Uganda

‘No One Is Coming’: Residents Face Devastation After Floods

Climate change and poor land management have increased flooding in the western region of the country. Hundreds of people have been forced from their homes, and the area’s main hospital has been destroyed, leaving thousands with limited access to medical care.

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‘No One Is Coming’: Residents Face Devastation After Floods

Patricia Lindrio, GPJ Uganda

Lorna Bambu stands with five of her children in a camp for internally displaced people, which has been their home for months. Torrential flooding destroyed their house and affected more than 100,000 people in the Kasese region last year.

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KASESE, UGANDA — Around 1 a.m. on May 7, 2020, Lorna Bambu heard screams.

Frightened voices told her, her seven children and their neighbors to run. Heavy rains had soaked western Uganda’s mountainous Kasese region the day before, and now the area’s rivers had burst their banks. Torrents of water rushed into the valley, destroying homes, roads, bridges and other critical infrastructure.

Bambu, 37, tried to escape. “I was stuck. The water was to my knees, and my hands held two of my youngest children,” she says. “We held onto whatever we could until help came in the morning.”

Bambu’s house was swept away in the flooding, but she and her children survived. Her husband was not so lucky. “My husband, who was at a bar when it happened, tried to get to us but was injured by a moving log,” she says. “As we could not get medical help in time, he died.”

The Kilembe Mines Hospital, the region’s primary medical center, which serves more than 20,000 residents, would normally have been accessible by an easy 15-minute walk. But the flooding destroyed the hospital and made area roads impassable, cutting off the region from other health care facilities.

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Patricia Lindrio, GPJ Uganda

Water, rocks and mud swept through the Kilembe Mines Hospital and destroyed the medical center. Staff members were able to evacuate patients, and the hospital has reopened on a provisional basis at a new location.

The flooding affected more than 100,000 people in the region. At least 1,200 were left homeless and 18 were killed, says Godfrey Kabbyanga, mayor of the Kasese Municipal Council.

The dire situation is a consequence of environmental changes, as well as growing political and socioeconomic concerns. As a result, disasters like this are likely to become more common in the years ahead.

“In Kasese, rivers have been known to flood periodically since the 1940s,” says Evelyn Mugume, environment officer for the Kasese municipality. Climate change is causing snow in the mountains to melt, she says, increasing the frequency and severity of the flooding. Local residents also have been illegally building homes and farms along the banks of River Nyamwamba, one of the main rivers in the region, making the land too unstable to control the floodwaters.

“Areas along the riverbanks are supposed to be managed by government, but people have got to own plots there,” Mugume says. “They have degraded this land, because not all of them know how to manage it. Politicians use lip service to protect illegal occupants. They do not advocate enough for environment protection.”

The government has put forward plans to restore the riverbanks by constructing barriers to protect infrastructure and calling on residents to plant bamboo and reeds, which can help control erosion.

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Patricia Lindrio, GPJ Uganda

Flooding from River Nyamwamba cut off one of the main roads in the Kasese area, affecting thousands of residents. Local officials are still assessing damage in the region and deciding how to proceed with reconstruction.

But Centenary Robert Franco, a member of Parliament who represents the Kasese municipality, says the responsibility for managing the land lies elsewhere.

“It’s not my duty to protect the environment – there are organizations for that,” he says. “We do not make these people stay on the land.”

Local residents say they are aware of efforts to restore the riverbanks, but the plans don’t put food on their tables, leaving them with no choice but to continue to build and farm along the river. “I cannot grow bamboo on the small land I have,” says Bera Edith, 36, a mother of five whose house was destroyed in mudslides last May.

Since the flooding, Bera, Bambu and approximately 900 other residents of the region have been living in tents and semipermanent houses in the Kibota Seventh Day Adventist Camp for internally displaced people.

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Patricia Lindrio, GPJ Uganda

The Kibota Seventh Day Adventist Camp houses approximately 900 people from the Kasese region. Conditions in the camp have been deteriorating, and residents have appealed to the government to provide better accommodations and sanitation.

Conditions in the camp are deteriorating, according to Sikabyahoro Jimmy, the camp’s chairman.

“Many have symptoms of typhoid and malaria, and there are no drugs in the nearest health center,” he says. He adds that aid workers at the camp have been overwhelmed and that the last delivery of supplies was in October.

“There is no food, the hospital is far,” he says. “We have called for help, but no one is coming.”

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Centenary says the government is aware of conditions in the camp and is trying to get the displaced residents food and other necessities, and permanently resettle them in areas less prone to flooding. But finding available land to house them has proven challenging, and many Kasese residents say they would like to return to their original homes, despite the risk of flooding.

Kabbyanga, Kasese’s mayor, says local officials are still working to assess the damage to the area. For Bambu and other Kasese residents, however, rebuilding has become a way of life.

“The mountains do get angry, but sometimes you get a rainbow after the storm,” she says. “I just hope to never experience the rage of the rivers again. I pray that for my children as well.”

Patricia Lindrio is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Kampala, Uganda. She specializes in health and migration reporting.


Translation Note

Patricia Lindrio, GPJ, translated some interviews from Luganda.