Climate Change: How recurring floods, landslides have affected Elgon Sub-region

For some time now, different parts of Uganda have been experiencing flash floods and landslides. Even when the problem is widespread, parts of Bugisu and Sebei have been the most affected. Located in the Eastern Region of Uganda, these areas have experienced landslides, floods, and river overflows that have led to the loss of lives, crops, and livestock and, the destruction of houses, bridges, schools, and sections of road networks.

At least 29 people died and more than 5,600 were displaced by heavy floods after a heavy rainfall that swept through the city of Mbale on July 30, 2022. About 400,000 people were left without clean water, and more than 2,000 hectares (5,000 acres) of crops were destroyed according to media reports.

However, the cause of all these floods is a result as residents have continued to settle on mountain slopes for example on Wanale Hill where they carry out agricultural activities, destabilizing these areas and making them vulnerable when the area receives heavy rains and climate change is evident. According to a Uganda Police Report from August, hundreds of farmers in the Mount Elgon region lost crops and property in the late July and August floods.

Joseph Mukhama, a resident of Kasonko village in Bungokho Central stands behind a house damaged by rolling stones. Photo by Sharon Muzaki

Joseph Mukhama, a resident of Kasonko village in Bungokho central and a victim of the floods narrates his ordeal where surprise floods shocked them. These floods with strong winds affected several of their community members, many of whom had their little simple houses damaged by rolling stones from the cracked hill, and their gardens washed away in minutes. These gardens had grown fruits and vegetables for families to eat. Crops in the main fields like coffee and banana plantations were swept away and people ran for their lives.

His family had planted some food on a small part of land that was never spared by the running waters “A relative called me at night and told me that floods had come, he also recalls huge stones hitting houses, had them running for their lives and stones injuring other persons. “We are starving, we don’t have what to eat, our houses are damaged while our gardens have been destroyed,” he lamented.

They are appealing to the government to come to their rescue and vacate them to safer grounds since the whole parish is in danger.

Joseph Mukhama says everyone is afraid of staying in their houses now as signs of further huge stones are likely to roll off the hillside in case of another heavy downpour in the future.

The Uganda National Meteorological Authority (UNMA) has always predicted more rains in the Elgon region with landslides and floods. While the Elgon region is one of the regions prone to disasters associated with heavy rainfall such as landslides and floods, Mbale, the worst affected district, had not experienced floods of this scale in recent history.

A report by the Public Library of Science Edition 1- JULY 11, 2016 on the underlying causes of vulnerability to landslides and floods in the Mount Elgon region of Uganda published Elgon region as one of the highest occurrences of landslides and floods in the country. The study reveals that deep rooted links to poverty, deforestation, and poor local knowledge of disaster preparedness are responsible for the failure to overcome the effects of landslides and floods in disaster prone communities.

Poor communities have insufficient capacity to prepare and cope with disasters, thus increasing their vulnerability. Low income communities have been shown to suffer the highest risk of disasters because they lack access to critical infrastructure and services and live in poor quality housing and in informal settlements that are prone to floods and landslides.

The study also revealed unsatisfactory knowledge on disaster preparedness and mitigation to be one of the factors increasing vulnerability to landslides but doesn’t suggest any positive adaptation strategies to deal with landslides and floods, such as good farming practices, support from government and other partners, livelihood diversification and using indigenous knowledge in weather forecasting and preparedness.

Environmental experts blame the disasters on environmental degradation coupled with the effects of climate change.

According to the National Environment Authority (NEMA), the Mount Elgon region is reported to have the highest occurrence of landslides and floods in the country. NEMA attributes the increased frequency of these disasters to climate change effects.

It is already widely accepted that extreme weather events have been increasing and exacerbating climatic debates in recent years. The National Environment Management Authority State of Environment report (NEMA, 2012) estimates losses and damage to the tune of $47 million to crops, which is equal to about 3 percent of the value of all cash and food crops in that year. Other extreme events have resulted in even bigger losses, possibly as much as 30 percent of the sector’s normal output.

Dr. Akankwasa Barirega, Executive Director of NEMA says that the continued floods are a result of Climate change that the world is experiencing now. This is due to increased greenhouse gases accumulating in the atmosphere causing global warming. Global warming results in increased evaporation where it’s wet and the vapor later cools to form flash floods. Where it’s dry, the increased evaporation causes faster loss of water causing droughts.

NEMA banned farming on the slopes of Mount Elgon. “We are conserving Mt Elgon Ecosystem through the protection of the National Park and helping the communities to improve sustainable agriculture practices through extension service while we are working with Local Governments, IUCN, and Local NGOs to promote sustainable agriculture practices and Government also shifted some people from high slopes to safer places,” he added.

Biryomumaisho Bruno Mugisha, director of. Mystery Gorilla Foundation explains the incidence and recurrence of landslides in the Elgon area to be conditioned by several topographic and geo-environmental aspects related to soil properties, geological structure, weathering conditions, slope morphology, land cover, and water flow.

“It is undeniable that human activities in that area have also greatly exacerbated the rate at which the landslides are happening. Agricultural activity expansion coupled with poor farming methods and lack of knowledge about it is largely to blame,”  Biryomumaisho said.

“Apparently we are promoting the concept of ecological farming (agroecology) which addresses most of the aspects of the climate change spectrum and also carry out training in some aspects of climate change resilience and adaptations tailored to specific regions with sensitisations about causes, effects, and dangers of climate change, dangers of poor farming methods and biodiversity conservation among other sensitisations dominate our engagements with communities,” he added.

But even then, together with government intervention, they ought to focus on adaptation as a behaviour change. A societal adaptation response requires changes to societal systems in the Mt Elgon area. Since societal systems are complex, changing systems is also complex, and poorly planned interventions risk ineffective or even maladaptive responses.

Implementation of an adaptation strategy essentially involves changing behaviour simultaneously at both individual and societal institutional levels. To date, most research about the Elgon landslide phenomenon has been largely limited to identifying and describing the problems surrounding adaptation action and suggesting solutions to these. Whilst not without some success, this approach has failed to bring about the necessary broad scale changes to social activity.

Authorities have advised people to evacuate the Mbale area and have been working to relocate those from areas around Mount Elgon. According to Ms. Nyaribi Rhoda, Mbale City Senior Environment Officer says that climate change is the cause of this disaster and of course triggered by degradation like deforestation and encroachment on fragile areas like the river banks and streams.

“We have embarked on a sensitisation drive. Those who have settled near river banks, we want them to move and we encourage our farmers to do terraces and mulching,” Ms. Nyaribi says.

Mr. Richard Wanda Member of Parliament for Bungokho Central in Mbale District and also the chairman parliamentary Bugisu caucus says residents have encroached on mountainous areas which they consider more fertile, and cleared its vegetation cover for agriculture and even settlement. He has however urged all residents in these risk areas to vacate to safer places while he is part of relocating them.

Mr. Charles Wakube, the district environment officer for Mbale District Local Government, says the destruction of forests explains the climate variability that the district is facing, evidenced by prolonged periods of drought, heavy rains, irregular rain, and dry season patterns.

“Climate variability which is becoming rampant has led to low productivity of crops, rampant drought,” Wakube said. “In some areas, there are floods, and in mountainous areas, there are rolling stones, but when you go beyond Mbale, there are landslides in mountainous areas.”

The rate of forest cover loss in Uganda stands at 2.6% annually, one of the highest in the world. According to the 2016/17 Uganda National Household Survey, more than 80% of Uganda’s rural households use firewood for cooking. The high demand for wood fuel and limited access to energy saving alternatives means that forest cover is at risk of continued degradation.

Climate change damage estimates in the agriculture, water, infrastructure, and energy sectors collectively amount to 2 to 4 percent of the GDP between 2010 and 2050. The national-level studies show that if no adaptive action is taken, annual costs could be in the range of $3.2 – 5.9 billion within a decade, with the biggest impacts being on water, followed by energy, agriculture, and infrastructure. Over the 40 years from 2010-2050, the costs of inaction are estimated at between $273b and Shs437 b. Even if there were no further increases in climate impacts, the cost of inaction would rise over time.

However adaptation will be a key response to unavoidable climate change, but will only be successfully achieved at a significant cost. The costs and benefits of adaptation need to be built into the policy and planning processes and we must, therefore, do much to mitigate, and or adapt to climate support in local community practices.

It is the work of policy makers to come up with good policies and a need for sensitisation so that people see the danger we face if we don’t save the environment.

For example, Conservationists working with the government of Uganda signed much sought-after biodiversity conservation commitments. The signing, held in Kampala this month was presided over by Minister of State for Energy, Hon. Okasai Opolot who commended the efforts of the World Wide Fund for Nature Uganda (WWF) championing the conservation drive.

Okasai assured sector players of Government support in the fight against biodiversity loss.

WWF Country Director Mr. Simon Peter Weredwong, called upon the Government of Uganda to prioritise biodiversity to protect the environment.

“The commitments being made by different stakeholders are helping us strengthen action towards biodiversity conservation. It is also going to help strengthen local linkages within existing and ongoing efforts and it is helping us build momentum for more engagements for biodiversity sustainability. The world is now seeing us from a different perspective,” Mr. Weredwong said.

He also said that if Uganda as a country chose to do nothing about the conservation of biodiversity, “then we may be choosing to give way to our biodiversity to go to extinction, and yet life without biodiversity is impossible, biodiversity is everything to us in terms of life. Therefore we need to commit to conserving it for our benefit and future generations.”

Another aspect is mitigation of climate change – mitigation means doing all that is possible to contain climate change. Adaptation will work in the case of unavoidable climate change. Adaptation is more costly than mitigation and will require enormous resources that may be impossible or hard to find. We should, therefore, do more to mitigate climate change. We need to plant forests now, stop deforestation, stop swamp reclamation, manage our wastes well, stop air pollution, and use renewable energy and other climate change mitigating factors.

A World Bank report predicts that at least 86 million Africans will migrate within their own countries by 2050 as a result of climate change.

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