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The recurring problem of mudslides in Bududa and the Uganda government’s role

It has happened again in 2012, mudslides in Bududa with fatal consequences, leaving many families with relatives, animals, homes, property buried under by mud after/during heavy rains. I have just read this online Uganda – 400 feared dead in landslide (Allafrica.com), Uganda halts landslide rescue bid (BBC). I think it is just last year that I was explaining to a German student about this specific issue. Around that time, there had been another mudslide with over 300 buried and lots of destruction.

March 1, 2010: Ninety-four bodies were found and 320 people were reported missing after a mudslide spawned by torrential rains in the district of Bududa in eastern Uganda engulfed three villages.” – [Wikipedia, see reference at the bottom]

Without complicating things, mudslides of this type, which are nothing other than soil erosion, occur when the soil gets drenched after heavy rain and gets washed away, because the remaining vegetation if any can no longer absorb or let the water flow the natural way and hold the soil together. In Uganda, students learn about this in geography lessons and it is not a rocket science. These areas’ natural vegetation cover has been for one reason or other been removed and apparently, the replacement is not good enough.

If we look at the Bududa region or other areas especially around mount Elgon over the last 30 years, the occurrence of mudslides has not only dramatically increased, but also the fatality of the consequences. Many years ago, you would hear there has been a mudslide (ingururwe) in some far off area, the last one having been many years, probably decades before.

I think the root of the problem needs to be looked at and this should then be addressed rigorously. As things stand, the government has to spearhead this, like it addressed the problem of AIDS in the 90s, when Uganda had one of, if not the highest rate of infection in the world and reduced it to some manageable levels. At that time, many people where dying, whole villages in places like Rakai, Lyantonde, etc where decimated. Many people thought in terms of witchcraft being behind the “slim” as AIDS was called, affecting friends and relatives or some other unusual cause, because of the effect the devastation the disease was causing & the fact that there was no known medicinal cure and little was understood about it.

A game changer in the treatment of AIDS

It was however discovered that, whereas the scourge could not be cured, it could be prevented simply by changing rules of sexual behaviour. Either one practiced “zero grazing”, a term borrowed from livestock farming and here referring to sticking to one partner or using condoms, etc. Because the area of “sex education” was and is still a taboo in many communities around the world, it was hard pioneering addressing this, but the government and THIS IS KEY saw & recognized the AIDS scourge as a PROBLEM that IT, with its resources could and had to deal with URGENTLY. It mobilized all necessary resources, with the president himself & other government officials talking about AIDS and how to prevent it, not once or twice but as long as it was necessary to inform and sensitize all people. It brought talking about sex from the taboo “drawer” to the public arena. That helped dramatically. I remember reading about many countries copying the Uganda model. Countries that refused for one reason or other or took another approach, like South Africa under a previous government had the inevitable result of AIDS dramatically increasing. This situation was avoidable.

The 2007 UNAIDS report estimated that 5,700,000 South Africans  had HIV/AIDS, or just under 12% of South Africa’s population of 48 million. In the adult population, excluding children, the rate is 18.10%. The number of infected is larger than in any other single country in the world. The other top five countries with the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence are all neighbours of South Africa. [Wikipedia –HIV/AIDS in South Africa]

Coming back to Uganda and Bududa in particular, these fatal mudslides should be looked at in the same light. In order to reverse the status quo to less and less mudslides in frequency and magnitude and with decreasing consequences to what was there in the past, the causes must be dealt with right away. The knee-jack reactions of the Disaster Preparedness Ministry and aid organizations rushing to help, often with very limited resources, cannot be the ultimate solution. They cannot return the lost lives & property, without denigrating all their efforts. At this rate, it seems next or the other year something similar is coming.

So what can be done to deal with these mudslides?

The environment can put up only with a certain amount of changes. In this case, this has been much more than exceeded. These mudslides are 100% caused by human activity and are certainly not acts of nature. A number of steps need to be taken, some immediately, others in the long term to go back to the state we had before.

The government must RECOGNIZE THIS AS A PROBLEM AND A SERIOUS ONE AT THAT and just like in the case of dealing with the AIDS scourge, see itself as part of the solution. Its participation should be much more than through the ministry of disaster preparedness, which rushes every other year to affected areas to go & help dig out buried victims or help the displaced.

It is a fact that the Bugisu region, especially in the hilly areas making up the Elgon range is one of the most densely populated in the country. The high and dense population is a key factor and cannot be divorced from all this. Since unlike the population, the land area available does not grow, it logically means the increasing population has to share the available land. If a woman has the 6.7 – 7 kids/woman (national) AVERAGE (!, meaning some have more), it means especially the boys ultimately sharing the land inherited from their father! This keeps repeating itself. At one point, you run out of land and AT LEAST portions of Bugisu like Bududa are NOT far from this! The population of Uganda I think in the 70s was around 10 million. It has since then grown to over 3 times that to 35,873,253 (July 2012 est.), growing in the range of 3.582% (2011 est. – World Factbook)  p.a.

That means more and more pressure on the land since most of these folks are from rural areas, such as most of Bududa is. More & more trees, forming the natural forest vegetation have been cut down on the hillsides to provide land for settlement, building materials and firewood. This being an area of heavy rainfall, leaves these areas in these hilly regions exposed! The grass compounds around the houses or the gardens consisting mostly of banana plantations and coffee bushes, grazing land and so on cannot be compared in environmental terms to the natural vegetation which is capable of holding the soil together. In the past, this did not happen much, because these areas where more sparsely populated or some with no significant human activity and so not much of the slopes where affected. This has increasingly changed, with devastating results. The repeated reports of conflicts caused by encroachment on Mt Elgon national park for example are not out of the blue.

The question is why can’t the government see the connection or develop effective policies to deal with it?

We have instead had many politicians repeatedly telling people to produce as many kids as possible, some claim to provide a market for the growing economy! Others if they see any UN or some NGO especially western commenting on the country’s high population growth, claim it is part of some evil conspiracy to keep Africa’s population low. One friend always claimed there is enough land to support a much larger population. Many compare the land area of Uganda to that of much more developed countries with higher population density, which I think is nonsense.

Uganda is coming from very far below in terms of development and cannot be compared to a country like S. Korea or Malaysia. The fact though, is most developed or developing countries have much slower population growth, with 1 – 3 kids/woman, who in fact are much more “manageable”. None or most of the folks in these countries DO NOT live on subsistence farming and earn and so afford much more, enabling them to live quite well in small high density population areas. A lot of things that are not mentioned are not comparable.

It’s ironic that the in spite of the GDP of Uganda growing several fold in the last 20 or so years [6.4% (2011 est.), 5.2% (2010 est.) and 7.2% (2009 est.) – World Factbook], with respectable growth rates over this period, that there has been a small increase per capita of average income in the same period. The unhealthy & in my opinion disastrous population growth rate negates most of the gains made through the growth of the economy. There are often skeptical comments in newspapers and other forums when the government talks of ongoing economic growth. Many say they don’t feel or see any thing of it and so scoff at such figures.

The Bugisu/Bududa region is not an exception in terms of high population growth. This is happening countrywide, except that other tribal areas are either not mountainous (and so have dramatic and comparable soil erosion/mudslides) or are larger and so not as densely populated, though in environmental terms, there are definitely consequences. The government MUST immediately see the current population growth rate as UNHEALTHY and start getting ACTIVELY involved in family planning education and providing the necessary infrastructure and other resources to deal with it. This should especially address folks in rural areas where population growth is at its greatest, with the subsequent environmental and other consequences. Family planning centres need to be set up in RURAL AREAS, and people need to be sensitized about their use and benefits.

It is an interesting coincidence that as I was writing this, I heard on BBC World Service radio that the Nigerian PRESIDENT was talking of introducing LEGISLATION to deal with birth control, an admittedly sensitive issue in that country. This is right now breaking news on BBC => Call for birth control in Nigeria: Nigerians should limit the number of children they are having, according to the country’s leader. …” We share some of the consequences of a too rapidly growing population.

I have heard people living in urban areas or know folks there, who are mostly educated and are well-informed on the issue of having manageable families saying people in “Uganda” nowadays have only 2, 3 kids. That might be true, but the problem is mostly in rural areas where most of the population live [urban population: 13% of total population (2010)], although many urban folks also have many kids & do not see that’s why they often cannot educate or dress them as much they would want because of LIMITED income, if they work, yet see no connection.

People, including those in this region, and Uganda in general simply need to have fewer kids, though this is more urgent here. I have read a few times that the government in Rwanda is encouraging families to have I think around 3 kids. Rwanda is a small country, but with a high population density and they have realized it cannot support a much higher population. This was an article in the Newvision newspaper in 2007:  Uganda should copy Rwanda’s three-child limit.

Just like in the case of AIDS politicians at all levels need to get involved. The impressive network of FM & TV stations should be mobilized to inform and educate people in these things.

Secondly, there needs to be a concerted and IMMEDIATE effort of reforestation at a much higher level than has been currently going on.

Although this is easier said than done, the fact is the existing settlements with their grazing land, banana/coffee plantations, & other crops in the current form are erosion/mudslide-prone and have to be immediately reinforced with more appropriate vegetation. People must STOP cultivating in these areas. There is no way around this. The problem here is not El Nino, “acts of God” or other far-fetched explanations. This is all man-made. People MUST be taught and get informed like in the case of AIDS that there are consequences for cutting down trees and removing the natural vegetable cover, whether for firewood or for cultivation or settlement and such mudslides as those experience of late and other forms of soil erosion are a direct result of this and so avoidable. On the other hand, they should be taught and sensitized on the benefits of IMMEDIATE and aggressive reforestation.

There also needs to be a change in the way “tribal” communities and “their” regions are viewed in this century. We need to move from the old times, the middle ages when you have this patch of land belonging to such and such a tribe & the other few hundred square kilometers to the other and allow free settlements and hence movements of people in such cases or get much more flexible on this, including when there such situations that might require resettling people in other regions without complication. In developed countries, where there are no such “petty” problems, anyone can settle anywhere in a country and this has important implications for economic development, something we badly need in ALL regions and not only around Kampala and a few other urban areas. There are regions of this country that are less or are sparsely populated.

The government must come up with solutions in this direction addressing continued exposure of land to the elements through settlement, which has something to do with INCREASING population growth through a problematic number of kids/family in Uganda in general and in Bugisu/Bududa area in particular have and DIRECTLY leading to reforestation and reducing population pressure on the environment which is at the root of all this.

Side effects of dealing with high population growth

As mentioned above and in a few other articles on this site, it makes a BIG difference having 2 or 3 kids instead of 6, 7, 9 kids! Whereas that may have been the norm in one’s tribal or other community up to several decades ago, in these current times we need to realize things have changed. It counts these days, if your 7, 8 kids’ only trade is looking after a few goats or cattle or cultivating some acre or so of your land at a subsistence level, or if you have managed to get them to go to and COMPLETE school and gone on to study or learn a trade. That affects what you earn every month and that matters nowadays. And if you are earning some money regularly, like the equivalent of 50, 100, 300 dollars a month, it makes a difference in the quality of life you and your family lead. These and not only in international terms are not huge amounts of money. With your 100 or 200 dollars, you can feed and educate a family of 2 or 3 kids, or go ahead and have 10 kids, between whom you divide the same and probably not be able to afford some health bills or have to let 2, 3 not complete school because of funds, only manage to eat vegetables, or may be marry off some girls too early, probably to get some dowry, or probably have to ask some other relative to pay school fees for some.

Even with the relatively poor health system, kids are much more likely to survive nowadays, with much better infant mortality figures as opposed to the past and so it’s no longer a big factor having to get many kids so at least many can survive to look after one in old age.

Whereas the economy of Uganda has grown considerably, we are only going to see a GENERAL change in the populations’ standard of living if the population growth rate is considerably reduced to what families and the economy can manage. You never hear even the political opposition mentioning this connection, although they are always scoffing at the government about the no-effects of their economic growth on the population. If we want to imitate Asian tigers or other economies, we will have to imitate them also in this area of families as well, because it is a factor. Looking at figures of different countries from something like the World Factbook and similar literature will show there’s some relationship in these things.

The other benefit is the environment would be given some relief and be able to recover, at least to some extent. The environment would face less pressure and we would have more of the natural vegetation and fauna returning. The vegetation cover after being allowed to fully recover would help prevent soil erosion in its different forms, such as mudslides with their increasingly devastating consequences.

So to address the recurring problem of landslides, leading to preventable deaths, destruction of property and the environment, especially in Bududa, the government must get more involved in different areas, other than just through the disaster prepared ministry and see the issue is connected to the current high population growth rate of the country. We need the government to urgently involve itself with family planning and the reforestation and not only in Bududa, which is a microcosm of the rest of the country.

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