MBALE – A senior Environment officer at Mbale district has described the floods that caused havoc in Mbale City on 31 July as caused by man.
“Nature is angry, and you cannot play tricks with nature. Nature strikes back. And we are seeing nature striking back, and this is a catastrophe caused by man, you can call it the revenge of the bug,” said Mr. Wakube.
He added that in the floods, the environment is also making a call to action because nature has suffered and is suffering, banks of Rivers have been built on, wetlands have been reclaimed and built on, and many are filled with plastic and are turning more acidic.
The residents of Mbale City woke up on 31 July to a nearly forgotten sound: the colorless usual noise of the Nabuyonga River at the bridge along Mbale-Kumi road. The River sparkled brown in the distance, flooded by mountain soils.
And curious citizens swarmed to take pictures of vehicles stuck in the flood waters, pictures of dead bodies of human beings and animals floating on River Nabuyonga, buildings submerged crops and gardens destroyed, leaving several areas of the city submerged and some roads temporarily rendered impassable.
It is hardly surprising that rivers have been an important part of human history: They provide food, fresh water, and fertile land for growing crops but while water is essential to life, it can be a destructive force too because when rivers flood, the effects can be catastrophic.
And as the Bagisu get on with life with the traditional stiff upper lip, there is a blame game going on with farmers blaming the Nema for not dredging rivers in time, and environmentalists accusing farmers of causing the flooding in the first place by farming on the banks of Rivers, for deforestation. But both blame government for allocating River Banks, Wetlands to businessmen to construct.
As it is now everything is at standing still, everything is brown. Muddy waters and debris block the way so people are grabbing some washed-up scaffolding and wood to make a bridge to cross the water-filled ditches.
Today, there is a horrendous smell; it is a mix of rotting garbage, dead animals, human beings, and mud but the sky is a piercing blue, an ironically beautiful day after such a cataclysmic event.
“Get it? It isn’t the storm and this is the secondary effect, it’s a human-aided unnatural disaster, the stink, the disease,” said Dr. Jonathan Wangisi, the Mbale District Health Officer.
Dr. Wangisi revealed that climate extremes are revealing a hard truth: our development choices – urban sprawl, industrial agriculture, and even the concrete infrastructure designed to control water – are exacerbating our problems. “Because sooner or later, water always wins,” he added.
Mr Wilson Watira, the former LCV chairman for Bududa says that the traditional Bagisu have a proverb that says “Water will always pass where it passed,” so when you divert water by building in its way, it will always come back to pass exactly where it passed many years later,
“And this proverb particularly warns those who have built in the waterway, at the banks of rivers, in the wetlands, etc that water is coming for you,” said Mr. Watira.
Mr. Wakube [Mbale] says part of the cause of flooding in Mbale is the construction of concrete on wetlands and green cover in and around, that would have absorbed the water before spreading to the surface.
He said in playing their complementary roles, Mbale City authorities should evict developers who have occupied wetlands thereby denying water its space and on the other hand, Nema, NWSC should pull down structures that have been erected on drainage channels.
“And when both of the authorities accomplish their mission, Mbale City will return to normalcy, with or without rain,” said Mr. Wakube.
Ms. Sarah Bisikwa, the Manafwa district environment Officer said the floods in Mbale should be a wakeup call adding that they feel for those who were killed and driven out of their homes by the floods and the businesses whose merchandise was destroyed after their premises became water-logged but people must be told to live sustainably with the environment.
“When it rains, the bare steep slopes cannot retain the runoff and water goes into the gentle slopes, where it cannot be retained because of poor agricultural practices. It is never retained in the lower land too because they used to be occupied by wetlands, and those wetlands have been degraded, so it bursts the banks of Rivers,” Ms. Bisikwa explained.
She reasoned that since the wetlands no longer serve their natural purpose due to degradation, water, which is always loaded with soil, empties into the water bodies bursting the banks.
“In fact, the recent floods in Mbale are as a result of River Nabuyonga bursting its banks and soft soils being cut off from the banks due to encroachment and for me, this was a punishment to man for his bad activities,” she added.
Ms. Rhoda Nyaribi, the Mbale City Environment Officer says that when you look at the town now, you will agree that floods are a force of nature, and their consequences, both positive and negative, are strongly felt by affected ecosystems, they are destructive to humans and the natural environment, but they also help to drive biodiversity and are essential to the functioning of many ecosystems.
An extract from Water Always Wins: Thriving in an Age of Drought and Deluge by Erica Gies, published by Head of Zeus and available at guardianbookshop.com says water might seem malleable and cooperative, willing to flow where we direct it.
“But as human development expands, urbanisation sets in, and the climate changes, water is increasingly swamping cities or dropping to unreachable depths below farms, often making life precarious,” reads the extract in part.
The paper says it is important to note that as human beings, we are not the owners of nature, but the guardians of it only and that if we don’t nature itself will teach us what nature is because whenever a river dies (or is killed by human beings), we do not realize that when one river dries up, a double amount of water was poured by the rain.
Ms. Bisikwa [Manafwa district], says that when our attempts to control water fail, we are reminded that water has its own agenda and that water will always find its chosen path, and that when the rain pours and floods occur, there is something these two are speaking but that human beings never understand.
“Have you ever wondered what the rain is trying to tell us? The rain is attempting to tell us something. The sky, the wind, and the rivers know everything, it is only humans who do not understand,” said Ms. Bisikwa.
Ms. Nyaribi [Mbale] said protecting the environment is our responsibility and that it is enough for humans to act in a way that is environmentally friendly by replanting trees, disposing off waste properly, keeping water bodies clean, and stopping farming along water banks, stopping encroaching on Wetlands.
Mr. Nelson Magomu, a resident of Mbale City and opinion leader says that the City council should start demolishing structures that have been built on the drainage channel across the city, wetlands, and River banks for the safety of the residents.
“And ideally, this move will bring a sigh of relief to all Mbale residents, visitors, and people transiting through the city,” Mr. Magomu said.
“So when it flooded even President’s Sino Uganda Industrial Park, Mbale, the Islamic primary School, Houses built along the banks, buildings in all Wetlands without proper plans all flooded as the water tried to find its own way,” added Mr. Magomu.
Mr. Tony Achidria, a senior public relations officer at National Environment Management Authority [Nema], described the recent Mbale and parts of Mt Elgon flash floods as a manifestation of Climate Change.
“We commiserate with the families that lost loved ones and property as well as those that were displaced in the disaster. May the souls of the deceased persons, rest in peace but we ought to know that over the years, Uganda like the rest of the world has been experiencing erratic alternate drought and high rainfall seasons, which is a manifestation of Climate Change,” said Mr Ochidria.
He explained that because of human activities, as a matter of fact, Climate Change is being manifested more severely now than ever before and the occurrence in Mbale, Mt Elgon area is one such incident.
He revealed that changes in atmospheric temperature due to climate increases evaporation rates thereby increasing moisture in the atmosphere which moisture results in fast rainfall formation characterized by flash floods as we saw in Elgon Region.
“And for every one-degree change in temperature, there is a 7% increment in moisture in the atmosphere, this results in wet areas receiving excess rains and flash floods and dry areas becoming drier due to faster loss of water due to high rates of evaporation,” added Mr. Ochidria.
He revealed further that NEMA will continue to coordinate with relevant Lead Agencies to restore fragile ecosystems and ensure that development integrates sustainable development principles including where applicable, the installation of early warning systems across the country.
But environmentalists are saying we can reduce climate change-induced environmental disasters by not settling on wetlands, hilltops, river banks, river beds, floodplains, lakeshores, and forests. These fragile ecosystems should be conserved for ecological purposes.
“We call upon all development control authorities not to approve development plans, building plans among others before assessing the environmental and social impacts of such developments. We must embrace climate proofing of all our developments to reduce damage in case of disasters,” Ms Bisikwa said.
“Regardless of what we do for social and cultural reasons, we must protect the environment at the same time. We need to protect the environment so that global warming can be reduced,” said Ms. Nyaribi.
Ms. Nyaribi also added that as environmentalists they are finding that– in cities, fields, swamps, marshes, floodplains, mountains, and forests –amidst urbanisation, we need to be conserving or repairing natural systems, or mimicking nature to restore some natural functions.
She revealed that floods in Mbale were a result of man-made changes to nature as well as crimes that have disrupted biodiversities, such as deforestation, land-use change, intensified agriculture along the banks, and building in the wetlands.
The UN Decade on Ecosystem restoration warned during Earth’s day that the World in Progress is in a spiral of self-destruction and that if we keep going on the current trajectory, the world is set to face 1.5 disasters a day – or 560 a year, by 2030.
“The bottom line is that we are severely underestimating the risks and are doing too little to protect ourselves,” Mr. Ricardo Mena, Director of the UN’s Office for Disaster Risk Reduction said.
Mr. Isaac Mayeku, the Mbale district entomologist said the pressure on the land in the city due to urbanisation and other economic hardships has driven people into misusing the wetlands in all sorts of ways with some people constructing residential houses, factories, and even schools in Wetlands.
“And other people are using wetlands for cultivation and the wetlands are also being used as dumping grounds for all kinds of waste. The most damaging of which is the famous polythene bag, locally known as buveera,” said Mr. Mayeku.
“If no appropriate education and enforcement takes place, we shall continue having floods in Mbale City,” said Mr. Mayeku.
Environmental experts have, however, weighed and disclosed that the activities of man like the degradation of the catchments, especially around mountain slopes and river banks as the major causes of the floods in Mbale City.
Mr. Sam Cheptoris the minister of water and environment agreed with environmentalists that due to the combined effects of urban growth and climate change – rapid urbanisation is particularly challenging in most Ugandan Cities.
“Areas that will house a large proportion of the urban population in the future coincide with where natural hazards are expected to occur, and where hazard risk management institutions, knowledge, and capacity are often lacking,” said Mr. Cheptoris.
He revealed that the Rivers burst their banks due to the free flow of rainwater from Mt Elgon slopes as a result of poor agricultural practices and that poor human activity on the hill slopes and population pressure are responsible for the floods.
Mr. Cheptoris said laws are usually made for the good of society, which may choose to obey or disobey them, at times we can get around the law, and many times we get away with it but most times, however, it catches up with us in very unlikely ways.
“The recent flash floods in Mbale City and Mt Elgon region may be nature’s way of catching up with us. It is time we did something about our environment before the consequences become worse than the damage caused by the recent floods,” Mr Cheptoris explained.