Some of the worst rains and flooding in recent years to strike eastern Uganda have triggered a massive landslide that has left thousands of people homeless. Devastating mudslides from Mount Elgon near the Uganda-Kenya border engulfed three villages in the Bududa district, 275 kilometers from the capital, Kampala. The flows spurred a quick response from government officials, who sent army engineers to the inundated region, and from the United Nations, which has supplied emergency tents and plastic sheeting.
But impassible roads have stymied the rescue effort. At least 87 bodies have been recovered, with some 300 people, including 100 students, still missing. U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesperson Fatoumata Lejeune-Kaba says that until impaired gateways to the region become more accessible, the human toll will not be clear.
“In the district of Bududa, there are three villages that are completely under the mud. People have not been accounted for yet. The government is still carrying out assessment missions to find out how many they could possibly rescue, how many are missing, and how many are dead,” she advised.
Lejeune-Kaba says that the U.N.’s emergency relief role is a limited one that stems from its presence already in the region and its stockpile of usable supplies.
“Our involvement is purely on humanitarian grounds. We are already in Uganda. We have been helping refugees. We have been helping sometimes the internally displaced. And because this is an emergency, because we have stocks available, that is why we are getting involved. But this is not an area where UNHCR is normally active,” said Lejeune-Kaba.
Usual precipitation levels in January and February are quite low in Uganda in between customary rainy seasons. But this year, the El Nino cyclical weather phenomenon, that generates warm fronts from overheating ocean currents in the South Pacific halfway around the globe, also is fomenting relentless rains in eastern Uganda and locations in Kenya and Ethiopia. UNHCR spokesperson Lejeune-Kaba says Kampala officials are quite vigilant in responding to the daunting pressures posed by the turbulence.
“The government was pretty quick in going to the affected areas. They can’t get heavy machinery in there to try, maybe, to rescue survivors. The rains are continuing. They are expected to last at least for another month. And so that compounds all the suffering, already being experienced by the population, who have lost all their properties. They have lost everything, probably family members as well,” she said.
The previous devastating floods to hit eastern Uganda two and a half years ago in September, 2007, uprooted 200,000 people and were also said to be a product of an El Nino cycle.