Floods in Bigogwe: Counting the cost

They wake up, sit under the sun, and watch the floods. Within an area of about 10 metres, a group of six men are discussing survival. It is the ordinary talk here while life is hardly going on, while some trying to figure out what to do next.

They wake up, sit under the sun, and watch the floods. Within an area of about 10 metres, a group of six men are discussing survival. It is the ordinary talk here while life is hardly going on, while some trying to figure out what to do next.

This is but one of the scenes in Bigogwe Sector in Nyabihu District of the Western Province, an area that has recently suffered floods in Rwanda.

So far, the death toll has risen to seventeen. Even those who are retrieved cannot be identified, because the bodies are already decomposed.

The waters are dirty. The smell is repugnant. Two days after the rains drew back, some men entered the waters to recover properties, their skins have since developed a rash, they look like have been attacked by measles.

Close to 100 houses, only in the Bigogwe sector, are submerged, with about 100 pit latrines submerged too. It means human waste has mixed with the water, which is all stagnant. Only a little of it flows across the roads to the neighbourhood.

Fear of the outbreak of dysentery and cholera are imminent. Little kids are seen playing in the water oblivious of the danger lurking.

Authorities have imposed serious measures to curb disease outbreak. No one is allowed to go into the water and you are punished if you defied the order.  Many animals have perished in the floods, including goats, poultry and cows.

On Tuesday, the governor of the province Penelope Kantarama visited the flooded area, to assess the damage caused by the floods with a strong warning to the people to stay away from the dirty water.

Real death toll unknown

An unknown number of people are still suspected to have died in the floods, but there is no rescue team available to search for the bodies yet. People have to wait for a body to float to the surface of the water before they find it.

People are having difficulties in finding bodies because the houses where they had sought shelter while it rained were sunk and covered, causing their bodies to decompose at an alarming rate, say the residents.

It is the fourteen day now since the floods hit the area and close to 1700 people are suspected to be displaced. There are 100 families in Bigogwe alone, with about 500 people. 

Only 17 families have been given shelter so far. Men are paying for being men; they are unable to sleep in the same rooms with their children.

“Men feel embarrassed and uncomfortable to sleep with their children and wives in a room with another family,” said one lady in the camp.

Many families are staying with neighbours and friends.  In this area, a family has about ten to fifteen people. Sanitation is poor and it will take time to teach them how to maintain cleanliness.

Aiding victims

Aid started flowing in a day after the floods hit. The vice-mayor in charge of welfare, Jacqueline Bakunduseruye, said the district provided 6 tones of beans, 12 tones of maize, 50 boxes of soap and 500 kg of salt.

Religious groups and NGOs have also lent a hand. Pfunda Tea Factory provides firewood for cooking, and the Red Cross, is on the ground.

The Rwanda tourism authority has offered cash to assist the victims and UNICEF is handling children’s problems. No clothes, books, shoes or anything else of value was recovered. Children have to get everything new to start school.

The Executive Secretary of Kanzenze Sector, Heritier Kazendebe said 137 primary school and 28 secondary school children need help. The vice mayor said a lot of aid has been delivered.

“We already have food for two weeks and a lot essential requirements are already here.”

Kazendebe says some food has been stocked in case there is more flooding and people need to get aid immediately. The Prime Minister’s office has contributed money and other materials to help resettle the area.  But, as of now, no tent or house has been raised.

All 17 families stay in 3 houses. This is the reason why some are still staying with relatives, neighbours and friends.

“We are still waiting for the district authorities to allow us to cut trees for constructing the houses,” Bakunduseruye. She added there is team on the ground to identify all who were displaced and to replace the destroyed property.

“We know some are still there, but the team is working on it.”
This temporary camp is only 50 metres close to the Nkamira Refugee Transit Centre.

The centre has close to 3000 Congolese refugees, who are supposed to be taken to other settlement camps. But because these camps are full, the centre has become a refugee camp.

Congo dilemma

The Director of the National Refugee Committee, Stratton Kamanzi, said they are expecting more refugees to come because of the continued fighting in the DRC.

Children, even adults, from this camp interact with those displaced by floods. Diarrhoea cases have been reported in the refugee camp. But Kamanzi said the UN refugee commission is dealing with everything.

“We don’t have big problems so far,” he explained. 

“We have the clinics, shelter, clean water and food, but since the number is increasing there are risks of an epidemic. We are doing everything possible to take them to the refugee camps in other provinces.”

If there is an outbreak, all camps can easily be affected. The camps are only separated by a barbed wire fence. A nurse who takes care of the displaced registered six patients on Tuesday said the patients were not seriously sick.

“We have not got any serious disease yet, but some respiratory diseases have been reported,” she said.

But she said the ailment was common in the area, they have been admitting such cases even before the floods started. She explained that the weather in Bigogwe is cold and people encounter respiratory problems because of this. But tht doesn’t mean everything is good.

“We have few cases of diarrhoea, though I cannot confirm it is because of dirty water,” she says.

The nurse says clean water has been extended to the camp and they now have safe and clean water and that they are going to install a water-tank in case the water becomes inadequate.

The vice mayor said UNICEF has offered “SILO”, a chemical that kills germs in the water. The water facility where water is pumped is located 30m from the flooded area, which means there is a possibility that the pumped water will get contaminated from underground. Moreover, the flooded water in this area is not flowing; it is very contaminated, dirty and soaks into the ground.

More rains expected

The Mayor of Nyabihu District, Charles Ngirabatware has said there is a need to tackle the deteriorating environmental problems in the area, especially the deforestation of Gishwati forest, which has largely been blamed for the disaster.

All hills are bare. No single tree is planted on the hill, as it has been over-cultivated and the hills are steep. On the afternoon of September 13, the rain started pouring, but people thought it was the normal down pour.

After an hour, the showering intensified, and slowly the valleys were over loaded. The small river of Mizingo, which overflowed in 2002, caused even more flooding this time around.

Theogen Kabaiza was in his house when he suddenly heard people screaming. When he walked out, he said his eyes could not believe what was happening.

“I saw some people running uphill, but they were being beaten back by a huge stream of water running down it,” he said.

He tells a story of a mother who had come for shopping in the market, but sought shelter in carpentry when it started to rain. She later survived by running.

“Her son failed to breathe because they were cooking in the carpentry, so she decided to run and seek shelter in a neighbour’s house.  When she turned around, the carpentry was submerged in just the blink of an eye.”

The water ran down as if a lake had been channelled into the valley. The velocity was so high that it carried away almost 20cm of the top soil from the hills.

The whole quantity of soil was dumped and piled on this small village of Ruturo and others. The height of the soil piled has gone up to nearly 1.5 m.

Property lost

Now, it is impossible to recover anything.  All crops were covered. If it the rain continues, it will take some months for the water to dry up. Authorities are registering properties lost in the water for possible compensation.

People are complaining that it is only those people whose houses sunk who are expected to be compensated. Oliver Mbabajende, who owned a small business in the area said, “I don’t live here, but I had come to purchase some potatoes for sale in the market.”

She had just received a loan of Frw32, 000 and used it all to buy potatoes. But authorities haven’t considered her problem.

“That was all my wealth, I have nothing now and they are not considering me.” Although some will be compensated, and money has started coming in, people are suspicious local leaders may embezzle it.

“Just wait and see,” an old man said. “A serious scandal will happen. They will start planning how to make a difference for their pockets.”

Kabaiza, who had a huge plantation in the valley, is now stranded; though he is not among the people to be compensated. But he is sympathetic with his fellow neighbours, who were also affected by the floods.

“His goats, hens, clothes, utensils and everything can’t be recovered. He is as poor now as nothing to imagine,’ he lamented, referring to one of the victims.

The vice mayor said the district expects a serious fall in revenue, as almost all of the agricultural products in the area were eroded and destroyed down the valley. The mayor said he is worried that if more rains come again, the road to Kigali will be cut off.

The district will undoubtedly face economic problems. Nyabihu, which Mayor Ngirabatware says supplies over 70 percent of Irish potatoes consumed countrywide which was all lost due to the rains.

State Minister for HIV/Aids and other Infectious Diseases, Dr. Innocent Nyaruhirira, has visited the area. He is on a tour of the districts bordering the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), visiting the camps of persons displaced by the floods.

The Minister’s visit, intends to assess the state of the government-issued alertness in the wake of the recent outbreak of Ebola Virus in the DRC.

But the population in the area has not yet been well sensitized that a deadly disease may arise from the stagnant floods. Experts have said human beings are responsible for climate changes.