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ENVIRONMENT-UGANDA: Landslides – Experts Warn Worst is Yet to Come

Joshua Kyalimpa

KAMPALA, Mar 9 2010 (IPS) - Fourteen-year-old Isaac Wadyegere of Bundesi village in Bududa district woke up to a rainy and chilly Monday morning and went to school as usual. But Mar. 1 was not a usual day in eastern Uganda.

Officials assessing the damage caused by the latest landslides in Kabale, western Uganda. Credit: Joshua Kyalimpa/IPS

Officials assessing the damage caused by the latest landslides in Kabale, western Uganda. Credit: Joshua Kyalimpa/IPS

When he heard the sound of rocks and soil tumbling down Mountain Elgon on a path to destroy part of his school, Wadyegere, along with other pupils, fled home.

But instead of finding the refuge he hoped for, disaster awaited Wadyegere.

His house and family were destroyed.

“My father, mother, step-mother, and five siblings all died when our house was covered by the landslides,” the boy says.

Orphaned Wadyegere now stays in a camp set up by the Uganda Red Cross for survivors of the landslides that buried three other villages including; Nametsi, Namakansa and Kubewo villages in the Bududa district.

So far 92 bodies have been dug out of the rubble by the army and rescue workers and over 300 people are still missing. More than 300,000 people will be displaced by the worst disaster in the region according to Joel Aguma, the police commander for eastern Uganda. “We never planned for this and here we are, with so many people to look after, the scale of this disaster is surely beyond our capacity but we are trying our best,” Aguma said as the rescue continued.

Government has now declared the scene of the Bududa landslides a mass grave.

Minister of state for disaster preparedness, Musa Ecweru, says government has called off the search for survivors after dysentery broke out and rescuers contracted it. “We realised it will take longer to get all the bodies out and it was increasingly risky for the rescuers,” Ecweru says.

Experts warn that the worst is yet to come. A weather outlook report released recently by the Intergovernment Authority on Development’s (IGAD) Climate Prediction and Adaptation Centre (ICPAC) based in Nairobi, stated that the region was expected to have higher rainfall than normal.

The statement was released during the Climate Outlook Forum for the Greater Horn of Africa held in Nairobi, Kenya in February. National, regional and international climate scientists reviewed the state of the global climate system and its implications on the seasonal rainfall over the region.

Experts said regional systems that include sea surface temperatures in the Indian Ocean, which are currently warmer than average, and Atlantic Ocean will have greater influence on the rainfall performance over Uganda

Professor Laban Ogalo, director of ICPAC advises countries in the region to plan accordingly as the changing rainfall pattern may be both a blessing and a curse.

“Rain is a good thing if managed well. The region can benefit from it if it’s used to spur food production for those who get it in plenty so they can supply others who will get less rain,” says Ogalo. He said heavy rains in the region could be destructive to infrastructure and may lead to loss life.

Ugandan weather experts are warning of more landslides and floods in the east, central and western parts of the country as heavy rains continue in most parts of the country. River Malaba in Busia district in eastern Uganda, near the Bududa district, has already burst its banks.

Bildard Baguma, deputy secretary general of the Uganda Red Cross, says there is an increasing possibility of flooding from the river if rains continue. Baguma says people in the affected areas will be evacuated from their villages to higher ground where temporary camps are to be set up.

Uganda’s government has asked residents in low-lying and flood-prone areas to move before tragedy hits. The ministry for disaster preparedness has already started registering people in high risk areas for relocation. Over 300,000 affected people in the Mountain Elgon region and the neighbouring lowlands of Butaleja, Budaka and Tororo are expected to be relocated.

Deus Bamanya, a senior meteorologist with the department of metrology, explains that extreme weather conditions in southern Europe weakened the high pressure systems in north Africa, which in turn pushed the rain belt down to Uganda. Heavy rains that could lead to flooding are expected to continue until June.

Prime Minister Apollo Nsibambi has told parliament government is appealing for donor funds to carry out the relocation exercise before further rainfall causes more destruction.

As the country still mourns the death of those in Bududa district, landslides have displaced hundreds in western Uganda. Heavy rainfall resulted in landslides on Mar. 4. Officials from the ministry for disaster preparedness have rushed to Kabale, which borders Rwanda and DR Congo, to assess the extent of the damage.

District authorities say landslides hit Rubaya and Butanda sub-counties destroying houses and blocking the only access road. Rescuer workers spent an entire day clearing the road before they could access the area.

Three people have been confirmed dead after they were swept by fast running waters off Kigarama Bridge in Kabale district. Soldiers have joined Kabale district authorities in verifying reports that some people are still trapped under the collapsed mud walls of their houses.

Mark Choono, the United Nations Children’s Fund’s Uganda emergency coordinator, warns that an outbreak of water borne diseases is also likely.

“We are concentrating on providing safe drinking water, which is the biggest problem in areas affected by landslides and floods. We have begun providing water purifying chemicals to affected people,” says Choono.

Already in Bududa 60 people have contracted cholera.

But as the devastation continues some experts say that the destruction of the natural vegetation on the mountains by settlers, who have cleared the areas for cultivation of crops, has made the soil loose, resulting in the landslides.

Dr. Festus Bagoora, an expert on weathering and land formations at the Department of Geography at Makerere University, says past human activity has contributed to the catastrophe.

“A combination of factors is causing this, of course the rocks have been weakened due to weathering but people have removed all the natural vegetation on (the) mountains for faming and with the heavy rains landslides are bound to happen,” says Bagoora.

He told IPS that he and other experts submitted a study for the National Environment Management Authority warning of areas where landslides are more likely to happen but no action was taken.

He says they had recommended the relocation of people in areas they considered to be more prone to floods and landslides.

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