By Joseph Were
The day the mountain Moved
One survivor said it sounded like a bomb explosion. Another said the mud moved so fast that victims had no chance to escape. One man was in a church praying when he saw the mountain of rocks, debris, and mud pummeling downhill. The rocks were the size of a bus.
‘Everyone was running from the church,’ one of the survivors told journalists from his hospital bed in Bududa where he was being treated for a fractured arm.
Fangiline Nandutu, 60, saw the water gushing for the house and tried to warn her husband and son.
‘Let’s run,’ she told them. The two did not believe they were in any danger and refused to leave their home. They died. Nandutu survived because she grabbed her two grandchildren and ran.
Nabude said he was at his shop when he saw the mud sliding down the mountain and heading in his direction and instinctively suspected a landslide. He survived with his family. But his shop did not. It was buried under the sheet of mud dragged downhill by the angry water and exploding rocks.
Landslides are nothing new or unusual in Bududa. But never before has the death toll or damage been this high.
At least 90 people had been confirmed dead by Monday, March 8 and 300 were still unaccounted for. Over 5,000 homes were destroyed in three villages of Nametsi, Kubehwo, and Namashet in Manjiya County, Bududa District. Acres of crops, goats, cattle and chickens were buried under the sea of thick soil.
Bududa is a new district carved out of the original Mbale district. It lies on the slopes of Mt. Elgon on the Uganda-Kenya border. Elgon is the fourth highest mountain in Eastern Africa and an extinct volcano which erupted more than 24 million years ago.
Landslides and mass movements have occurred in Manjiya County for a long time. However, the intensity has increased over the last 40 years according to experts.
Bududa district lies at an average of 1800m above sea level on the slopes of Mt. Elgon in Eastern Uganda. Its topography is characterised by stand-alone volcanic cones, interlocking spurs v-shaped valleys and ridges-both gently undulating and rugged.
The mudslide occurred when excess water collected at the top of one of the cones, putting pressure on unstable earth and rocks below. The collapsing slope sped downhill at a speed of up to 77kmph (35mph, the same as a speeding bus.
Generally, landslides occur when masses of rocks, earth, and debris move down a slope. Mudslides are different. They are fast-moving landslides that move in a channel and carry debris as happened in Bududa.
Landslides do not occur only during heavy rains. They can occur during the dry season, volcanic eruption, or earthquake. But mudslides occur only when water rapidly accumulates in the ground and cause water-saturated rock, earth, and debris to surge.
Mudslides and landslides occur mainly where human activity has destroyed the vegetation on the slopes of hills and mountains.
President Yoweri Museveni, who visited the area, blamed the villagers for destroying the forest cover on the slopes and ordered them to be evacuated. The Minister of Disaster Preparedness, Musa Ecweru, told the BBC that up to 500,000 people are to be evacuated; 300,000 from the Mbale area and 200,000 from the Rwenzori mountain area.
But the minister of Northern Uganda Rehabilitation, David Wakikona, said an estimated 4,000 people in the affected villages of Nametsi and its environs are to be relocated immediately and another 15,000 in danger will also need evacuation until the level of threat subsides.
However, attempts to relocate people from Bugisu are not new.
In April 2006, President Museveni met a delegation of the Mt Elgon NRM Taskforce at State House. The group had campaigned for him in the presidential election of February 23, 2006. The president told them that he would address the issue of people who are being harassed to leave forests of Mt. Elgon.
But in a major shift, Museveni later ordered all encroachers on national forest reserves and wildlife conservation areas to vacate to allow wildlife multiply. The President made the order in a speech read by the Minister for Information and National Guidance Kirunda Kivejinja, to guests and dignitaries at the official opening of Wangkwar and Chobe, the northern gateway into Murchison Falls National Park mid 2006. He said the encroachment began as a result of misinterpretation of the speech he made earlier this (or that?) year, which the encroachers thought he had allowed them to carry on around the conservation areas.
In Jan. 2007, Mt Elgon Park warden, Johnson Masereka warned that up to 2,445 hectares of the park had been encroached on by up to 127 families. Up to 15.1 square km have been encroached on in Sironko district, 6.02 square km in Mbale district and 5.12 square km in Bududa district had been encroached on.
In a press statement, the UWA Executive Director, Moses Mapesa, said the affected part represents 3.5% of the Mt Elgon fragile national park ecosystem.
‘The President’s directive to stop evictions from forest reserves was misapprehended as allowing fresh encroachment in Mt Elgon under the alleged reason that these people had earlier been evicted,’ Mapesa’s statement said.
The park is a water catchment source for the low land areas of Teso, Tororo, Pallisa, Busoga, Busia and parts of Kenya.
In May 2008 the so-called encroachers camped at Parliament in a bid to force the government to allocate them land. Among them were the minority Benet community. Others came from Mbale, Sironko, Bukwo and Kapchorwa districts and were being evicted by the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) from the land which surrounds the Mt Elgon National Park.
In 1983 the government provided 6,000 hectares of land to the landless Benet community but the leaders involved in allocating the land instead gave big chunks of it to their relatives. Many fear the current land allocation could suffer the same fate.
Bududa was carved out of Mbale two years ago. Before that, according to the 2002 Uganda Population and Housing Census, Mbale had the fourth highest concentration of people living on one square kilometre of land. Mbale had 534 people per square km, Kampala 725, Jinja 587 and Wakiso 545. It has a population of 148,329 according to the district census report 2006.
Current reports estimate that on average 1,059 people live in every kilometre in Bududa compared to the national average of 161 persons. There is, therefore, very high competition for land and physical fights and litigation are common.
Apart from the minor household level disputes, large scale wrangles have erupted between the Bagisu and Sabiny communities in Bunambutye sub-county, Sironko district.
They have sucked in top political leaders from both tribes and the 3rd Deputy Prime Minister, Kirunda Kivejinja who has set up an inquiry team.
Kivejinja in late December 2009 reportedly told a village meeting at Bunambutye sub-county headquarters that preliminary findings indicated that people, some of them ministers and MPs from Bugisu and Kapchorwa, had obtained signatures, leased the land and fraudulently acquired titles for it. The minister for the presidency, Beatrice Wabudeya, disputed Kivejinja’s claims.
On another front, there are similar clashes between the Bagwere and the Bagisu over the control of Namatala wetland that borders Mbale and Budaka districts. Six people had been killed by Jan. 16 and rice, cassava and banana plantations destroyed.
By March 8, the rain continued to pound the area adding to the misery of survivors who are still without adequate shelter, warm clothes, or food.
Bududa is used to rain that pounds the area for days. But the recent downpour is proving unusual. Its annual rainfall ranges between 2000 mm and 3000 mm and it is characterised by two peaks in April and September.
According to metrological reports, there has been an increase of rainfall amounts all over Uganda since October 2009. Uncharacteristically, even the Christmas period which is usually the hottest this time recorded the coldest days of the year.
The heavy rains have had strong winds and caused landslides in mountainous areas like Kabale. In Kabarole District and Kasese in western Uganda, bridges were swept away by the torrential rains.
March to April constitutes the first major rainfall season in Uganda. The El NiÃ±o conditions have made it heavier this year. Bududa is in the Eastern Central weather region which also has Mbale, Sironko, Pallisa, Kapchorwa, Kumi, Kaberamaido, and Soroti districts.
According to weather reports, showers and thunderstorms in this region are only expected to relax around mid April but steady rain will peak around late-April and early May and end around early to mid June.
The harsh weather has battered the whole East Africa region. In Kenya six people were killed and dozens reported missing after flash floods in the same week as the Bududa mudslide.
In Tanzania, floods left 28,000 people homeless in December 2009 and January and the railroad linking the commercial capital Dar es Salaam and the countryside was washed away.
In the same week, thousands of livestock, including 5,000 goats, were killed after heavy rains pounded Somalia’s northern breakaway region of Somaliland.
Scientists have no instruments to predict them, but have suggested networks of sensor columns on hills with landslide potential with the purpose of detecting the early signals preceding a catastrophic event.
However, casual observation shows that other areas around the Bududa tragedy scene remain under immediate threat and susceptibility to landslides, while low lying areas like Butaleja district in the path of the main river in the area, Manafa, face flooding.
The Bududa disaster has affected agriculture and food security, disrupted transport and communication infrastructure, strained disaster management capacity, and resulted in water-borne diseases such as malaria, cholera and typhoid.
People are being advised to pay closer attention to weather reports, adopt appropriate economic activity and land use, avoid flood-prone, and take appropriate avoidance and mitigation measures.
However, the ministry of Disaster Preparedness has a history of fumbling during crisis. In 2007 it was criticised for slow reaction during floods that killed up to 49 people and displaced 400,000 in Teso.
Minister of Disaster Preparedness, Tarsis Kabwegyere caused a stir in July last year when he said there ‘was no crisis’ after up to 35 people were reported to have died due to starvation in West Nile and Teso. He blamed the reports on opposition politicians.
Earlier, the minister had been accused of supplying sub-standard equipment and planting materials to northern Uganda farmers. He again blamed opposition politicians for spreading falsehoods.
Part of the problem is that the Disaster ministry is poorly funded. In the Financial Year 2009/10 its projected expenditure is just Shs 9.8 billion. Its budget is part of the Shs 144 billion budget of the Prime Minister’s office. By contrast, the ministry of Transport is getting Shs 1.3 trillion, Education Shs 1.2 trillion, Energy Shs 845 billion and Health Shs 745 billion. However, the way the Disaster ministry is managed has also been criticised. Uganda appears to have no disaster response plan. Even the capital Kampala is poorly prepared to respond to a major disaster, be it natural or man-made. A survey conducted by The Independent across Kampala, to ascertain what the city has in terms of disaster relief and rescue equipment, revealed 25 private and public mini and referral hospitals in Kampala with 41 ambulances, two police choppers, one army chopper, four fire engines in Kampala and one each in Jinja, Masaka, Mbarara, Mbale, and Tororo.
Soon after an earthquake struck Haiti in early January, The Independent asked Kabwegyere what his ministry would have done if Kampala was struck.
‘Did you see the area around the epicenter? Such earth movements cannot be stopped,’ he replied resignedly. The Disaster minister was expected to be among the first government officials on the scene of the Bududa tragedy. He was not.
Major landslides, mudslides in the world since 2009
March 2, 2010
Landslides killed at least 90 people in eastern Uganda, leaving 300 unaccounted for.
Jan. 1, 2010
Mudslides killed at least 15 people on the Brazilian island of Ilha Grande.
Nov. 9, 2009
Mudslides and floods killed 130 people in El Salvador.
Oct. 9, 2009
Landslides killed at least 43 people and left 150 others missing in the Philippines.
Oct. 6, 2009
Landslides and mudslides killed at least 23 people in Nepal.
Oct. 2, 2009
Landslides and floods killed at least 20 people and left 35 missing in Italy.
Mudslides killed at least 129 people and left more than 300 others missing in China’s Taiwan province.
Aug. 8, 2009
Mudslides killed at least 30 people and left 50 others missing in India.
July 5, 2009
Mudslides and floods killed at least 16 people and left 15 others missing in Vietnam.
June 12, 2009
Mudslides killed at least 19 people in Cote d’Ivoire.
May 19, 2009
Landslides killed at least 26 people and left 19 others missing in the Philippines.
April 16, 2009
Landslides killed at least 16 people in Kyrgyzstan.