Floods: Governments might need to be more coercive

Friday May 05 2023
Heavy rains in Rubengera, Rwanda

Debris partially covers a road following a landslide after heavy rains in Rubengera, Rwanda, on May 3, 2023. PHOTO | MARIAM KONE | AFP

By The EastAfrican

Why do people insist on living in disaster-prone areas? That question is bound to flash through the minds of many people, as East Africa comes to terms with the toll from the avalanche of landslides and flooding this week. Heavy rains pounded sections of the western Rift earlier this week, leaving death and destruction in their wake.

At least 130 fatalities and 5,000 displacements were reported in Rwanda, while eight national roads and 26 bridges damaged, and eight health facilities and six water treatment plants were submerged. In Uganda, a section of the Kabale-Kisoro trunk road caved in, while in Kasese, hundreds of people sought shelter in public spaces.

In both countries, crops and livestock were washed away, setting in motion a train of sorrows that is likely to plague the affected areas and national treasuries long after the initial triggers have subsided.

The apparent level of lack of preparedness might be disappointing but not quite surprising. Months ago, climatologists released forecasts that indicated that after years of moderate rains, 2023 would mark the start of an El-nino cycle. National meteorological authorities also issued warnings particular to heavy rains at the start of May.

Weather advisories

In the unsophisticated setting of African rural life, however, it is not unusual to find that the majority of ordinary folk will be less believing in weather advisories. Research has also found that people in disaster-prone areas tend to be reluctant to move, even in the face of mortal danger. This is attributed to a deep attachment to particular areas, where people have settled and lived for generations. Moving from a place where they grew up and buried their dead comes with a sense of loss and disorientation.


The same, however, cannot be said of public officials who are expected to be a rung above the average member of the community they preside over. Whatever the intricacies, it is inexcusable that predictable disasters should be exacting such a heavy toll in this era. Modern technology has afforded the contemporary man tools that give him a better understanding of nature and, by extension, more control. If it might be near impossible to save fixed infrastructure from impending disaster, it is less understandable why vulnerable people could not be moved out of harm’s way in time.

Forecasts more reliable

Weather forecasts are more reliable today than ever before. It is therefore easier to anticipate where adverse events are likely to materialise with a higher degree of certainty. Yet half the time, we seem to always be caught on the wrong footing. In many instances, response mechanisms barely exist, and where they do, their ability to respond and mitigate the aftermath is wanting.

Climatologists predict that, as climate change intensifies, the tragedies we saw this week will become more frequent. It is time the state became more proactive in sensitising communities vulnerable to disasters about the dangers they face and the alternatives available to them. At least that is what we are seeing in Kasese, where seasonal flooding has displaced people but with fewer fatalities.

If governments are short of resources, the least they can do is to become more aggressive in exercising their mandate of coercion to save people from themselves.