Floods, droughts and resilience

The raging rain season has seen media awash with news on floods and its consequences as well as a speculative possibility of droughts in the months ahead. What a dilemma!

My article today focuses on one of the most crucial basic need in humanity – water. It touches on the presence and absence of it and the resulting consequences being as serious as life threatening.

From media houses, even beyond Rwanda, we are increasingly confronted with news of people dying from flooding during rainy seasons and people dying from drought in dry seasons.

And the foreseen scenario is that despite any substantial rainfalls, Drought is eagerly waiting on the couch for his turn; all within a calendar year.

Natural hazards such as drought and floods disrupt normal activities in human societies. My geography in primary school expounded much on the historic timing of monsoon winds, which our great grandfathers could predict with precision in the interest of agricultural and economic sustainability.

Some contemporary thoughts have followed the hypothesis that contemporary ‘grandfathers’ have not inherited the art of predicting accurately, or technology has failed us, or we have treated our environments so badly that our maker is not happy with us, and so on.

There definitely is a great uncertainty in the understanding of the relationship between environment and humanity when it comes to natural disasters.  This can strike very deep reflections out of a very simple thing- in this case -water!

That the same water we drink, take a shower with, swim in, and well, in varying quantities can also render Human beings vulnerable to natural disasters.

You have most likely heard the question ‘why don’t people store the excess water during rain seasons for use during the dry seasons? Sounds a win-win situation- a lot easy to say! But what and how exactly to put the theory into practice largely remains a grey area. There are many things easier said that done, but it remains extremely relevant for us to acknowledge that our relations with the environment warrant more serious considerations, since they initiate more complex issues touching our future survival on this planet.

Globally, the increasing frequency of floods and droughts is affecting mankind in all possible perspectives; from damages on infrastructure to reduced crop yields- again touching on Food- yet another basic need.

In Rwanda, a big percentage of the population is still rural and depends on agriculture for not only their daily caloric needs but also a livelihood and source of income.

In this perspective, when we read that floods destroyed infrastructure, affected crops and livestock, caused deaths, etc. one cannot avoid to reflect deeply on the impact of the resulting housing, water and food insecurity to Rwandans living in rural areas and to an extend urban areas too.

Indeed the environmental and socio-economic impacts of floods and droughts can be devastating and a complex topic. Agricultural losses due to excess water or lack of it are a phenomenon worth reflecting on deeply.

At one incidence, people encounter food shortage due to flooding and at another, within months due to lack of irrigation. Farmers are smart! They are always able to draw lessons from such disasters and know better when and what to plant for every season, in attempting to navigate their way around these obstacles.

The story would have been worse without their innovative interventions.

Rwanda is labeled the land of a thousand hills due to her unique geomorphology, which allows her to enjoy a profound relationship with water resources. The hills drain into the wetlands, which act as sponges to prevent flooding and store water for use in the dry seasons.

This is not the case for countries with more flat landscapes and the consequences of flooding have been extremely hazardous this rainy season. So, for God’s choosing, in this one, Rwanda is extremely lucky.

Rwanda is ranked relatively high in poverty reduction. EDPRS is a combined matrix of economic growth and poverty reduction and highlights that both attributes are closely linked.

Since poverty is directly related to the adaptive capacity of a community to rebound from natural disaster, hazards such floods and droughts will definitely have a damaging impact on the population, especially the rural population.

Whereas some disasters are caused by sudden onset of catastrophic events, we also do have more long term and slow onset processes which can be or have already been predicted in good time. In both cases, there is always something each one of us can do to improve the situation.

Depending on the level of vulnerability, people respond differently. Floods or drought are both natural disasters and people will either adapt to the threat in situ or move to a safer place.

Now we begin to understand just why REMA (Rwanda Environment Management Agency) had to introduce buffers around wetlands, rivers and lakes, why the City of Kigali urban planning policy discourages habitats on over 20% slope, why the University of Rwanda has put an emphasis on sustainable neighbourhood planning in the school of architecture curriculum.

It is therefore important to understand decisions made by the government to protect people from natural disasters. It is equally important to embrace policies made to help people endure future floods and droughts and/or recover quickly from the aftermath of the same.

The writer is a lecturer at the school of Architecture, University of Rwanda. An architect and urban designer with keen interest on the dialectical relations between Architecture and Society.


The views expressed in this article are of the author.

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