Before it rains

Building landslide resilience in Bududa

By Hope Ejang Muzungu
natural disasters, landslides, emergency response, emergencies, Uganda, Bududa, displacements, displaced people, disaster relief, emergency relief
UNICEF Uganda/2020/Kabuye
14 August 2020

Any visit to Bududa will most certainly revolve around three words ‘Before it rains’. Over a one-week visit, we had to go to the field, ‘before it rains’, we had to return to town ‘before it rains’, we had to hurry downhill, ‘before it rains’. In Bududa, light rains over long periods precipitate landslides; a December 2019 landslide occurred after three hours of light but steady rain. On our third day in Bududa a very light drizzle changed the road before us; on the previously dry road, we found an ambulance stuck, tyres skidding and we kept glancing at the seemingly calm slopes.

Bududa is prone to landslides, mudslides and flash floods because of its mountainous terrain and multiple rivers. According to the Chairperson of the Bududa Disaster Management Committee, Samson Natsambua, the growing population of over 300,000 people spread over 274km2 has also increased the pressure on land, with more farming and settlement along the slopes. As a result, since 1970, the district has always experienced a landslide every two years and grappled to respond to the post-disaster effects including loss of lives, cholera outbreaks, and disruption in health and other services. 

Given the continuous and interconnected nature of the disasters in Bududa, UNICEF is supporting the district to develop resilience to landslides. Martin Ngolobe, the UNICEF Programme Specialist explains, “Though we also provide emergency relief, our primary objective is to build capacity of the district leadership and community to prevent, plan for and effectively respond to landslides.”  

Community Sensitation and Capacity building 

Spearheaded by a Disaster Management Committee, the district has adopted homegrown strategies to manage the disasters, key among which are awareness campaigns on radio, village meetings and through megaphones in hard-to-reach areas. 

The awareness campaigns are guided by vulnerability assessments to identify high-risk communities, and focus on learning weather patterns to effectively prepare for and respond to landslides. These campaigns are boosted by the use of early warning systems particularly pole marks that indicate when the water levels have risen and drum alerts to communicate impending disasters or to rally the community when one has occurred. In some cases however, there is no warning. 

On Tuesday, 3 December, 2019 at 3pm, Julius Shinyale had gone to visit his father when he heard a loud sound. He ran outside, saw the land shifting, ran back to the house grabbed four children, hurled them downhill to his wife, turned back and could only watch as the earth barrelled downhill. In less than one minute, the landslide had taken three of Julius’ children, his sister, and household property including his savings. 37 people died, 47 households were destroyed and extensive damage was inflicted upon the water and sanitation infrastructure in Naposhi, Namasa and Shikhururwe villages. 

Strengthening Water and Sanitation Systems

Issa Ngati Bukoma, the District Water Officer notes that public health is a key concern in Bududa as the landslides sweep everything in their path, including latrines, and dump them in the rivers, causing massive contamination of water sources. Resultantly, water borne disease outbreaks are common following a landslide. As part of system strengthening, UNICEF is supporting the district to rebuild destroyed water and sanitation facilities and also has provided water quality testing kits that are vital in the detection of contaminated water. To further mitigate the impact of the landsides, in 2019, UNICEF supported the Ministry of Health to carry out cholera vaccination in 11 of 28 targeted sub-counties, covering over 35,000 households. The district leadership believes that the vaccination is a primary reason for the zero cases of cholera in the district, in spite of the December landslide.

“We do not have the capacity to do this alone, so we are grateful that UNICEF is partnering with us to strengthen systems from community to district level,”

the Chairperson of the district Disaster Management Committee says.

“that way the death toll and impact of the landslides will reduce.”

Supporting communities to rebuild 

Village health teams (VHTs) are instrumental in community sensitization, mobilization and resettlement. We follow Teopista Wabulyo to Naposhi village in Bushika sub-country at the top of one of the hills. Teopista has been a VHT for 21 years and is a hospital cleaner and farmer.

On the way, we meet two other VHTs who have been following up on the general household health particularly for pregnant mothers and children. After a 3km walk uphill, we reach the scene of the December landslide. The area is bare and empty, with a few deep gulleys and rocks scattered about, but the VHTs know where everyone stays. We find Julius and his wife planting food using a panga and hoe received under the district programme to enhance food security.

Pointing to where his father’s house used to be, Julius shows us neatly dug rows of onions and cassava spread over about an acre. The Chairperson of the Disaster Management Committee notes that food security is a key aspect of resilience building, especially during the corona virus pandemic that is hampering access to food markets or even the ability to purchase food. Through VHTs, the district provides farming tools and crop seeds, to facilitate continued farming. 

Whereas the district facilitated the resettlement of some surviving families to safer locations, others stayed to rebuild their lives including Julius who moved into a Church with his family. Across the hill, we also meet John Weanga who lost four children and two grandchildren, and Daniel Namisi who lost two children. 

“Whenever it rains, we do not sleep,” Julius says, “but this is home”.