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Caught off-guard by floods

What keeps Ugandans unprepared for the next disaster?

Kampala, Uganda | RONALD MUSOKE | The eastern mountainous sub-region of Bugisu-Sebei is used to receiving more rainfall than most parts of Uganda. And the people there are used to seeing their homes, roads and gardens ruined as the rains batter the windward side of this dormant volcanic mountain.

The latest episode happened on the night of July 30 when torrential rains pounded Mbale City and the surrounding districts. In Mbale, four rivers including Nabuyonga, Namatala, Nashibiso and Napwoli burst their banks and flooded homes, schools, health centres, hotels, the industrial park and other public works.

Apollo Mwenyi Wepukhulu, an elderly pastor at one of the local churches in Mbale told The Independent that he had never witnessed so much water in his life. Wepukhulu who also doubles as the executive director of Mbale Coalition Against Poverty (MCAP), a community based organization, told The Independent that he knows at least five members of his church who lived near River Nabuyonga who were swept away by the raging deluge on the fateful night.

He blames both climate change and government negligence for the loss of human life and property. “The relentless rains we are experiencing now are abnormal,” he told The Independent on Sept.15. Wepukhulu said the four rivers have for many years been carrying far less water.

“I think it is a combination of climate change and poor planning,” he said, “There are clear regulations in regards to inhabiting areas which are near rivers, lakes, wetlands and mountainous areas.”

While giving the first comprehensive official account at a press conference on Aug.2, Hillary Onek, the Minister of Relief, Disaster Preparedness and Refugees said the Mbale floods swept away 14 bridges and displaced over 5000 people in Mbale city alone.

Thousands more people were affected in the neighbouring districts of Kapchorwa, Bulambuli, Manafwa, Sironko and Namisindwa. The run-off water also destroyed vast farmlands of cereals, vegetables, banana plantations, tomatoes, onions, coffee, rice and cabbage. The government put the destroyed acreage of cropland at 5000 acres.

But as the government was coming to terms with the July 30 flooding in the Elgon region, about 40 days later, on Sept.7, close to 15 people were killed by landslides triggered by torrential rains in Kasese District, near the Rwenzori Mountains, which is also prone to landslides during the rainy season.

 Drought and floods

Following prolonged drought across Uganda, heavy rains have hit much of Uganda since late July causing deaths of people and livestock and destruction of crops, homes and infrastructure.

The death of people, although still insignificant in number, is beginning to worry environmental and disaster risk reduction experts. Some of the experts The Independent has talked to for this story say disaster loss and damage is on the rise in Uganda with grave consequences for the survival, dignity and livelihood of Ugandans, particularly the poor.

They add that the disasters which are increasing in both frequency and intensity are beginning to erode the country’s hard-won development gains.

According to the International Displacement Monitoring Centre, Uganda has the highest number of internally displaced persons due to natural disasters. In 2019, that number was 95,000. Following the 2010 landslide in Bududa District which left 365 people dead and close to 10,000 displaced, the government acted and tried to relocate some 600 people to government owned land in Kiryandongo District in the mid-western part of the country.

Still, disaster preparedness and response remains a challenge for the government despite numerous interventions to increase the level of awareness and equip emergency response teams.

Shaban Mawanda, the Policy and Resilience Advisor at the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, a humanitarian movement which supports the Red Cross and Red Crescent and its partners in reducing the impacts of extreme weather events told The Independent that the severity of the current natural disaster-related episodes can be attributed to climate change.

“Where we used to experience one extreme weather event every three years, now they are appearing more frequently and with more intensity,” he said.

However, Henry Bazira, the executive director of the Water Governance Institute, a Kampala-based civil society organization that advocates for the sustainable management of water and associated natural resources told The Independent that climate change is not entirely responsible for what is happening in Uganda. He says, by default, floods are bound to happen and so Ugandans must learn to cope or be sensitive to their changing environment.

According to the Disaster Risk Profile for Uganda prepared by the World Bank’s Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery, water scarcity and floods continue to pose the most significant and recurring risks, plus landslides, earthquakes and volcanic hazards.

“Future changes in Uganda’s population and economy, coupled with changes in climate-related hazards, are expected to increase the impacts or droughts and floods,” the profile notes in part.

Since 2011, the DesInventar database of disaster impacts reports on over 1,000 flood events. In that time, flooding has caused at least 480 deaths, damaged 50,000 hectares of crops and indirectly affected over four million people. The number of people directly affected is not well known but on average, at least 20,000 people have been relocated or evacuated each year since 2001.

It is expected that on average each year, 50,000 people will be affected by flooding. In addition, each year, flooding is expected to affect 40 education and health facilities and 40km of transport infrastructure. With climate change and increased population, these numbers will very likely increase in the coming decades.

The highest landslide hazard in Uganda exists in the Rwenzori Mountains of the southwest and along the eastern border with Kenya, around Mountain Elgon and in various areas of the northeastern border. These areas coincide with some of the highest population densities in Uganda except for Kampala, the World Bank disaster profile notes.

Landslides

Uganda’s highlands have also become susceptible to various types and sizes of landslide due to their variable topography and geology. Prolonged low intensity rainfall is the primary trigger of landslides but deforestation and cultivation of slopes is a destabilizing factor.

A devastating landslide on the slopes of Mountain Elgon in 2010 demonstrates the scale of landslide hazard in these mountainous areas. That single event killed over 350 people and prompted calls for relocation of up to 500,000 people.

According to the DesInventar database of disaster impacts, there have been over 1,500 fatalities in Uganda due to landslides, since the year 2000. The districts at most risk in terms of affected population are those in the Rwenzori Mountains and Mt. Elgon regions.  The 2020 Annual State of Disaster Report noted that by December 2020, natural disasters had caused Uganda an economic loss of Shs 563,239,697 (US$152.2 million) in FY 2019/2020.

According to the report, the loss was distributed across key sectors. In the transport and infrastructure sector (mainly roads and bridges) suffered biggest losses, followed by commercial and residential housing, agriculture, education, environment and natural resources, health, and water and sanitation.

Govt’s lackluster response

Bashir Twesigye, the executive director of Civic Response on Environment and Development (CRED), a Kampala-based civil society organisation, says the government’s disaster risk response remains inadequate.

The Ministry of Relief, Disaster Preparedness and Refugees developed a comprehensive policy in 2010 detailing mechanisms and structures for the effective and practical management of disasters in the country.

The policy looked at issues such as vulnerability assessment, mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery, which constitutes “comprehensive disaster management. It also talked of a mechanism to network all the lead sectors, local governments, international development and humanitarian partners, the private sector and the NGOs under the principle of a multi-skilled consultative approach.

“We cannot stop natural hazards from occurring but collectively we can stop them from turning into social and economic disasters,” said Prof. Tarsis Kabwegyere, the then Minister for Relief, Disaster Preparedness and Refugees in his foreword for the national policy for disaster preparedness and management published in October, 2010.

The government’s policy also came up with a financing mechanism of its disaster response. In 2015, the Public Finance Management Act (PFM Act, 2015 as amended) even provided for funding the management of disaster preparedness, mitigation and prevention.

Section 26 of the PFM Act, 2015, establishes a Contingencies Fund which in every financial year is meant to be replenished with an amount equivalent to 0.5% of the previous year’s total appropriated national budget. The Fund has never been operationalized.

That Fund has never been operationalized. So, one of the biggest challenges the county is grappling with is financing, especially at the local government level. These disasters happen largely at local level.

Annet Kandole Balewa, an independent consultant on environmental governance and disaster risk reduction told The Independent on Sept. 15 that what is quite clear from recent incidents of natural disasters around the country is that the government is still failing to plan effectively for natural disasters.

“We still look more at the response but not in terms of preparedness. The government cannot keep delegating its duty to non-state actors (such as the Red Cross) well knowing that some of these organizations’ funding was affected by COVID-19.”

Kandole told The Independent that the government needs to start by mapping the country’s disaster risk hotspots. “We need to stop getting surprised by the extreme weather episodes,” she said.

She also mentions the age-old problem of enforcement of some of the existing environmental laws and environmental restoration programmes along the hillsides, river banks, wetlands and lake shores.

In August, Hillary Onek, the Minister for Relief, Disaster Preparedness and Refugees, told the Committee on Presidential Affairs that the government has developed a “robust disaster risk management plan that will mitigate impending disaster across the country.”

Onek said the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) is set to establish five regional centres to manage disasters. This, according to the minister, will cost the government about US$234 million.

“We intend to confront the impending disasters by positioning ourselves regionally so that response does not only come from Kampala,” he said.

According to Onek, the government has already committed US$50 million to establish these systems of response to disasters in the country. Onek was appearing before the Committee on Presidential Affairs on Aug.11 to provide an update on the government’s interventions on the distressing famine and hunger situation in the northeastern sub-region of Karamoja.

He said the regional centres will be in the east, north, south, west and central. He said the centres will enable quick response and population preparedness. Meanwhile Onek noted that an independent Ministry for Relief and Disaster with a standalone vote and budget would help the government become more responsive natural disasters in future.

“Our department does not have a Permanent Secretary who is specifically for disaster preparedness. I am not independent and we cannot plan adequately without interference from the conglomerate of ministers (in OPM). We don’t even see that money,” he said.

But is this really what the country is missing in order to respond effectively to natural disasters?

Onesmus Mugyenyi, the deputy executive director of the Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment (ACODE), a Kampala-based policy think tank, told The Independent he doubts that creating a separate ministry is the required response. He says more resources are needed instead.

Mugyenyi who is also the coordinator of the Forest Governance Learning Group, a loose coalition of 54 NGOs and individuals said: “Previously, that is what we used to think; that creating a Disaster Risk and Reduction Management Commission would give a high profile to natural disaster issues but the evidence we have seen from elsewhere is that creating authorities and agencies in some ministries has not had any fundamental shift in terms of resource allocation and getting services to Ugandans.”

He says the government should be working on mechanisms that help some of its agencies predict and provide early warning actions.  Mawanda of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Climate Centre told The Independent that these solutions should be informed by climate change risk analysis.

“We are not going to reverse the extreme weather trends but we can have control over the casualty numbers. Let there be rain but let our communities continue having access to health and education services by setting up temporary evacuation centres in less prone areas.”

In the meantime, Kandole, the disaster risk reduction expert and Wepukhulu, the elderly religious leader agree on one thing:  the government must act now by enforcing the law however unpopular it might be.

“You cannot build high up on the slopes of the mountain but we see many people having houses precariously built high up in this mountain,” Wepukhulu told The Independent, “The government must start enforcing some of the regulations.”

Kandole added: “It is also time we started thinking hard strategically. Not all livelihoods should be on the farm. We need to relieve pressure on the land; invest in early warning systems, do frequent monitoring to identify vulnerable zones.”

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