of the year even when the area is receiving moderate precipitation.

But even as eminent as the danger of more mudslides in the area is, not every resident here wishes to be relocated.

Twenty-four-year-old Fridah Nalulunya, for instance, had relocated from this area but decided to return because, according to her, her midwifery career thrives in this area.

“Besides,” she says, “it’s God who protects us. You can die from anywhere in the world.”

It’s the “stubbornness” of people like Ms Nalulunya, Mr Onek says, “that is making our work challenging.”

Self-inflicted?

Hillary Onek says that Bududa residents’ problems are self-inflicted, arguing that irresponsible use of the land by residents is mainly to blame for the current spate of landslides in the area.  

Over the years, many people in Bududa have erected buildings on steeper slopes and also cut down trees to clear the land for farming, which, according to Mr Onek, are the main causes of the landslides.

“By cutting down the trees that hold the soil together, the ground begins to develop cracks and the next obvious thing is mudslides,” he said.

Past landslides

Catastrophic landslides in Bududa began in 2010 when River Sume first burst its banks, leaving more than 100 people dead and thousands displaced. The mudslides struck again in 2018, killing over 40 people and displacing more than 1,000 others.  

A year later, more than 30 lives were lost and several farms were destroyed when torrent waters and boulders ferociously crashed down the hills again. Since then, more landslides have occurred here, but the 2010 and 2018 mudslides remain the most catastrophic on record.

The most recent event took place just recently in October 2021 and displaced more than 3,000 people – but no deaths were recorded.

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