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Tragedy at Bukalasi: massive rock slide and flooding kills many
11 October, 2018
Story by ILO secondee Neil White from the IPO, Newport, UK.

Following similar tragedies over the last few decades, this recent disaster looks to be the biggest so far in terms of destructive force.

At 1pm on 11 October, an existing fissure higher up the valley finally gave way, following several days of torrential rain.

This area is notoriously unstable, with steep valley sides and deep, rich volcanic soil.

Bududa is a METGE supported district with one of our nurseries supplying trees to local farmers along with forestry education. Some staff live locally and were able to offer immediate assessments. It was clear that we had lost at least one beneficiary farmer with others missing or uncontactable.

We were able to get to get a small team up to Bukalasi and outlying villages early the following morning. At this stage the important thing for us was to get as much visual and story information from eye witness accounts as possible. This helps piece together what took place in the critical hours before and after the event. The first thing you need to deal with is your own emotional reaction to what you see. Without this you won't be able to get the important tasks done.

It's is fair to say that the scene was one of apocalyptic devastation. A human and livestock tragedy. FIve villages had been completely erased by a tidal wave of boulders, trees and water 10 meters high. Two small rivers had quickly become overwhelmed and burst their banks. Villagers' descriptions suggested a huge rock fall had taken place at a well known risk fault. This carried enormous boulders down the valley, facilitated by massive amounts of mud and small rocks.

Fifteen hours later, the area was still very unstable with locals performing the grim search for bodies and recovering what could be saved. There was virtually nothing left in the immediate path of the flood.

Within a few hours, makeshift bridges had been constructed by locals to facilitate access to isolated areas. Ironically, bridges were made from the same broken trees that had fallen earlier. This has given us an idea for work we could do to prepare for other, predictable events.

Only a few metres either side of the river area  it was as if nothing had happened and so it is possible to create stable sites for recovery and marshalling resources.

Recovery and the future

 

Despite government efforts to relocate villagers following previous landslides, most returned to the area. The land here is fertile and mega-crops can be produced all year round.

The land they'd been offered, according to villagers, was insufficient for their needs and they felt they had no alternative but to return, despite the dangers. These are challenges that face all levels of society.

 

Disease risk managment is now a major issue.

While tree planting can undoubtedly help control the effects of land slippage, much more needs to be done to have an impact on climate change overall. Reducing the pattern of extreme weather conditions that has developed in recent years remains a priority. METGE is in the forefront of this work in Uganda.

By D-Day + 4, diggers had managed to access some of the lower villages and serious repair work was underway to extend access for relief vehicles.

Recovery will take place relatively quickly. I've no doubt that, with the passage of a few weeks, the area will look much as it did before to the stranger's eye. The forest plants will regrow to cover the ground and new areas will be brought into cultivation. I'd imagine it highly unlikely that the population will abandon this area. Therefore, we're left with the challenge of reducing the risks as best we can, offering support and moving on.