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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Why Chinese Cities Waste Millions On Vanity Building Projects

The so-called "White Elephants," or massive building projects that go unused, keep going up across China as local officials mix vanity and a misdirected attempt to attract business and tourists. A perfect example the 58-meter, $230 million statue of Guan Yu, a beloved military figure from the Third Century, that nobody seems interested in visiting.

Statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou Park, China

Chen Zhe

BEIJING — The Chinese Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development recently ordered the relocation of a giant statue in Jingzhou, in the central province of Hubei. The 58-meter, 1,200-ton statue depicts Guan Yu, a widely worshipped military figure from the Eastern Han Dynasty in the Third century A.D.

The government said it ordered the removal because the towering presence "ruins the character and culture of Jingzhou as a historic city," and is "vain and wasteful." The relocation project wound up costing the taxpayers approximately ¥300 million ($46 million).

Huge monuments as "intellectual property" for a city

In recent years local authorities in China have often raced to create what is euphemistically dubbed IP (intellectual property), in the form of a signature building in their city. But by now, we have often seen negative consequences of such projects, which evolved from luxurious government offices to skyscrapers for businesses and residences. And now, it is the construction of cultural landmarks. Some of these "white elephant" projects, even if they reach the scale of the Guan Yu statue, or do not necessarily violate any regulations, are a real problem for society.

It doesn't take much to be able to differentiate between a project constructed to score political points and a project destined for the people's benefit. You can see right away when construction projects neglect the physical conditions of their location. The over the top government buildings, which for numerous years mushroomed in many corners of China, even in the poorest regional cities, are the most obvious examples.

Homebuyers looking at models of apartment buildings in Shanghai, China — Photo: Imaginechina/ZUMA

Guan Yu transformed into White Elephant

A project truly catering to people's benefit would address their most urgent needs and would be systematically conceived of and designed to play a practical role. Unfortunately, due to a dearth of true creativity, too many cities' expression of their rich cultural heritage is reduced to just building peculiar cultural landmarks. The statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou is a perfect example.

Long ago Jinzhou was a strategic hub linking the North and the South of China. But its development has lagged behind coastal cities since the launch of economic reform a generation ago.

This is why the city's policymakers came up with the idea of using the place's most popular and glorified personality, Guan Yu (who some refer to as Guan Gong). He is portrayed in the 14th-century Chinese classic "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms" as a righteous and loyal warrior. With the aim of luring tourists, the city leaders decided to use him to create the city's core attraction, their own IP.

Opened in June 2016, the park hosting the statue comprises a surface of 228 acres. In total it cost ¥1.5 billion ($232 million) to build; the statue alone was ¥173 million ($27 million). Alas, since the park opened its doors more than four years ago, the revenue to date is a mere ¥13 million ($2 million). This was definitely not a cost-effective investment and obviously functions neither as a city icon nor a cultural tourism brand as the city authorities had hoped.

China's blind pursuit of skyscrapers

Some may point out the many landmarks hyped on social media precisely because they are peculiar, big or even ugly. However, this kind of attention will not last and is definitely not a responsible or sustainable concept. There is surely no lack of local politicians who will contend for attention by coming up with huge, strange constructions. For those who can't find a representative figure, why not build a 40-meter tall potato in Dingxi, Gansu Province, a 50-meter peony in Luoyang, Shanxi Province, and maybe a 60-meter green onion in Zhangqiu, Shandong Province?

It is to stop this blind pursuit of skyscrapers and useless buildings that, early this month, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development issued a new regulation to avoid local authorities' deviation from people's real necessities, ridiculous wasted costs and over-consumption of energy.

I hope those responsible for the creation of a city's attractiveness will not simply go for visual impact, but instead create something that inspires people's intelligence, sustains admiration and keeps them coming back for more.

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