Tragedy marks rainy season as region faces new recovery costs

Sunday May 07 2023
Rwanda floods Rubavu district

Residents wade through water after their homes were swamped following floods triggered by heavy rains Rwanda’s Rubavu district on May 3, 2023. PHOTO | JEAN BIZIMANA | REUTERS

By The EastAfrican

At least 176 people died in flash floods in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, a regional governor said on Friday, as heavy rain destroyed buildings and forced aid workers to gather mud-clad corpses into piles.

The rainfall in Kalehe territory in South Kivu Province caused rivers to overflow on Thursday, inundating the villages of Bushushu and Nyamukubi. South Kivu Governor Théo Ngwabidje Kasi put the death toll at 176 and said that others were still missing. A local civil society member, Kasole Martin, said 227 bodies had been found.

“People are sleeping out in the open, schools and hospitals have been swept away,” Martin said.

A Reuters reporter counted 72 corpses.

The corrugated iron roofs of flattened houses jutted out from beneath thick layers of mud, photos showed.

Heavy rains and stormy weather are causing East African countries massive losses in what could bring additional economic recovery costs on governments in the region.

A man removes debris from flooded road in Rwanda

A man removes debris from a flooded road in Bupfune village near Kibuye, in Rwanda's Western Province on May 4, 2023. Powerful floods and landslides tore through the country killing at least 130 people. PHOTO | MARIAM KONE | AFP

Tragedy in Rwanda

On May 2, tragedy struck in Rwanda where more than 130 people were killed and roads, power lines and houses destroyed in nine districts in northwest Rwanda. The region is known for heavy rains this time of the year but the waters seem heavier now, something blamed on changing climate. The local weatherman said most of the regions would receive more than 200mm of rain during this season.

Despite the warning, the heavy rains that ensued on Tuesday night caught residents off-guard, and the destruction has been staggering. On Wednesday, the death toll rose to 130.

More 5,000 people were displaced, and eight national roads and 26 bridges were damaged. Eight health facilities and six water treatment plants were also submerged. It remains unclear how much the rain destruction was worth.

“I was preparing to get a new stock for my bar on Wednesday morning. I had more than Rwf1.5 million ($1,200) saved up for it in the house. The rain took everything: the money, the furniture, the bar, and the entire house. I was able to recover only Rwf 74,000 ($70) from the mud. I am grateful my family and I survived but our only source of income is completely gone,” said one bar owner in Rubavu town, one of the hardest hit districts by the rain and one of the secondary cities to Kigali.

Rwanda floods - People walk over a water bridge

People walk over a water bridge after their homes were swamped following rains that triggered flooding and landslides in Rubavu district, Western province in Rwanda on May 3, 2023. PHOTO | JEAN BIZIMANA | REUTERS

Mitigation efforts ineffective

Efforts to mitigate the impact of harsh weather have proved ineffective, with previous investments of Rwf 21 billion ($22 million) failing to contain the overflow of the Sebeya River. The river flows from the volcanic mountains through the north and western districts.

The river, which has in the past washed away people's property overflowed again on Tuesday night, destroying homes and flooding areas that had not been affected before the construction of containment facilities.

In response to this crisis, various authorities, military forces, religious organisations, and humanitarian groups have initiated interventions since Wednesday. At least 1,540 people have been relocated from high-risk zones as the area expects more rain the first and second week of May.

“My deepest condolences to the families and loved ones of the victims of the landslides and floods that occurred last night in the western, northern, and southern provinces. We are doing everything within our means to address this difficult situation. I am personally following up on the response closely,” President Paul Kagame tweeted.

Uganda, too, was preparing for the worst. But in the hilly landscapes of Kisoro district in the southwest.

Rwanda landslide

A landslide caused by heavy rain blocks the road in Mushubati, Rwanda. The country's presidency on May 3, 2023 said several regions were engulfed with floods and landslides, destroying homes and cutting off roads. PHOTO | MARIAM KONE | AFP

Transport paralysed

Transport on the Kabale-Kisoro and Hamurwa-Kanungu roads came to a standstill after the roads connecting the two districts succumbed to floods on Thursday.

The Kabale-Kisoro road connects Uganda to the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo through the Bunagana border and Rwanda through the Cyanika border, while the Hamurwa-Kanungu road connects Uganda to DR Congo through the Ishasha border. Motorists that were left stranded include the tourists, buses, cargo trucks, and United Nations High Commission for Refugees officials who were transporting Congolese refugees from the Nyakabande reception centre to NaKivale camp in Isingiro district, about 230km away.

The Ugandan National Roads Authority released a statement suspending traffic along the road, advising drivers to use alternative routes, although the safety of the alternative routes is also in question since they are slippery as rains continue pounding the region.

In the Rwenzori Mountains on Uganda’s border with the DR Congo, a similar situation played out a few days ago when flood waters sent boulders crashing down the slopes of the mountains in the Kasese district.

floods triggered by heavy rainfall in western and northern Rwanda

A view of the aftermath of the floods triggered by heavy rainfall in western and northern Rwanda. At least 109 people were on May 2, 2023 killed by the floods. PHOTO | COURTESY | RWANDA BROADCASTING AGENCY

Leave mountain slopes

“People have to leave the mountain slopes for now because the heavy rains will continue until sometime in June. But our government is facing a big challenge because of population pressure. We don’t have enough space to relocate everyone,” said Esther Anyakun, Uganda’s State minister for relief, disaster preparedness, and refugees.

The Climate Prediction and Application Centre, an early warning system of the regional bloc IGAD had warned that this week the rains will be “exceptional” and hinted that while Uganda, Rwanda and Kenya will experience heavy rains Ethiopia, Somalia and Djibouti will get even heavier rains.

And the UN said on May 2 about 4,500 families in Kisumu County in south-west Kenya were in danger “due to floods and the Nyando River overflow.”

Between March 30-April 1 Burundi experienced its Rugigo River outflow in the Cibitoke province “which in turn flooded tunnels of the nearby gold mine in Mabayi Commune. Fourteen miners died as a result.”

Reporting by Ange Iliza, Gilbert Mwijuke, Mohammed Issa and Reuters