Africa: In DRC, Tragic Floods Demonstrate the Lifesaving Power of Trees

Flooding in South Africa (File Photo)

Kalehe, Democratic Republic of Congo — After disastrous flooding and mudslides, the Kalehe government launched a reforestation campaign to help spare future generations from the same overwhelming grief.

Every day, Jérémie Lushambo, 72, goes to the Kabushungu River to pray for over 50 members of his family who disappeared in its waters during the last rainy season.

"Every time I come here, I ask God to welcome the souls of my children and grandchildren who have died here," he says, gazing at the river. "Even if I was able to recover some of the bodies, the rest were swept away."

In May 2023, heavy rains hit Bushushu, Nyamukubi, Luzira and Chabondo, four remote villages on the shores of Lake Kivu, on the border with Rwanda. More than 440 people died and thousands went missing after four rivers in the area burst their banks, triggering floods and mudslides. The Red Cross estimates that 1,200 houses were destroyed and over 4,600 households were affected.

Heavy rainfall and floods aren't uncommon in Kalehe territory, but the impact of last May's torrential rains was unprecedented. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres called the floods "yet another illustration of the acceleration of climate change."

Environmental experts say deforestation contributed to the catastrophe. "The high plateaus of Kalehe have been deforested for decades without any thought of reforestation," says Boris Hamuli, an agronomist based in Bushushu. "This has left the soil exposed and vulnerable to erosion during the rainy season, causing unprecedented flooding in our villages."

Last June, to help prevent another disaster, the local government launched a campaign to plant 1,000 trees on the bare hills surrounding the four villages affected by the flooding.

At least 150 volunteers from local communities -- mostly young people between the ages of 18 and 30 -- accompanied by agronomists, have so far planted 800 trees, such as grevillea, casuarina and podocarpus. "This is a step toward a future in which the environment is protected," says Thomas Bakenga, administrator of the Kalehe area, who's leading the campaign.

Simeon Rulinda, 47, decided to take part in the reforestation efforts after he realized how trees could help prevent another disaster. For him, planting trees became a way to process his grief. Rulinda lost his two children and their cousin when the floods hit Bushushu and the house where they were staying collapsed, killing everyone inside.

"When I lost two of my five children, I was overwhelmed with grief, and for me reforestation has become a kind of therapy," Rulinda says. "It keeps me busy, and I don't think too much about the tragedy that has befallen us. Instead, I think about a better future for the next generation through the trees we plant."

Between 2015 and 2022 alone, Kalehe territory lost over 420 square kilometers (162 square miles) of tree cover, according to data from Global Forest Watch, an online platform that provides data and tools for monitoring forests, but the deforestation started decades ago. "These mountains and hills were once forested," Bakenga says, referring to the area bordering Lake Kivu. "But population growth has led to deforestation to build houses, agriculture, collect firewood and produce charcoal for commercial purposes."

With no other job opportunities, residents saw the forests as their primary source of survival.

"Deforestation weakened the soil over time, until a mudslide caused by heavy rains led to the disaster that left our villages to grieve," says Mastor Rubambiza, Kalehe's environmental and sustainable development officer.

Jackson Shamamba, an agronomist and engineer from Kalehe who's been involved in the reforestation campaign, says preserving primary tropical forests, like those in Kalehe, is essential, as they represent one of the planet's greatest stores of carbon. "As [the trees] grow, they store carbon in their roots and trunks and release the oxygen we need to breathe back into the atmosphere," Shamamba says. "This process, which has ensured our survival on Earth for years, should be maintained, and it's up to us to do this by letting plants grow."

Democratic Republic of Congo, home to huge tropical forests, is often referred to as the second lung of the world (the first being the Amazon), but it's also among the countries worst affected by deforestation. In 2022, the nation lost over 500,000 hectares (1.2 million acres) of forest. Agriculture and charcoal production were among the main drivers, according to Global Forest Watch.

Bakenga and Shamamba believe that activating the local community will also help raise awareness about the consequences of deforestation.

While the campaign is still ongoing and it will take between two and 10 years for new trees to fully grow, some volunteers are already changing the way they think about local forests.

Immaculée Maisha, a 28-year-old from Nyamukubi, one of the villages worst hit by the mudslides, has been actively involved in the reforestation efforts. "I grew up watching my elders cut down trees for various purposes, including house-building and cooking, and I myself took it as normal," she says. "But today, I understand better than anyone else how important it is to have trees."

Maisha remembers last year's disaster as if it were yesterday. The images still haunt her.

"We lived at the foot of the hills, which are covered with huge rocks. Most victims were killed by huge boulders that came crashing down and crushed everything they touched. It was terrible," she says. Some were able to run away, but those who didn't have the strength to flee, like the elderly, the sick and children, were buried under rocks and mud. "I still have nightmares of people screaming, children crying, rocks crashing and homes being destroyed."

Maisha lost 26 family members, including seven siblings and 19 cousins. She also lost her grandmother and grandfather, with whom she lived, because they couldn't run away. They were at home when their house collapsed.

The tragedy in Nyamukubi occurred on a Thursday, a market day, when the village was crowded with people from neighboring areas who'd come to do business. The market was swept away, together with 500 homes, a church, a mosque and many other buildings.

"Trees should have limited the damage, but unfortunately, when we talk about the importance of planting trees, people don't listen, and this kind of disaster results," Rubambiza says.

The Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development regulates logging. Artisanal loggers are required to pay a deforestation tax of 1,800 Congolese francs (66 United States cents) per hectare for nonagricultural activities and 300 francs (11 cents) per hectare for agricultural activities. And while unlicensed tree-cutting is illegal, Rubambiza says, locals have long ignored the law.

"It used to be difficult to convince them of the damage that deforestation can cause, but today the situation is different, and unfortunately the population has understood it in the worst possible way," Rubambiza says.

As fields flooded and crops were destroyed, farmers lost their livelihoods. Today, the majority of the population in the four flood-affected villages live in extreme poverty and are struggling to find enough to eat.

Germaine Mwavita, 52, left Bushushu last May, after heavy rains caused a landslide that destroyed her home and killed several family members. "Our fields have all been destroyed, finding food is difficult, and the help from NGOs is not enough," she says. "We have lost everything to erosion, and we don't know if we will ever be able to recover."

Rubambiza says that nearly 500 families who lost their homes will be relocated to a place where they can cultivate fields and raise livestock. This will make them self-sufficient, and they will no longer have to rely on cutting down trees to survive.

"We are in the process of finding an ideal place for people who have experienced the disaster caused by erosion -- a place where they can rely on agriculture and farming as a source of income," Bakenga says.

Mwavita says that although she understands the importance of reforestation, she doesn't have the physical strength to join the volunteers planting trees.

Others who are still struggling to meet their basic needs are actively involved in the campaign.

Anaclet Mirindi, a 51-year-old resident of Bushushu, lost his uncles and cousins in the flooding. A landslide destroyed his house. Mirindi survived by a stroke of luck: He, his wife and children were visiting family in a nearby village when disaster struck. Today, Mirindi plants trees. He believes it's an investment for the future.

"Agronomists have told us that we must plant trees to prevent such a disaster in the future. Our willingness to do so means that our children will not suffer the same fate," Mirindi says. "We have to protect the future generation."

Noella Nyirabihogo is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo.

TRANSLATION NOTE

Megan Spada, GPJ, translated this article from French.

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