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Rwandans Risk It All For Their Ancestral Lands

In 2012, torrential rains killed at least 72 Rwandans
In 2012, torrential rains killed at least 72 Rwandans
Jean Baptiste Karegeya

RWANDA - Severe weather kills and natural disasters can be particularly deadly in Rwanda, like elsewhere in Africa.

The most deadly storm last year killed at least 72 people and injured more than 120. According to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Refugee Affairs (MIDIMAR), in 2012 alone, 3000 homes were destroyed.

Justin Kayira, Director of Disaster Management at the MIDIMAR, says climate change and the complicated geographic context – Rwanda’s mountainous landscape, overpopulation, the way land is used and modern construction methods – make it very difficult to deal with natural disasters.

But beyond these outward factors is a cause that is closer to home to many Rwandans. “Villagers refuse to move away from their ancestral land, and will often build on steep slopes that can collapse during the rainy season,” Kayira explains. “The people living on the Sebaya River for instance, refuse to listen to the authorities who ask them to leave their homes and move to safer ground. They say that their ancestors have always lived there.”

This is all too familiar to Mrs. T, a 54-year-old woman who lives in Bigogwe, in the Western Province. Her house is less than two meters away from a large ravine. Every day, she has to cross the ravine with her two daughters by balancing on a tree trunk. Those who aren’t acrobatic enough to cross this way have to down the ravine and climb back up on the other side. “When heavy rain fills the ravine, there is no way to cross. The bridges we made were carried away by floods several times,” says Mrs. T, who is afraid of being forced to move far from her fields.

Reducing the risks

In order to reduce human losses and material damages, the Ministry of Local Administration (MINALOC), wants to move 72,000 families. Among them, 2,700 families living in the rice paddies of Bugarama, in the Western Province, who will have to move to a new site – Kibangira. These families have been complaining about the lack of water and basic infrastructures at the new site. According to a MINALOC official, “the priority is escaping the risk areas. The infrastructures will be built progressively.”

Only a small number of Rwandans watch the weather forecast. “Nobody prepares for weather hazards,” says a member of the Rwandan weather service. The role of this service is to warn people about imminent changes in weather patterns, but in effect, the service lacks equipment and can only give limited information.

A local official from Gakenke, in the Northern Province, says “farmers should keep an eye on the weather forecast, to prevent their harvests from being ruined by the rain.” He also says that as the rainy season approaches, villagers should stop planting crops in marshland. But local farmers don’t agree, they believe marshland is the best – and most often only – profitable farming land.

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