In the wee hours of May 2, Jacqueline, a mother of 3 and resident of Karongi, woke up to her house collapsing all around her due to torrential rains and landslides sweeping through her village.
"I removed debris from my firstborn and woke her brother up. But our exit was blocked by the landslide," she said. "I put my newborn on my back and started helping my kids get out through the window but since my back was still weak from childbirth we had multiple failed attempts. I then took my 10-day-old baby and threw him through the window, and I climbed out after. When I got outside, my baby was crying, and I thought he would die; thankfully, he was alive. We spent the whole night outside in the heaviest rain I have ever seen."
Our "new" enemy:
Earlier this month, 135 people died amid severe flooding and landslides in Rwanda - the highest number of casualties ever recorded in a single climate-related disaster. More than 20,000 were displaced and nearly 6000 houses were lost amid torrential rain that followed an extended drought.
Around the same time, the same tragedy hit the Democratic Republic of the Congo's South Kivu province, killing at least 411 people. Floods and landslides swept away entire villages, along with fields of crops, livestock, homes, schools, and hospitals. Natural disasters also hit in Uganda, where six people were killed by landslides.
These shared vulnerabilities alone should encourage us to step up collaborative actions to protect climate-vulnerable populations. Alas, political disagreements often derail this much-needed cooperation.
The imperative of unity:
Let's not forget that climate change is a risk multiplier that exacerbates pre-existing vulnerabilities, whether social, economic, or political. This means that whatever the region is confronting right now (armed groups, poverty, communal disputes, etc) will only worsen as natural disasters are set to increase in severity and frequency.
While inevitable disagreements may arise, they pale in significance when compared to the trials that lie ahead. By examining these collective ordeals, it becomes apparent that genuine political and economic cooperation between Rwanda, DRC, and the entire region is not only crucial but also imperative for a prosperous and sustainable future.
The rallying cry for unity among Africans has echoed through history, from the impassioned words of Malcolm X, Mwalimu Nyerere, to Kwame Nkrumah. Their resounding message has remained unchanged: "Together, we are far stronger than when divided." Failing to heed this call will exact a significant toll in the near future, whereas immediate action can avert further loss, tears, and regrets.
Looking beyond the present:
East African countries urgently need to develop a comprehensive climate change adaptation strategy. By sharing experiences and knowledge, nations can better identify and prioritize adaptation measures that address common challenges, such as water scarcity, food security, and the protection of vulnerable communities. Furthermore, through cooperation, countries can share best practices, technology transfers, and financial support to assist each other in their climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts.
This can be achieved primarily through facilitating coordinated action in the region. Further, through joint decision-making, this region can enhance its negotiating power on the international stage and advocate for our shared interests, such as accessing climate finance and technology transfers.
Jacqueline Mukeshimana's account offers a glimpse into the hardships endured by many residents of the Great Lakes region on that fateful night. Their ordeals serve as powerful reminders of the urgency with which we must address climate change. While Jacqueline and her children found solace in a camp established at the IPRC in Karongi, her life - like many other victims in the region - and livelihood have been immensely impacted by the disaster.
The writer is a social and political commentator based in Kigali