Uganda: Learning lessons from lethal landslides

The New Humanitarian

Kampala - Following a third landslide in as many years that left at least 18 dead and over 100 missing in eastern Uganda's mountainous district of Bududa, experts are warning that unless long-term measures are put in place, similar disasters are inevitable.

The landslide, which ripped through four villages on the slopes of Mt Elgon amid a heavy downpour on the afternoon of 25 June, also displaced about 300 people. The minister for relief, disaster preparedness and refugees, Stephen Mallinga, announced on 26 June that the government had called off rescue operations and would focus on the recovery of bodies, an assessment of the needs of the displaced and the provision of humanitarian assistance.

More than 300 people were killed and 8,000 forced to abandon their homes when landslides struck Bududa District in March 2010, while hundreds in the area were left homeless following more landslides in August 2011. The danger of rainfall-induced landslides tends to be much greater in mountainous regions, where the steep terrain and heavy rains put dense populations at risk.

Population pressure

"We are going to see frequent occurrence of these disasters and loss of lives if population pressure and continuous abuse of environment [environmental degradation] at steep slopes, which are vulnerable areas is not addressed," Mary Gorretti Kitutu Kimono, environment information systems specialist at Uganda's National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), told IRIN. "People are looking for more land to grow food and settlement so they clear the vegetation and don't practice good farming practices... making the soil weaker and vulnerable to be washed down whenever there is rain."

Uganda has one of the highest population growth rates in the world. As more people settle on the mountain, more trees are felled to make way for homes and agriculture - making mudslides and flooding more common.

"As the rains continue, they will trigger more landslides on steep slopes of the mountain. What is needed now is to remove people from these hazardous areas and have the areas restored through tree-planting," said Kimono.

A government official who preferred anonymity told IRIN: "There is need to work with farmers to ensure their farming is more sustainable and avoids environmental degradation. Agro-forestry should be reinforced by planting a lot of trees on steep slopes."

Minister Mallinga warned that much of the area on the slopes of Mt Elgon, about 275km northeast of the capital Kampala, is too dangerous to live in. The Mt Rwenzori districts of Bundibugyo, Kabarole, Kasese, Kyenjojo in the west and the hilly areas of Kisoro, Kabale, Kanungu, Ntungamo and Rukungiri in the southwest are also at risk.

Resistance to relocation

The government has announced a plan to relocate more than 400,000 people from the country's mountainous areas to more suitable land, and is urging communities in high-risk areas to move off the landslide-prone slopes. "Government advises all residents within the proximity to relocate to much safer areas," said government spokesman Fred Opolot, in a statement.

"We are going to pass a law to have these people relocated and resettled elsewhere," Mallinga said, adding that the government had drafted a national disaster preparedness policy and risk reduction strategy.

However, there has been fierce resistance to government efforts to relocate the most vulnerable people following the 2010 and 2011 landslides in Bududa and Bulambuli districts. Following the March 2010 landslide, the government relocated over 3,000 residents to the western district of Kiryandongo and gave each family 2.5 acres. However, some returned to the hills, citing ancestral links and more fertile soil.

"My appeal is for our people to be cooperative and leave these highly risky hills... Our people from time immoral have exhibited little cooperation and unwillingness to leave. Even those who were relocated sometime back have returned," John Nambeshe, the Bududa district chairperson, told IRIN.

"People should be given alternative skills instead of looking at land alone. There is also need to check on high population pressure," said Adonia Bintorwa, Mt Elgon area conservation manager. "The government should take a firm stand on resettlement and getting out these people from these risky and vulnerable areas. Enough is enough. Firm action and force should be applied to evacuate and relocate the people."

Aid workers say the government must intensify its efforts to move vulnerable populations away from dangerous areas. "The permanent solution to these disasters is relocating people from the risky to safer areas. The government needs to put more resources on it," Michael Nataka, secretary-general of the Uganda Red Cross Society, told IRIN.

Weather stations

Uganda also lacks the equipment and resources to monitor landslide-producing conditions. Michael Nkalubo, the commissioner for meteorology, told IRIN that the government would deploy automatic weather stations in different parts of country to improve weather forecasting. The United Nations World Food Programme recently gave the ministry of water and environment 14 automatic weather stations.

"The increased flow of weather data from such districts will enhance the generation of climate information products, which are needed to boost early warning services, disaster preparedness and ensure food security," he said.

Experts have warned that global climate change has been changing the rainfall pattern in Uganda from regular and moderate to more unexpected and extreme, raising risks of natural disasters like floods, landslides and prolonged drought. Among the expected disasters are: floods, landslides, earthquakes, disease outbreaks, construction accidents, wars, prolonged drought, pests and animal diseases.

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