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Population pressure, govt distrust conspire as hundreds lose lives in East Africa floods

While in the past years people have died in floodwaters across the East African region, the numbers this week alone in Rwanda and Uganda are staggering: on May 3, at least 146 people died in the two countries in floodwaters and mudslides caused by repeated violent rains

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River Nyamwamba in the Rwenzori mountains often floods. Experts have stressed the critical urgency of climate adaptation in East Africa’s mountain areas
River Nyamwamba in the Rwenzori mountains often floods, leading to loss of lives and property. Photo credit: Gilbert Mwijuke

In the hilly landscapes of Kisoro district in southwestern Uganda, residents distrusted efforts by the government to relocate them to safer places to avoid catastrophic mudslides that have repeatedly claimed the lives of thousands of Ugandans living in elevated areas in the past years.

With the deep-rooted corruption that characterises Ugandan government officials and the land wrangles that are lately commonplace around the country, Ugandans seem to be unwilling to trust any government move – even in the face of death. 

“The government wanted to relocate us to other places but we cannot leave this land. I think it’s just a conspiracy by some government officials to grab our land because it’s very fertile,” said Moses Tibanyendera, a resident of Koranya village on the slopes of Mount Karisimbi in Kisoro district.

Mount Karisimbi is part of a chain of eight volcanic mountains that straddle Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and volcanic soils are known to be very fertile – a goldmine for most communities in Uganda that depend on agriculture for a livelihood.

Mr Tibanyendera – whose name ironically means “they don’t wish me well” in his native Rufumbira – spoke to Nature Guardian while standing in front of the ruins of his rental house, which was destroyed by catastrophic mudslides that wreaked havoc on Mount Karisimbi in January 2022, leaving in their wake a trail of destroyed houses, farms, forests and at least nine people dead. Five of the victims were Mr Tibanyendera’s tenants.

People like Mr Tibanyendera also have no or limited knowledge of the worsening climate crisis due to lack of adequate sensitisation. As global temperatures continue to rise at an unprecedented pace, experts have warned that extreme weather disasters such as floods can only continue to increase in magnitude and frequency.

While in the past years people have died in floodwaters across the East African region, the numbers this week alone in Rwanda and Uganda are staggering: on May 3, at least 146 people died in the two countries in floodwaters and mudslides caused by repeated violent rains.

Staggering numbers

At least eight of the victims were in Kisoro district, which has the same hilly landscapes as Rwanda. Eight more people died in floodwaters in Rukiga and Rubanda districts, according to government officials.

In Rwanda, more than 5,000 homes were destroyed by the floods while in Uganda dozens of people lost their homes and travellers were stranded due to destroyed bridges and roads.

“My deepest condolences to the families and loved ones of the victims of the landslides and floods that occurred in the western, northern and southern provinces. We are doing everything in our means to address this difficult situation. I’m personally following up on the response closely,” Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame said in a tweet.

Rwanda and Uganda have been experiencing heavy rains since March, which have increased the risk of mudslides in hilly, yet densely-populated areas where the “footprints” of climate change-induced weather disasters have been more acute in recent years.

In the Rwenzori Mountains on Uganda’s border with the DRC, a similar situation played out a few weeks ago when floodwaters sent boulders crushing down the slopes of the mountains in Kasese district.

Cropland and other properties worth millions of Uganda shillings were destroyed and at least one person was confirmed dead. The floodwaters have frequently killed more people in Kasese in the past years.

“People have to leave the mountain slopes for now because the heavy rains will continue until sometime in June. But our government is facing a big challenge because of population pressure. We don’t have enough space to relocate everyone. Also, most people don’t even want to be relocated because of their emotional attachment to their ancestral land,” said Esther Anyakun, Uganda’s state minister for relief, disaster preparedness and refugees.  

That higher than average rainfall is expected until June calls for urgent action to support communities in high risk areas to build resilience and reduce vulnerability, climate justice campaigners say.

“This situation highlights the urgent need to support communities at the frontlines of the climate crisis to adapt to climate impacts, loss and damage finance to compensate communities for the losses resulting from climate impacts they cannot adapt to, and a strong resolve to phase out fossil fuels, which are the primary driver of climate change. A just transition to renewable energy is critical to secure a liveable future for our communities,” said Bujumbura-based Landry Ninteretse, the regional director of 350Africa.org, a global grassroots climate justice advocacy group.

Ms Anyakun told Nature Guardian that the Ugandan government has deployed teams to high risk areas to take care of the situation.

“We expect more disasters, especially in the Mount Elgon region (east of the country), so we have sent teams on the ground to evacuate people before disaster strikes again. We are also putting more efforts in sensitising people about the changing climate,” she said.

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