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Floods Pile on Agony in the North

Worst floods in 35 years sweep region already devastated by two decades of civil war.
By Samuel Okiror
President Yoweri Museveni has declared a state of emergency in northern Uganda, following the worst flooding in decades that has left thousands homeless and countless numbers dead.



The floods, which have swept away roads and bridges, leaving entire communities isolated, have struck a region already devastated by a 21-year civil war.



The state of emergency decision was reached at a special cabinet meeting chaired by President Museveni in Kampala after local pleas urging the government to declare the flood-hit districts of Acholi, Lango, Teso and Karamoja disaster areas.



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 last time any kind of emergency rule was imposed in Uganda was in May 1966, when President Milton Obote declared one during a political confrontation between the central government and the traditional Buganda kingdom, in the south, over a new constitution that eroded the power of traditional fiefdoms.



Musa Ecweru, state minister for relief and disaster preparedness, told IWPR that by declaring a state of emergency in relation to the floods, the government is recognising a national tragedy needing urgent local and international attention.



“Declaring a state of emergency will help us to get external support,” Ecweru said in a phone interview. “The situation is bad. The population is so desperate. It’s a big challenge as most areas are inaccessible.”



Ecweru said the best estimate was that the floods have so far claimed more than 50 lives in the northern Acholi, Lango, Teso and Karamoja areas. Crops, homes, health centres, schools, bridges and roads have been swept away. The flooding is exceptionally severe in Teso, where many areas are accessible only by canoe or air.



The disaster comes 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 to their home villages. The tranquillity 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.



The World Food Programme has launched a 60 million US dollar appeal for food aid for northern Uganda, where the UN body estimates it will have to feed nearly two million people until March 2008. The recipients will be victims of the floods and also populations displaced by conflict and civil strife.



Julius Ochen, vice chairman of Amuria local council in Teso region, said hundreds of people in 35 flooded internal refugee camps in the area needed to be evacuated. “The situation is very disastrous,” he told IWPR by telephone. “As we were coming out of LRA insurgency, another catastrophe of floods comes. This has caused another total destruction to the north like the LRA insurgency.”



Ochen said the rains are the heaviest in 35 years and that they have swept away 22 bridges in Amuria alone. Some 80 secondary and primary schools have been unable to open for the third and final term of the year because of collapses of classrooms and pit latrines.



“We need to relocate and evacuate IDPs from the flooded camps,” he said. “Their huts are collapsing. However, we can’t do it because the camps are inaccessible because roads are under water.”



Robert Ekongot, vice chairman of Katakwi local council, neighbouring Amuria, said he feared serious outbreaks of cholera, typhoid, dysentery and other water-related diseases at the camps because of contaminated water.



“We are worried. Diseases like cholera are going to emerge,” he said. “Our people are taking water which is saturated with faeces from the pit latrines.”



Further north, in Acholi territory, Kitgum and Pader districts are almost entirely cut off from Gulu, the main town in the north, because major bridges and roads have been submerged and washed away. The army is using military helicopters and boats to reach stranded communities.



The northern regional army spokesman, Lieutenant Chris Magezi, told IWPR by phone, “We are using our military helicopters to airlift students returning to school. Our marines are also helping the people to cross areas where bridges are submerged.”



The Ugandan government launched a 36 million dollar appeal on September 23 to help hundreds of thousands of people made homeless by the floods. United States Ambassador Steven Browning announced a contribution of 100,000 dollar toward efforts relief efforts. Barclays Bank also donated 100,000 dollars, while Uganda’s Red Cross Society launched an appeal for flood relief funds. The money will mostly be used to restore clean water supplies and sanitation and to buy plastic sheeting for emergency shelter.



Uganda’s Department of Meteorology said the heavy rainfall will not only get worse but also spread to all parts of the country. According to the department’s seasonal rainfall forecast for September to December, there is “an increased likelihood” of above normal rainfall over most parts of the country.



Samuel Okiror Egadu is an IWPR journalist in Uganda.