Why Uganda has East Africa’s highest number of natural disaster IDPs

Thursday March 14 2019

Uganda landslide

People use a makeshift bridge in Nanyinza village in Uganda’s landslide-prone Bududa District. PHOTO | AFP 

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Aida Nandutu is one of several women bent over doing laundry in the River Tsuume, which in October 2018 burst its banks, killing her brother alongside 53 other people.

A few metres away from Ms Nandutu, another woman is also bent over fetching water for household use, with her feet dipped in the river. A little farther upstream, children jump from the rocks left exposed after the mudslide to swim, as if they were launching from diving board into a swimming pool.

For the villagers of Shisambwa, Bududa District, whose houses were destroyed, leaving close to 1,000 people displaced, life is almost back to normal. People have started replanting their banana plantations, even as the signs of the destruction by River Tsuume remain visible.

White tents erected by people like Ms Nandutu; cement slabs that no longer have houses atop them and houses half destroyed by the river but still occupied; all speak of the precariousness of life in Shisambwa.

For this reason, most of the people The EastAfrican spoke to would love an opportunity to relocate, having experienced disaster in October 2018 and the more horrifying landslide of 2010 which devastated nearby villages, have convinced people that living in that area can be dangerous.

But, for now, people like Ms Nandutu, will join the 95,000 Ugandans that the International Displacement Unit terms internally displaced persons, as a result of natural disasters.


According to the unit, Uganda has East Africa’s highest number of people who live as internal refugees due to natural disasters. Next is South Sudan with 75,000 people displaced by disaster, while Kenya comes in third with 35,000.

At 1,900, Tanzania has the lowest number of people displaced by disaster, which experts say has to do with the country’s favourable terrain, more trees and lower population density, when compared with the other East African Community states.

Rwanda, on the other hand, with 5,000, has the second-lowest number of people internally displaced by disaster. It is the opposite of Tanzania.

Rwanda has the highest population density in East Africa and also occupies a part of East Africa that is prone to landslides like those that have been happening in Bududa and other parts of Mt Elgon. Just like in Bududa and the other districts on the Mount Elgon area, Rwanda’s terrain is hilly and volcanic.


Francis Ogwang, a soil scientist who has worked in the Mt Elgon area to reduce the occurrence of climate-related disasters, says in addition to the hills which in themselves are a risk factor, volcanic soils are younger, softer and thus vulnerable to landslides and mudslides.

Combined with the loose volcanic soil is the high population density, which leads to overuse of the land for agriculture. This, too, makes the soils weaker and therefore prone to landslides.

But Alphonse Hishamunda, Rwanda’s acting director of risk reduction and preparedness, says his government has been able to work around these problems and reduced the number of people affected by natural disasters.

One method employed by Rwanda is the relocation of the survivors and potential victims of natural disasters.

Mr Hashimunda says that in the 2018/19 financial year, Rwanda allocated Rfw6 billion ($6.7 million) to relocate people affected by rainfall last year.
In May 2018, heavy rains triggered landslides in the Muhabura ranges, displacing 30 people in Rwanda and destroying parts of the road from Kigali to Gatuna border and the Katuna to Kabale town in Uganda.

This money will also be used on a plan to relocate all people currently living in landslide-prone areas.

By 2024, Mr Hashimunda says that Rwanda plans to have relocated all people living in natural disaster-prone areas to model villages under the integrated development project.

Abandoned effort

This same strategy of relocating survivors and people in landslide-prone areas has been employed intermittently in Uganda.

After the 2010 landslide in Bududa District, which left 365 people dead and close to 10,000 displaced, Uganda relocated some 600 people to government-owned land in Kiryandongo District in the midwestern part of the country.

But this effort was abandoned by the government, because of what Musa Echweru, Junior Minister for Disaster Preparedness, says were mistakes in implementation.

The mistakes, according to Mr Echweru, included the decision by government to contract the private sector in the construction of houses, a venture that was later found to be too expensive.

In 2012, after another landslide that was thought to have left 100 people dead, the government announced plans to relocate people in Bududa and other districts with similar characteristics.

Dr Steven Malinga, who was at the time the minister for disaster preparedness announced that the government would pass a law that would make the forcible relocation of 400,000 people living in disaster-prone areas possible.

The problem for government was that some of the 2010 landslide victims had rejected the relocation to Kiryadongo, as this was a new place, where the weather, language and culture were different.

The 2012 disaster, however, turned out mildly destructive, with eight people dead. As a result, the government abandoned the relocation.

Six years later, after the October 2018 mudslide, the government renewed promises to relocate people from Bududa.

Just like in 2010, President Yoweri Museveni visited the scene of the disaster and apologised for the government’s failure to relocate the people.

To make up for his government’s previous failures, President Museveni promised to make relocation of natural disaster survivors a priority. The government promised efficiency this time round.

President Yoweri Museveni (C) flanked by other
President Yoweri Museveni (C) flanked by other government officials when they visited eastern Uganda's Bududa District where dozens of residents lost their lives in mudslides following heavy downpour. LEONARD MUKOOLI | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Five days after the disaster in Ms Nandutu’s village, the Cabinet approved a budget of Ush32 billion ($8.7 million) now being used for construction of the Bulamutye resettlement project. This money will enable government to relocate 900 families from the hills of Mt Elgon to the lowlands in Bulambuli District.

Hillary Onek, Minister for Relief and Disaster Preparedness, says that from Bududa the government will relocate 500 families in the first phase to be completed this March.

The army, the police and the prisons service have been put in charge of construction and furnishing of the new homes, which the government believes is a cheaper option. The uniformed forces are expected to work quickly to avoid a potential repeat disaster during the March to May rainy season.

The other 400 families, who are up for resettlement, will move from Bulambuli, Sironko, Manafwa and Namisindwa, the other districts located on the slopes of Mt Elgon.

Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda says the government’s plan is to relocate 100,000 people who either have been displaced by natural disasters or live in landslide and mudslide-prone areas.

Displaced before 2018

The current plans by the Prime Minister’s office mean that the government will only afford to relocate people displaced before 2018, since the numbers provided by the International Displacement Unit are for the period up to December 31, 2017.

But people from the Rwenzoris and parts of Mt Elgon that have not yet suffered landslides but are prone and those in the Muhabura ranges, are also earmarked for resettlement.

Ms Nandutu expected to be among those who were to be relocated to Bulambuli District. But not only has she missed out on official government relief, she might also have to continue living in tent near where her home used to be.

She says the plastic tent was donated to her by a Good Samaritan, who visited her village after the mudslides.

She also has look after the children of her brother John Kuloba, who died when their house was swept away. Ms Nandutu now has five children, including one of hers.

Relief and relocation

Ms Nandutu says she was told by government officials registering people for relocation that those living too close to the River Tsuume were doing so illegally and would therefore miss out on relief and relocation.

According to Uganda’s National Wetland Regulations, no activity is permitted within 30 metres of small rivers like Tsuume. As a result of this law, she and several neighbours living close to the riverbank say they have been told it is their fault they were affected by the mudslide.

But Joseph Maboni, another survivor, whose 90-year-old mother broke a leg during the October 2018 mudslides, says he has been registered to relocate to Bulambuli.

Just like Ms Nandutu, Mr Maboni lives less than 30 metres from the riverbank. But he says he was registered for relocation and that he had only been criticised for living too close to the river when he was being denied food relief for mudslide victims.

Residents look on at damage caused after a
Residents look on at damage caused after a river burst its banks in the eastern town of Bukalasi, in Uganda's Bududa district. The district in the foothills of Mount Elgon is a high risk area for landslides. PHOTO | UGANDA RED CROSS | AFP

But Martin Owor, Commissioner for Refugees and Disaster Preparedness, disputes both Mr Maboni’s and Ms Nandutu’s tales, saying that those who have been left behind in the first round will be relocated in the other phases in the lifespan of the ten-year programme.

Asked whether the government had underestimated the number of people who need relocation, Mr Owor says no, adding that the 100,000 estimate by government is appropriate.

In the meantime, experts say that it would help people like Ms Nandutu if the government, having failed to plan for their relocation, would pay attention to initiatives intended to improve the stability of soils in landslide-prone areas.

Restoration of ecosystems

In 2010, the government received a sustainable land management (SLM) loan of Ush893.9 billion ($245 million) to help the restoration of ecosystems in different parts of Uganda, especially in areas like Mount Elgon and the Muhabura mountain range, where landslides had occurred causing death and destruction.

Bududa District chairman Wilson Watira says implementation of the programme only took place in four of its 377 villages.

Even where it was implemented, Solomon Kalema, spokesman of the Ministry of Agriculture which was implementing the programme, says it had minimal impact.

Mr Kalema says that the SLM programme was most effective in areas around the Muhabura ranges, because people there had been terracing their land, so reintroduction to this practice, which is also common across the border in Rwanda, was easier.

According Dr Vettes Kalema, who implemented SLM in the Muhabura ranges, terracing and growing appropriate trees in the terrace boundaries reduces the occurrence of landslides.