Floods: When nature fights back

Feb 23, 2022

Years of environmental degradation have come back to bite, leaving devastation behind.

Abandoned buildings in Kanyangeya village, Kasese during floods in 2020.

Vision Reporters
Journalist @New Vision

Climate change is a complex subject that has always been covered from the perspective of the “Big Fish.” A Vision Group team went into the countryside, investigating the impact of this global phenomenon, and now, in an eight-part series, tells you the story from the perspective of ordinary people.

He helplessly watched as the floods swept away his garden. A few days later, Peter Semanda says his compound in Entebbe, on the shores of Lake Victoria in central Uganda, became unusually soggy.

The sogginess continued until it reached his house, which developed huge cracks. It became too dangerous for his family to continue occupying the house. They were forced to relocate to a relative’s place.

The house eventually collapsed.

In Olep village, Ochero sub-county, Kaberamaido district in eastern Uganda, Charles Odongo Onyonga is at a loss.

“We used to sow millet in December because first rains used to start late January or early February and surely the rains would come. We knew that black beans (phaseous vulgaris) were planted between March and May and sorghum and sesame by April 15. But these days, the weather has become deceptive. The rains no longer come on time,” observes Onyonga, speaking from this remote village, 380km east of the capital, Kampala.

In Kibiro, a small fishing village on the shores of Lake Albert in western Uganda, Selina Bwikara, 85, laments that the traditional salt mines that have for centuries provided livelihood to the residents are being submerged, threatening the livelihood of 4,000 people, mainly women.

On Tuesday, January 25, the Uganda Red Cross Society reported that nine people died and property worth millions of shillings was destroyed when mudslides, triggered by heavy rains, ravaged Kabale, Rukeri and Buzeyi villages in Kisoro district in western Uganda.

In September last year, in Okwaloatala village, Alebtong district, 387km north of Kampala, five people were killed in a lightning strike. 

It appears the weather patterns have not only become unpredictable, but also more ferocious, with thousands displaced by floods, while ironically, some areas suffer severe drought.

What Semanda, Onyonga and Bwikara are unaware of is that they are caught up in the global phenomenon of climate change.  

Climate change is a long-term alteration in the average weather patterns that have come to define the earth’s local, regional and global climates.

Higher temperatures, droughts and increasingly heavy rainfall resulting into floods have become the order of the day.

The phenomenon has been exacerbated by human activity, such as degradation of forests and wetlands for settlements, agricultural activities and industrialisation.

Semanda is among the over 300,000 people displaced by floods resulting from the rising water levels on Uganda’s major water bodies — Lakes Victoria and Kyoga in central Uganda and Albert, Edward and George in western Uganda.

In Ntoroko district on the shores of Lake Albert, 343km west of Kampala, Kanara Seed Secondary School has been turned into a camp housing up to 1,500 people displaced by floods.

Flash floods resulting from relentless rains over the past three years have affected up to a million people, according to Hilary Onek, the Minister for Disaster Preparedness and Refugees.

“The world ended with destruction of my property,” says Semanda.

“For decades, I have been toiling and dreaming of prosperity. But I have now been reduced to nothing,” he laments.

The increased water in the lakes has not only displaced and robbed thousands of their livelihoods, but also exposed communities to increased incidences of malaria and other waterborne diseases.


It has also destroyed critical infrastructure like roads, making access to markets and basic social services like health facilities a challenge.

Denis Orusi of Apai landing site on the shores of Lake Kyoga in Ochero, Kaberamaido district says his house was not only swallowed by floods, but his business also collapsed because the whole community migrated away.

The director of Amai Community Hospital in neighbouring Amolatar district, Dr Walter Opio, said the destruction of roads has resulted in most women resorting to traditional healers and birth attendants due to the challenge in accessing the facility.

“Since most of our people use bodabodas (motorcycle transport), the pregnant mothers have been reaching here in a very bad state due to the bad roads,” Opio narrates.

Bleak future

As Uganda makes frantic efforts to address the challenge of flooding, the IGAD Climate Prediction and Applications Centre (ICPAC-IGAD) says the intensity of the rains reached record levels over the past three years, with the year 2020 being the wettest on record.

The short rains of 2019 were also wetter than usual. The water levels of many lakes reached very high levels. Lake Victoria rose to its highest level on record (13.42m), beating the 1964 level of 13.41m. 

“Record-breaking rises in the lake levels are expected to continue into the future under the current climate projections,” states ICPAC.

Most weather models also predict that East Africa will be getting wetter in the years to come, increasing the risk of floods and displacement.

The frequency of extremely wet short rains (October to December) is expected to increase. It is key to strengthen the resilience of populations to climate shocks since unprecedented extremes are expected.

Richard Kimbowa, the executive director of Uganda Coalition for Sustainable Development, says the impact of climate change is worst felt by the poor.

“The most vulnerable communities without many options are hit hardest by the negative impacts of climate change. Any interventions should, therefore, target this category,” Kimbowa suggests.

Why has water turned against its masters?

Dr Callist Tindimugaya, a water resources specialist with the Ministry of Water and Environment, blames the floods on the changing climate and environment destruction.

“We have too much water coming in a short period,” he says, adding that the water also found a degraded environment that could not store or hold it.

Also, he says climate change has been worsened by emissions, such as carbon dioxide from production processes, which trap heat escaping to the atmosphere, thereby causing global warming.

This has been caused by emissions from rich countries since the industrial revolution more than a century ago.

Because of climate change, malaria in Uganda has become rampant due to expanded breeding grounds for mosquitoes, the vector that transmits the disease.  

“The wetlands and forests that are supposed to hold or store water and shield us from climate change have been degraded,” observes Tindimugaya.

“This calls for restoration of the environment,” Tindimugaya says Uganda’s rivers and lakes started becoming brown about a decade ago due to heavy silting resulting from human activity. 

According to Tindimugaya, Uganda’s lakes, such as Victoria and Kyoga, are shallow.

“Silting of these lakes has reduced their depths, so excess water from rain has nowhere to go,” says Tindimugaya.

As a result of population expansion, industrialisation and unsustainable agricultural practices, between 1990 and 2015 alone, Uganda has lost almost half of its forest cover, which now stands at only 12%.

In the same period, the wetland cover has reduced from 15% to only 8.9%, according to the National Environment Management Authority State of Environment Report 2019. 

To manage the Lake Victoria water level to protect the power dams and to avoid the lake bursting the protection zone, Tindimugaya says they had to almost double the water outflow of River Nile from 1,400 cubic metres to 2,400 cubic metres per second. 

The protection zone of a big lake such as Lake Victoria is 200m and 100m for small lakes. For big rivers, such as the Nile, the protection zone is 100m and 50m for small rivers.

The importance of Lake Victoria

Lake Victoria, in East Africa, is the world’s largest tropical freshwater lake. At 68,800 square kilometres, or the size of Ireland, Lake Victoria is also the second largest freshwater lake in the world after Lake Superior in North America.  

Locally known as Nalubaale in Uganda and Nyanza in Kenya, it is the main reservoir of the world’s longest river, the Nile.

It has more than 200 fish species, with the most commercially viable species being the Nile Perch and tilapia.  

Today, about 30 million people in the catchment of the lake in Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania rely on Lake Victoria for fishing, irrigation, drinking water and, in Uganda, electricity.

The lake is also the source of one of the Nile’s major tributaries, the White Nile. The biggest part of the lake is in Tanzania, followed by Uganda, with the smallest part in Kenya. 

Lake Victoria fish production is estimated at 500,000 tonnes annually, valued at $600m.

Based on current stock-estimates, the lake has the potential to yield fish valued at over $800m annually on a sustainable basis.

The lake is an important transport route linking the East African states, is a reservoir for at least four hydropower stations along the Nile, provides water for industrial and domestic use, and regulates local climate.

Impact and solutions

In some cases, floods affected parts as far as 10km away from the shores of the lake. This was the case with parts of Kaberamaido around Lake Kyoga in eastern Uganda.

The social economic impacts included displacement of up to 693 households in Kobulubulu sub-county in Katinge, Okile, Ogerai and Kabalkweru parishes, as well as Ochero sub-county in the villages of Ocan Oyere, Oyala in Kanyalam parish and Apai in Swagere parish.

A total of 1,320 acres of crops were destroyed, greatly affecting the community livelihoods.

All the landing sites in the affected sub-counties were submerged and the displaced residents are camped in the neighbourhoods. The state of the wetlands report stated that most pit-latrines within the affected villages were either destroyed or filled with water, exposing the community to the potential danger of disease outbreaks, such cholera, bilharzia, malaria and elephantiasis.

The impacts of the flooding also extended to public infrastructure, disrupting the road transport network, destroying bridges, including the one connecting Kobulubulu to Murem Health Centre II, Murem Primary School and the landing site, was submerged.

Ogerai-Murem road (22 km), which links communities of Murem Health Centre II and the surrounding areas, is no longer motorable.

Around Lake Victoria, floods displaced communities from more than 100 fish landing sites and over 80 roads have been affected in Kalangala and Buvuma islands in Lake Victoria.

“The rising water levels have made it difficult for boats to dock at landing sites. Fishing activities are greatly hindered due to difficulty of the boats to dock safely, thus affecting the income generation by the locals,” stated the report.


Tindimugaya says while climate change is a creation of the rich countries, Uganda has put in place the legal and policy framework to domesticate the Paris Agreement of 2015.

As the changing climate hits home, Government is in the process of formulating a 10-year restoration plan for the environment.

This is expected to repair the damage to forests and wetlands over the years. 

Also, the Ministry of Water and Environment hopes to roll out the planned 40 million tree planting campaign every year.

This has been pending for the last two years because of the measures to control the spread of COVID-19, according to Alfred Okot Okidi, the Permanent Secretary in the ministry.

The Government is also considering construction of dams to increase storage of water in areas where the water can easily be harnessed for irrigation.

In addition, the water can be channelled into underground aquifers, where it can be stored and used in future.

Plans are underway to de-silt some of the water bodies and build walls around flood-prone areas.

 Story by Gerald Tenywa, Michael Onyinge, Razia Athman and Wilson Asiimwe.

This story was produced with support from WAN-IFRA Africa Media Grant for Climate Change Reporting. However, the views are not those of the sponsors or the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.


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