Kampala — Bwindi Parish is just 15km from Kabale town but the journey, along a winding road, takes two hours. A bustling trading centre with a population of about 1,000 people, Bwindi is famous for commercial Irish potato cultivation. But not even that can wipe out the memories of the devastating flood that buried crops, swallowed 19 homesteads and killed six people last month.
Located in a valley and encircled by hills, Bwindi became a soft target for the devastating flood. To reach the flood's epicentre, you have to walk over the debris.
Homes were swallowed up as flood waters coming from the hillsides descended down the valley with a strong force, destroying houses and crushing six people.
According to 30-year-old Moses Friday, a teacher, the residents of Bwindi Parish are to blame for the disaster.
"Five years ago, farmers cultivated Irish potatoes in the only wetland in the valley. Yet this wetland helped us to trap and absorb water that originated from the hills," Friday, whose wife and child were killed by the floods, recalls.
Although the citizens protested to their local council chairman and wrote to the district environment officer to stop wetland encroachers, they did not act, Friday claims. "We never heard from them and the farmers degraded the wetland."
He adds that because nobody supported them to protect the wetland, more farmers joined in the degradation by cultivating and constructing houses.
People practiced poor methods of farming like cutting down trees and reclaiming the wetland, leading to its further destruction, he says. "There was nothing to trap the water coming from the hills."
He says Bwindi parish is now like a death valley. Two days prior to the disaster, a strong storm hit the village, leaving behind hailstones or ice water. "On the day the sun heated the hills, the ice melted into water and flowed into the valley. There were no trees on the hills or wetland in the valley to stop the water," Friday recalls.
Justus Ndeebe, the LC1 chairman for Kyokyezo village explains that the destruction of Bwindi started way back in the 1980s when its population soared above its land capacity.
"In the earlier years, at least each individual owned an acre of land. But when the population increased," he adds, "an acre was owned by five people. This pushed the people to practice poor farming methods -- abandoning the terrace and contour system."
Today, Friday explains, one acre of land is occupied by over 10 people and each day, the number increases, pushing them into wetland and hillside areas.
Consequently, many abandoned terracing, a farming method where strips of uncultivated land are left across the hills to reduce runoff and limit soil erosion. This helps the farmer to prevent loss of soil fertility or land degradation by trapping it.
Like Bwindi, most parts of Kabale district are experiencing overpopulation and environmental degradation. Moving around Kabale district, it is hard to come by fallow land. Every inch of land has been cultivated, right from the valleys to hilltops.
In Rubanda County, for instance, all the available wetlands have been tilled. Trees that formerly dotted the country side have been cut down. From afar, one can see many bare hills interrupting the greenery of garden crops.
The 2002 national population census estimated the population of Kabale district at 471,783. With an annual growth rate of 3%, the 2009 population is estimated to be 634,037, giving a population density of 347 people per square kilometre.
With the population increasing further, this has forced people into valleys and protected areas. This has rendered the district more prone to disaster than before.
Although the humanitarian needs of the displaced people like medicine, food and shelter have been catered for, no long-term programmes have been put forward to protect Bwindi from future disasters of that nature.
When Saturday Vision contacted the district environment officer, Paul Sabiti, he declined to comment, saying he does not talk to the media. The district agriculture officer also declined to comment. Both officers referred Saturday Vision to the district LC5 chairman, Addison Kakuru.
Kakuru confesses that beyond opening the road to Bwindi Parish that was destroyed, he does not have immediate solutions to environmental degradation in the area.
"We need to sit down and find long lasting solutions to the cause of the disaster. Crops were destroyed, soil brought to the surface and homes washed completely. We need to safeguard the environment, but I do not have answers now," Kakuru explains.