Curbing landslide risk in Uganda

Makerere University Senior Geologist, Yazid Bamutaze, measures the height of a crack in Tsono Hill in eastern Uganda during a field assessment to document use of traditional knowledge (Photo: Daniel Edyegu)
By Samuel Okiror

BUDUDA, Uganda, 2 February 2016 - For decades, Mr. Joel Mayatsya has used traditional knowledge as an early warning system for landslides in the hilly area of Bududa, eastern Uganda, helping his community reduce the risk of a rain-triggered disaster.

Mr. Mayatsya, 65, hunts for tell-tale signs such as cracks on the steep slopes, sightings of migratory birds, soil depressions, sounds from the mountain, foam on the surface of streams, thick fog on the fringes of the forests and prolonged rainfall without hailstones.

The wisdom of his forefathers enables the local population to offset the risks associated with life in landslide-prone areas. The knowledge of past generations also extends to how to protect trees and to work the land in ways that reduce the danger, as well as helping being understand which zones are totally off-limits because the threat is too great.

Whether fueled by the more frequent and intense precipitation that is a key feature of climate change, or by factors such as ill-planned construction on slopes or seismic activity, landslides are key risk around the globe.

Worldwide, there were 15 major reported landslides last year, killing 1,480 people, with Colombia, Nepal, Brazil, Indonesia, Tajikistan and Burundi also among the worst-affected countries. Two landslides were also among the world’s 10 deadliest disasters in 2015 – on a list topped by April’s Nepal earthquake – killing 627 people in Guatemala in October and 256 in Afghanistan in April.

Following the adoption of the 15-year Sendai Framework of Disaster Risk Reduction by the international community in March last year, the Ugandan government has stepped up its drive for risk-informed development. That includes harnessing the wisdom of residents of Bududa and the other landslide-prone eastern districts of Manafwa, Bulambuli and Sironko, assigning officials to document, integrate and promote traditional, indigenous and local knowledge to protect the people and communities against disasters.

Mr. Martin Owor, Commissioner for Disaster Preparedness and Management at the Office of the Prime Minister, confirms that despite flooding and landslides during the 2015 El Nino-sparked rains, only three people are on record as having died. That was a significant drop from the 2007, 2010 and 2012 landslides when in total, over 300 lives were lost.

Mr. Owor attributes this fall in numbers to adequate planning, application of traditional knowledge and strong partnerships between development partners, media houses and the local community, despite limited resources.

“Our forefathers used to tell us about certain insects, birds, clouds and winds which act as early signs of rainy or dry seasons. People decided to ignore and abandon indigenous knowledge and then depended only on science. But today, we have come to the realization that indigenous knowledge works,” he says.

According to Steven Goldfinch, Disaster Risk Management Advisor at the UN Development Programme in Uganda, such knowledge contributes to strengthening resilience. Encouraging its documentation and application, and seeking the views of elders in addressing problems, provides an enhanced approach to disaster risk reduction.

A June 2015 report on the “Use of Indigenous Knowledge in weather forecasting in Uganda” listed winds, clouds or sky, temperature, birds and vegetation as reliable indicators which offer early warnings of hazards such as droughts, floods and landslides, and help farmers to predict when to plant, weed, harvest, or to store extra food ahead of a particularly lean season.

Ugandan environmental specialist Mary Goretti Kitutu warns that despite traditional knowledge of how to avoid landslide risk, population pressures mean that people still cut terraces on slopes, till open land, cut down trees to create farmland and construction space. Community sensitization, encouraging family planning, relocating people from risk areas and creating alternative income-generating activities to lessen pressure on land are crucial to counter this, she argues.

5th Global Platform on Disaster Risk Reduction in May 2017 5th Global Platform on Disaster Risk Reduction in May 2017.
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