Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Floods Force War Victims to Move to New Camps

Many existing IDP camps are inaccessible because roads have either been swept away or are under water.
By Patrick Okino
Just as the Ugandan government had begun to close some refugee camps for the 1.7 million people displaced from their homes by the country’s war in the north, new camps are now being opened for tens of thousands of people made homeless by devastating floods.



The first six of the new camps are in Lira District and will house at least 50,000 people whose homes have been destroyed in Uganda’s heaviest rains for thirty-five years.



As yet, there is no let-up in the deluge, with meteorologists predicting that the heavy rains will continue until at least the end of November.



The Monitor, Uganda’s leading independent daily newspaper, said the scale and the ferocity of the flooding had probably set back the country’s development by more than ten years.



“With Uganda preparing to host one of the world’s most prestigious summits - the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) next month - we could see the transport system totally disabled to the embarrassment of the whole country,” said the newspaper in an editorial.



“The floods could be just the wake-up call Uganda needed. Our lack of preparedness for disaster of this scale, and the manner in which officials are managing the crisis, just says how much leaders at the policy level have focused their energies elsewhere for too long.



“Part of the bigger picture is that crops and roads have been destroyed and hunger looms high. After the floods, the victims will return to their homes only to start a reconstruction of their lives, taking the country back ten or so years in terms of poverty eradication.”



Benson Obua Ogwal, Member of Parliament for Aloi sub-county, to the east of Lira, the district capital, said the torrential rains were persisting, flooding was spreading and estimates for destruction and deaths were changing daily.



Ogwal, speaking to IWPR at Awiny after he had inspected the new camps at Anara, Okut, Tyengar, Ajobi, Adwir and Awiny, said, “People have erected temporary structures. But there is no tarpaulin to enable them to cover the roofs, and people are just living in the rains.



“Water sources are contaminated and the dangers are high from malaria, cholera and other diarrhoea-related illnesses.”



David Odongo, a local councillor, said many schools in Lira District had been closed. “Compounds have been flooded, latrines have been washed away and cracks have appeared in many of the buildings,” he said.



President Yoweri Museveni declared a state of emergency in northern Uganda on September 19 after the floods swept away roads and bridges and left entire communities isolated.



It is the first time the president has invoked the Ugandan constitution to declare a state of emergency anywhere in Uganda. Some 100,000 people in the north have died in the civil war and an estimated 38,000 children have been kidnapped by the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA, to serve as guerrilla fighters, porters and sex slaves.



Parliament in 2003 had urged the Ugandan government to declare northern Uganda a disaster area because of the prolonged war, but this was rejected by the Museveni administration.



The natural disaster has struck just as many of the 1.7 million people driven from their homes by the war into Internally Displaced Persons, IDPs, camps had enjoyed a year of relative peace and were beginning to move back slowly to their home villages. The tranquility followed the signing of a ceasefire agreement between the LRA and the Ugandan government at on-off peace talks which began in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, in July 2006.



Many IDP camps are inaccessible because roads have either been swept away or are under water. More than 400,000 people have been directly affected by the floods. The government has said the death toll exceeds fifty persons, but with relief workers unable to reach vast swathes of territory the final figure is bound to be much higher.



President Museveni, touring flooded areas this month, told reporters in Lira that the government had requisitioned every possible helicopter and plane to airlift food and other materials to communities who have seen their entire crops and homes washed away.



Professor Apollo Nsibambi, Uganda’s prime minister, said 90 per cent of the road network of the four northern districts of Acholi, Lango, Teso and Langi - those also directly affected by the two decades-long war between the LRA and the government - had been destroyed. At the last count, he said, 174 schools had been seriously damaged or destroyed. The bill for reconstruction would exceed 100 million US dollars and the people of the north would need to be fed by the United Nations World Food Programme and other agencies for at least the next six months.



But a WFP spokeswoman said on October 5 that an appeal for 65 million dollars to help the victims of flooding in 15 African nations has received less than 2 million dollars. Most of that money had come from the United Kingdom, said Lydia Wamala in Kampala, Uganda’s capital.



Impassable roads in much of Uganda meant that the WFP would have to airlift food to affected areas, she said, which cost eight times as much as moving it by road, "Without funding, WFP cannot move this food, let alone buy it. WFP will have to skip October general food distribution if no new funds come in."



Patrick Okino is an IWPR journalist in Uganda.