Floods in Uganda: Can such disasters be prevented?

“Our crops have been destroyed by the water and houses have collapsed,” says Egoliam of his village’s ordeal in Amuria, Uganda. The heaviest rains in 35 years have caused the worst floods on the continent in decades. Flood waters have destroyed vital infrastructure and left more than one million people needing emergency help.

“We are in a real food crisis; everything is scarce,” says Michael Kuskus, manager of the Karamoja Agro-Pastoral Development Programme.

Despite the devastation, the Ugandan government has made no official estimate of the economic costs of the crisis. The state minister for disaster preparedness, Musa Ecweru, recently said: “The situation keeps changing and it is difficult to tell the extent of the damage.”

Specialists from the Ugandan department of meteorology warn that the heavy rainfall, which began in the north-east in April, is likely to spread across the whole country. Indeed, flooding at the start of October has already begun to sweep through the more central regions of Uganda, inundating agricultural land and communities.

As the relentless rain and related humanitarian concerns increase, Ecweru expects the death toll to rise. President Yoweri Museveni has declared a state of emergency in northern and eastern parts of the country — a first in his 20-year reign. The emergency means vulnerable and displaced people can access external aid outside Uganda’s boundaries.

United Nations agencies are now seeking more than $50-million to feed the 1,7-million Ugandans facing food shortages because of the flooding. Teseme Negash, the World Food Programme (WFP) country director for Uganda, recently told local press that “we are struggling to meet both existing and new, growing needs”. Access presents a particular challenge to aid workers, with roads and bridges destroyed by the rains having isolated 25 of Uganda’s 80 districts.

Prevention is half the battle

In declaring October 10 International Day for Natural Disaster Reduction, the UN has recognised the importance of disaster prevention, mitigation and preparedness.

In Uganda, an officer in charge of early warning and food security at the Ministry of Agriculture states that although early-warning systems exist, these are not yet strongly developed and the Bill for disaster management remains in draft format.

Yet, with the department of meteorology warning that widespread flood damage will continue, Mary Karooro Okurut, chairperson of the Ugandan parliamentary committee on presidential affairs, says: “We have summoned the minister for disaster preparedness again to explain how they are preparing for the problems to come.”

Flooding is already one of the most frequent and widespread of all environmental hazards. According to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, between 1993 and 2002, flood disasters “affected more people across the globe — 140-million per year on average — than all the other natural or technological disasters put together”.

The United Kingdom Environment Agency and the UK-based Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research also recognise that floods cause more damage than any other natural disaster. Huge annual losses result from the disruption to economic livelihoods, businesses, infrastructure, services and public health.

In developing countries where infrastructure is often weak, the effects of flooding can cause particular difficulties. “The water seeped into the floor and broke the cement. Even the teachers’ houses have been affected,” says Ismael Orot, the Kumi district chairperson, discussing the extensive infrastructure rehabilitation needs in Uganda.

Flooding and climate change

The Tyndall Centre’s Strategic Review on Floods, Health and Climate Change states that beyond the immediate physical flood-water threats lie numerous longer-term health risks. For example, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), flooding can increase exposure to toxins and pathogens, may have implications for mental health and can disrupt the capacity of healthcare systems to respond to health crises.

Furthermore, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that climate change is likely to intensify flooding hazards in many areas of the world. Although models cannot definitively determine where, when, or by how much flood hazards will change, specialists suggest that existing flood-prone locations and some coastal and river-basin areas will become more vulnerable to severe flooding.

In 2006, Salvano Briceño, director of the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR) secretariat, called for “more concerted action to better prepare populations for the negative impact of climate changes. The world is facing a new responsibility to protect the most vulnerable populations from floods and other weather-related disasters.”

As the Tyndall Centre’s report summarised: “Flooding risks are shaped as much by social as by natural forces.” Poor communities may therefore be particularly vulnerable, especially when concentrated in high-risk and often environmentally degraded areas.

The 2007 IPCC report recognises that such communities tend to have more limited adaptive capacities; are more dependent on climate-sensitive resources, such as local water and food supplies; and are more easily overwhelmed than richer, more developed communities. For example, of the recent Uganda floods, the UN Children’s Fund stated that “the heaviest impact has been in areas where basic services had already been overstretched”.

Sharing best practice

Briceño also said “there is a lot of knowledge about what can be done to reduce flood impacts. This knowledge needs to be shared and applied to reduce the suffering of people.” He recommended Bangladesh as “a good example of what a country can achieve to reduce its vulnerability to floods”.

In Bangladesh, an effective early-warning system — with other mitigation measures, such as appropriate land-planning strategies, mapping of high-risk areas, improvement of legislation to control flood-plain development and high population awareness and preparedness — has reduced the effects of floods, although recent reports suggest there is still room for improvement.

With the world media focusing on the potential effects and importance of climate change, experts argue that it is important to educate and communicate flood-mitigation strategies. Recognising this, the ISDR’s 2006-07 theme is Disaster Risk Reduction Begins at School, an effort to introduce and reinforce disaster reduction within communities.

In the absence of effective adaptation measures, flood risks are exacerbated. Reports suggest this is particularly the case in developing countries; however, the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 suggests that even the most developed nations must take further steps to adequately protect against natural disasters.

Experts have for years recommended that disaster risk reduction must be successfully incorporated into broader sustainable development goals to foster more resilient communities.

There are signs that governments worldwide, such as Uganda, faced with increasing natural disasters, are beginning to take action individually and regionally. In November last year, government representatives and experts met in Nairobi to design a five-year disaster-reduction programme.

The ISDR and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change have partnered in this initiative to help reduce future flood losses. Other governments committed to the implementation of the Hyogo Framework for Action (2005-2015) are also adopting measures to reduce the impacts of floods. For example, the Ugandan government’s multisectoral Department of Disaster Management and Refugees has created, with support from the ISDR, a national platform to plan and implement coordinated mitigation and response initiatives in line with the UN’s Millennium Development Goals.

Precautionary approaches such as those introduced in Bangladesh develop adaptive strategies to improve coping capacities against flood risks. They may provide immediate benefits for populations suffering, or at risk from, floods.

In Uganda and some other countries, the approaching rainy season, confirmed by meteorological reports and climate-change predictions, presents a huge challenge to already stretched organisations and communities. Lessons learned from each crisis must be analysed and acted upon if the inevitable future floods are to remain a natural event and not result in human disaster. — Irin

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