Uganda: Politics, Money Take Centre Stage As Landslides Ravage Bududa

26 January 2020

With tears rolling down her cheeks, Grace Nabutuwa seems stranded and helpless.

Nabutuwa lost three children, 11 relatives, among them her grandchildren, and neighbours who had sought refuge in her house that fateful afternoon after the first landslide swept away a nearby village.

She also lost domestic animals, a house and other property, all buried in the recent landslide that struck Namasa Village in Bushika Sub-county, Bududa District, on December 3, 2019.

"Fourteen people were in my house when the landslide buried it. My husband was out grazing the animals, and I left home to go and have a look at what was left after a landslide had struck the village across," Nabutuwa told Sunday Monitor as rumbles of rolling soils of another landslide are heard in the distance.

"Two of my sons and a daughter were buried and other nine children, together with other adults who had come to seek refuge in my home after fleeing their homes following a landslide that had occurred earlier in Naposhi Village," she says amid sobs.

Notwithstanding her agony, Nabutuwa, together with other survivors, have not given up trying to dig up bodies of some of their relatives who are still unaccounted for in the hope of giving them a decent burial.

She says her resolve enabled her dig out seven bodies of the children who perished in her house.

"I just want to give my children a decent send off. Even if I find only their bones, this will give me a sigh of relief and I will walk away to start a new life, knowing I have buried my children," Nabutuwa says.

David Watsakula, 26, is another survivor, who lost four children, a wife, sister, an aunt, a house, as well as domestic animals.

He now wanders about at Bubungi Trading Centre, where he lives in a small room that formerly housed his hair salon business before the tragedy struck.

"I watched on helplessly as I lost my wife, two daughters and sons, sister and an aunt, who was trapped by fast flowing mud. I had no power to save them. May be this was their day as planned by God that they should leave in such a way," Watsakula says as he stares into space.

Watsakula says every time it rains, he remembers that landslide and how his family perished.

Coping with new life

Nabutuwa and Watsakula are just a few of many survivors in Bududa District, who have lost it all to the landslide disaster and now join a list of thousands of landslide victims that government needs to resettle to safer areas before another landslide disaster strikes.

These are having a hard time to have a fresh start in life since they lost all their properties.

Watsakula says prior to the calamity, he owned a three-bedroomed house, two cows and one bull that he had planned to sell in December.

But he has now been left a beggar who must rely on other people for survival.

"This saloon is all I am left with. During day, I work from here and when night falls, I just pull together these wooden benches where I rest my head and wait to face the following day," he says.

Why stick to mountains

Asked why she has not left the dangerous hills that are susceptible to landslides, Nabutuwa says for her entire life, she has known only the mountain dwelling as her home and has no desire to migrate to another place.

She says her home has never been marked among those in the risky places of the mountain and that no officials from government has ever registered her family among those ordered to quit the dangerous slopes of the mountains.

"We were never registered among the people living in the dangerous areas, so we had a feeling that we were safe and had to continue staying here in the hills," Nabutuwa says.

Slow govt response

It is estimated that more than 500 people have been killed by landslides in Bududa District since 2010.

Another 100,000 are estimated to be living at risk as numerous cracks appear on several mountain slopes.

However, despite the huge number of people dying and property worth millions being destroyed, politics seems to have taken a centre stage in regards to the resettlement plans, with the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) pulling ropes with local leaders in Bududa District since the first resettlement programme in 2011.

The Manjiya County Member of Parliament, Mr John Baptist Nambeshe, says government has been slow in responding to the disaster that seems to recurs every year.

He says OPM has been slow in its response towards natural calamities in Bududa, with only 50 families resettled in Bulambuli District.

"We support government for building houses in Bulambuli to resettle our people who are at risk in the mountains, but OPM is moving at a snail pace. How long will it take for government to resettle the 1,000 families that they say are most at risk in Bududa?" Nambeshe says.

This has left the locals and their political leaders wondering whether the government has abandoned them to die in the mountains.

Mr Nambeshe accuses OPM officials of taking these natural disasters as a business venture to thrive on.

"OPM has completely refused to consider other option that would be effective in resettling people who are at risk rather than sticking to building house because of the huge sums of money involved," Nambeshe says.

Wilson Watira, the Bududa District chairperson, says knee-jerk interventions by OPM needs to be stopped and government works out long-lasting solution to ending the suffering of those abandoned on the mountain slopes.

"The calamities in Bududa are not stopping today and government needs to speed up the resettlement process by trying out several approaches and not rely on only building houses, which is slow and cannot match the rate of disasters that occur every year," Watira says.

"The best approach is for government to come with money, give it out to all those in high-risk areas to resettle as they continue to build more house in Bulambuli and resettle others gradually," he says.

But Mr Julius Muchuguzi, the OPM spokesperson, says government emphasises regeneration of forest cover on the steep slopes of the mountains so that the soils are not left bare and susceptible to water runoffs.

He says government is keen to see those at a greater risks relocated and resettled in safer areas.

"We are agitating for restoration and protection of environment as the core long-term response, urging those living at risk to move away, as well resettling those who are most at risk," he says.

On why government has been slow on resettling people who are most at risk, Mr Muchuguzi says they have been constrained by inadequate funds.

"If the resource were in abundance, we would have more houses than we currently have but in one year, government has been able to build 240 houses and these are meant for 240 households with more than 1,000 people," he says.

"People at risk are more than those that have been resettled and that is why every effort has to be on prevention," he adds.

Mr Martin Owor, the commissioner of relief and disaster preparedness in OPM, blames the slow response on bad politics that delayed the programme for eight years until 2018 when President Museveni gave a directive.

"Basing on our current speed of building 240 houses per year, we would have built 1,920 house and resettled more than 10,000 people, had politics not taken centre-stage in the earlier stages of the resettlement programme," Mr Owor says.

Why landslides in Bududa

Bududa District has an estimated population of about 300,000 people who rely on agriculture as their core source of livelihood.

OPM official Martin Owor attributes the high population and its pressure on land use to poor methods of family planning and polygamy that is common in Bududa.

"Due to this population pressure, much of the tree cover that would have protected the land has been cut down to create room for settlement and cultivation of crops that cannot hold the soil particles together," Mr Owori says.

He adds that due to high population pressure, people have been compelled to stay along the river banks and high ends of the mountains that have become risky whenever it rains.

The Bududa District environment officer, Ms Marion Namono, says 90 per cent of the homesteads in Bududa District use firewood as their main source of fuel in homes, leading to continuous deforestation that also abets landslides.

What key players say...

Wilson Watira, Bududa District chairperson. "The calamities in Bududa are not stopping today and government needs to speed up the resettlement process by trying out several approaches and not rely on only building houses, which is slow and cannot match the rate of disasters that occur every year."

Julius Muchuguzi, the OPM spokesperson. "We are agitating for restoration and protection of the environment as the long-term response, urging those living in risky areas to move away, as well as resettling those who are most at risk. If the resource were in abundance, we would have more houses than we currently have."

Martin Owor, commissioner of relief and disaster preparedness in OPM.

"Basing on our current speed of building 240 houses per year, we would have built 1,920 house and resettled more than 10,000 people, had politics not taken centre-stage in the earlier stages of the resettlement programme."

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