It is floods now, but we shouldn’t forget drought might follow

This wet season, Rwanda has received the most amount of rain in 36 years, according to environment minister, Dr Vincent Biruta, and it shows.

There have been more floods than in the recent past.

Roads have been cut off by landslides, houses destroyed and deaths have occurred (more than 200 since the onset of the rains).

It could have been worse were it not for the correct environmental policies Rwanda has adopted. Still, the effects of the disaster were such that the government deemed it necessary to convene a cabinet meeting to address the subject.

This is an example of a government treating natural disasters as a grave national issue. Perhaps it is because this country’s topography and size leave us with little choice.

We want to conserve what we have and certainly do not want to gift it to others courtesy of our rivers that flow through their land.

We do not much see responsibility at that level in this neighbourhood. But without it here, one can imagine these horrific scenes following prolonged rainfall.

We can picture water rushing down bare hills carrying all the good soil with it, loosening huge boulders and sending them hurtling downhill to settled areas below.

Or whole hillsides, devoid of any cover, giving way under the deluge breaking loose and carrying with them homes and people, livestock, crops and other vegetation and burying them in the valleys below.

In the valleys, we could see raging rivers bursting their banks and covering all the cultivated land with their brown water and mud and killing the hopes of hundreds of people in the process.

In the towns, water rushing through open drainage canals might carry unsuspecting people to their death. Houses perched precariously on the side of hills or along the path of rain water risked being washed away.

The destruction is scaring. But it is possible. We have seen such scenes in this region - images of floating islands of plastic rubbish in residential areas of some of the cities in our neighbourhood. The rubbish is both the cause and result of the flooding in those places.

In other areas, pictures of flooded roads are common because the natural path of water has been blocked by building in the wetlands.

We may count ourselves lucky that similar catastrophic scenes have not occurred here. But it is more than luck that they have not happened. It is the result of the right policies.

When plastics were banned in this country some years ago, the measure was not universally welcome. Now everyone sees the value..There are no floating islands of plastic debris in our streets, clogged drainage canals or soil made impermeable to water by buried non-degradable materials.

Other important policies have included country-wide tree planting and reforestation, hillside terracing for agricultural purposes and better management and use of wetlands, rivers and other water bodies.

Deaths have occurred now and in the past when nature has visited her fury on us for whatever reason. But this time more deaths have been prevented by resettlement policies that advise those dwelling in high risk areas to move to safer places.

The word for high risk area in Kinyarwanda, amanegeka, captures the danger of living in such areas better than its English equivalent. It carries with it the notion of precariousness, hanging dangerously on the precipice or being held in place by very tenuous links.

More than advice, there has been resettlement of the most vulnerable to safer places. And now we hear that those who resist relocation may be forced to do so for their own safety.

Of course we may not be able to determine when mother nature will do what she well pleases, whether to open the skies and let rain pour endlessly and inundate the earth or to uncover the sun and let it heat the land for months on end and scorch everything on it.

But we can plan to mitigate these effects when they occur, for they will.

One of the most effective ways is to anticipate these sorts of things and plan accordingly. Most countries have ministries charged with disaster management.

Their role should not be to react to what has already happened, but to make sure that when it does it is contained and catastrophe averted. We also have the science, and increasingly the equipment, to read climatic conditions more accurately and make reasonable predictions.

All this comes from looking at environmental conservation and climate change as a matter of life and death, not as a passing fad.

And when this rainy period has passed we should not forget that worse may follow. My old school hymn had a hopeful note that reminded us that sunshine follows after rain.

We might do well to sound a cautious note here, that prolonged sunshine, sometimes turning into drought, may follow after heavy rain and flooding, and take appropriate measures. We should never say we were not warned.

The views expressed in this article are of the author.

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