Flood after flood

The plight of being repeatedly displaced

Ruben Julian Hamburger
Boy stands in front his tent's zipper-hole in Sobel camp.
08 September 2021

Maramvya, Burundi – A blazing afternoon sun hovers over the crowded tent camp, on the outskirts of Bujumbura’s airport. At this time of the day, most residents are outside, avoiding the stifling heat which has built up inside their canvas homes since the morning. Some trudge with jerrycans in hand towards water pumps. Others try to sell some tomatoes or eggplants under tarps.

More than 6,400 people live in this camp in Maramvya, commonly known as Sobel. Previously a state-owned farmland, the site is now hosting the largest displaced community in Burundi. Its residents came here as a unique series of ferocious floods wracked the region over the past two years.

“My home was destroyed three times”, says Marie Banyagirubusa, who fled to the camp from Gatumba, a village on the doorstep of Bujumbura. She is sitting outside her tent on a wooden stool, seven of her 9 children assembled around her. “Each time, we sheltered in a school until flood waters receded, then built the house again.”

A family posing for a picture in front of their tent in Sobel camp.
Marie Banyagirubusa and seven of her children pose for a photograph in front of their tent in Sobel camp.

Flooding is not new in Gatumba, which hugs the shores of the Lake Tanganyika and the banks of the Ruzizi delta. But this time was different. Climate change has started pushing the lake’s water levels to new extremes. One night in March 2020, waters washed through the village, engulfing homes, roads, markets, and schools. Fifty thousand people were affected.

“Our house collapsed for the third time. But this time, the water did not retreat. So, we had to leave,” says the 49-year-old mother. She and her children found refuge in a nearby tent camp, having nowhere else to go. But their plight did not end there. Last spring, waters poured out of the swollen Ruzizi River and washed through the camp, making its residents homeless, once again.

Marie carrying a filled 20-liter jerrycan on her head.
Marie carrying a 20-liter jerrycan filled with water in Sobel camp, Burundi.

That is how the family stranded here in Sobel. The government had designated the outdoor area as an official ground for people to seek shelter and centralize humanitarian aid. Since last year throughout 2021, UNICEF and its partners have distributed supplies and medicines, provided access to water and latrines, and offered psychosocial support to the camp’s residents.

“We also set up Child-Friendly Spaces where children’s needs can be met” says Dan Rono, Chief Child Protection at UNICEF Burundi. These centers offer children indoor and outdoor activities, counselling, informal education – and importantly, a place to have fun with their friends. “They are spaces where children can be children. But they also benefit the wider community, as they provide a forum for focus groups for women and girls, as well as for awareness campaigns,” adds Dan Rono.

Three smiling girls sitting inside a tent.
Girls during a focus group on sexual health, at Sobel camp, Burundi.
Girl speaking during a focus group in a tent, in Sobel camp.

UNICEF also ensured uninterrupted schooling for thousands of displaced children. “I only missed one week of school, right after we arrived here in Sobel”, says Emmanuel, Marie’s 15-year-old son. Next week when the summer holidays end, he will go back to school, he says. 

Despite aid workers’ relentless efforts, many of the children’s pressing needs are still unmet. “I wish we had more clothes to wear and proper food to eat”, says Emmanuel, as he enters the zipper-hole of the tent to show us inside. The butter-yellow canvas shelter is almost entirely bare – except for a single blanket, a couple of jerrycans and the family’s only meal for the day. “My only wish is to see my family living in better conditions,” he says.

Emmanuel, 15, sitting inside the tent he shares with his family.
Emmanuel, 15, sitting inside the tent he shares with his family. Next to him, the only blanket they possess. "Life in tents is difficult," says his mother Marie. "During the day, the heat is suffocating. At night, we get cold."

Yet the camp and its residents stand a few months away from another threat of surging waters. With the next rainy season, water levels in the delta could get even higher. “We all worry,” says Dan Rono from UNICEF Burundi. “With climate change, one cannot predict how intense the next rainfall will be. Displaced children and families face the risk of being physically injured during storms, losing their shelters, and having to leave again.”

The climate crisis haunts Burundi’s present and future. And as usual, already vulnerable communities pay its highest price. The country has little means to protect its population against the cascading effects of the warming world. For now, authorities seek to resettle Maramvya’s displaced persons on higher grounds. But in one of the most densely populated countries in the world, finding vacant land is a daunting challenge.

By Ruben Julian Hamburger – Communication Officer, UNICEF Burundi