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Residents tempting death on Mt. Elgon slopes

Tunwasi primary school that was closed by government in 2010 after the devastating mudslide other-residential houses at theslopes of Mt Elgon. (PHOTO BY DAVID MAFABI)

BUDUDA- Dark clouds hang over Nametsi Village as the sky threatens to open up any minute.

But even as thunders roar above the skies threatening to let down rains, Base Nafuna seems not bothered.

Seated at the verandah pealing Irish potatoes for lunch, Nafuna chats with careless abandon and only gets up to collect the beans earlier spread in the compound when rain starts to fall.

Nametsi village, located on the slopes of Mt. Elgon in Bududa district, was the scene of the 2010 landslide that killed 30 people.

The sight of dark clouds, thunder should have sent fear among the people here that landslides could also follow, but Ms Nafuna’s family seems to have forgotten the tragedy only 8 years later.

The family lives in a house that has one side of the wall broken down as a result of mudslides that occur at Mt Elgon.

They, however, have no plans of moving away from here and have not stopped tilling land- located three kilometres from the forest boundary on Mt. Elgon.

Although several warnings have been sounded that this particular area is part of a long crack running 40 kilometres from River Lwakhakha on the Kenyan border with Uganda, up to Bukwo district in through Bulambuli, many families are not bothered.

Nafuna’s family is one of the over 20,000 families that live and cultivate on the slopes of Mt. Elgon and seems oblivious or out rightly unwavering to the warning that the crack developing and growing deeper, is a death trap.

The crack now passes through the sub-counties of Nametsi, Mabono, Bumwalukani, Bumbo, Sono, Bupoto and Tsekululu in Manafwa District to Bududa, Sironko, Kapchorwa, Kween and Bukwo districts – and growing larger and deeper with time.

The government has since 2010 been asking settlers on Mt. Elgon slopes to abandon the place following the discovery of a five-kilometre uphill fissure likely to trigger mudslides that could kill them, especially with the onset of rain.

State Minister for Disaster preparedness Musa Echweru recently said, “Let people run away from the dangerous situation to safer places down the valleys.”

Despite the calls, the locals say they are going nowhere, with some even setting conditions such as relocation of graves of relatives, while others argue that the areas identified by government as alternative land are swampy and infertile.

Ms Rosemary Namarome, Nafuna’s mother, like many of her neighbours says the land is their cradle and is the only source of livelihood they have to support their families.

The LCI Chairman Mr Tsoba Matsatsa of Nametsi village, and father of six says, he can’t abandon the land that his father gave him.

“I have nothing to do. I don’t have enough money to buy land elsewhere. This is the only piece of land my father gave me, and I have to live here with my children,” Mr Kuloba said.

Even residents such as Ms Maria Namanzeyi 73, whose house, the crack goes through says she will only move if government accepts to relocate the graves of her relatives.

“When it rains, I have to scoop the water out of my house or make openings on the lower parts of my walls so that water passes through.

But it also comes from underground, so I have to scoop it out whenever it collects,” Ms Namanzeyi narrates, her face showing no bother at all.

No heed

Although the chairpersons of the affected districts, are using 2010 reports from Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) and National Environment Management Authority (Nema) on Bududa that buried about 300 people, locals have declined to move.

Reports from UWA and Nema indicate that the crack in Namesti, Mabono, Bumwalukani in Bududa is part of a long crack running from the Kenyan border, through Mt. Elgon districts in Uganda.

Even in Bulambuli District, where a 2011 landslide killed over 30 people, residents say they will not relocate to low land areas.

Mr Wilson Watira, the Bududa District chairperson, said even those who earlier relocated from Nametsi, a village buried by the 2010 landslides, have moved back to the area.

“As I speak now, people have come back to Nametsi and resettled amidst all the visible cracks that suggest that there is another landslide in the waiting,” Mr Watira said.

In Bulambuli, the district chairperson, Mr Simon Wananzofu, said residents have refused to relocate to land offered by authorities in

Bunambutye and Bwikonge, arguing they cannot vacate their ancestral land.

“We have visited the landslide-prone areas to sensitise the people about land use, impending landslides to the level of even showing them the cracks but none of them has taken heed of the advice. Sometimes we have tried force but nothing has worked,” said Mr Wananzofu.

Mr Anna Mary Namataka, 64, a survivor of the 2011 mudslide in Masira says she will not move away because this is her cradle land given to her by her grandparents.

“The land they want us to relocate to is swampy, it is not fertile this one and up here we grow Coffee which is not the case down there.

I would rather die here than relocate after all a mudslide is just like any other accident,” said,” she said.

Mt Elgon Area Conservation Manager, Mr Fred Kizza, says they have fear that the crack on the slopes will cause another disaster anytime similar to that which occurred in Nametsi Village in 2010.

“The crack actually reaches Nametsi Village where the 2010 landslide claimed more than 300 lives and is suspected to be moving further to Wanale Ridge (one of the ranges of Mt. Elgon in Mbale) and northwards towards Sebei region,” said Mr Kizza.

He added: “As UWA, we have asked people to leave the ridges to safer areas but they have refused. they even go to the level of building at the slopes of Mt Elgon. And now as the rainy season continues pounding Mt Elgon areas, there is tragedy in the waiting.”

He said when the crack was first detected in 2009, it only measured 10 centimetres deep but that it has now increased to 30 centimeters and widening.

UWA reports on Mt Elgon dated 8 March, 2018 attribute the speedy deepening of the crack to continued encroachment by an increasing population on Mt. Elgon National Park up to the bamboo zone, an area above the ridges that form the park.

The report adds that the residents have stripped the mountain slopes bare, creating increased runoffs whenever it rains.

The runoffs, according to the Warden Mt. Elgon Conservation Ms Rose Mutonyi, have exposed the rocks at the top, which had already been weakened by volcanic eruptions.

She said the result has been water logging on the slopes of the ridges where people have settled, leading to weathering of the basement rock to form what is known as saporite (a soil type found between the surface and rock bed, normally derived from volcanic deposits).

“That is the place where water stagnates. When this happens, the saporite starts moving downwards. The lower part is moving, while the upper part is stationary creating a tension crack,” Ms Mutonyi adds.

Environment experts with UWA and Nema have explained that continuous rain catalyse this process until the movement underneath overpower the top, resulting in a surge – also known as a slump – which leaves a hanging rock. If the movement does not cause a slump, it will cause a creep (a slow movement of soil).

Dr Mary Gorretti Kitutu, the state minister for environment has warned of more disasters if communities don’t leave the park land and particularly the areas where cracks have been identified.

“This speedy deepening is attributed to the increased encroachment on Mt. Elgon National Park. Hundreds of people have moved up, above the ridges that form the park,” said Dr Kitutu.

Although by 2005 about 12 per cent of the 1,110 kilometre of Mt. Elgon catchment area only had been destroyed, according to Mr Kizza, to-date about 36 percent of Mt Elgon park land has been encroached upon and its vegetation destroyed by encroachers. Heavy, longer rain

The experts add that farming methods being practiced by residents are unfavourable for the soil and warned that if this process continues, it will result into more mudslides.

The metrological public relations officer, in charge of training and research at the environment ministry, Ms Margaret Nankya says the Mt.

Elgon rains are disastrous given past experiences of Mudslides in the sub-region.

“Given information that there are visible cracks that are growing bigger and deeper, people must move away because the ground is unstable and can slide down anytime. Due to heavy rains and gravity, this will again cause another mudslide,” said Ms Nankya.

According to a study published in the Elsevier journal, landslide occurrence on the slopes of Mt Elgon dates back to the early 20th century and that geologists had by 2002 recorded some 98 landslides in Bududa district.

Dr Kitutu, said areas on the ridges of Mt Elgon is vulnerable to land and mud slips due to the volcanic soils and that building at the slopes is dangerous.

In her published works in Elsevier journal, Dr Kitutu says following a long research in the Mt. Elgon areas it was concluded “excavation of slopes and the concentration of runoff water through linear landscape elements (parcel boundaries, footpaths) are the main malefactors of mudslides besides poor farming methods and settlement at the hills.” Ends Past disasters:

In March 2010, landslides hit Nametsi village in Bududa District killing 350 people and displacing thousands.

In 2011 a mudslide in Bulambuli killed about 28 people. In March 2012, mudslides killed six people in Sironko District and in June 2012, another mudslide buried 18 people in Bududa District and in 2018, there were multiple mudslides at Mt Elgon that left crops, settlements buried.

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