Wednesday May 15 2013

Here is a solution to floods: Plant bamboo

By Andrew Ndawula Kalema

In the wake of the floods that have destroyed lives and property in different parts of the country, we need to discover bamboo as a useful resource that can help prevent or manage such disasters.
While there are many stories of bamboo saving the day, from different parts of the world, let us start with those closer to home. Bamboo happens to be one of the unsung heroes of the decades-long war in northern Uganda.

Internally displaced people fleeing from the conflict would cut down bamboo, which grows abundantly in this region, to set up makeshift shelters. Light but strong, the poles will make a sturdy house frame, while the branches serve as walls and the roof. To these people, this structure offered their only home while on the run.
Across the border in South Sudan, an NGO came up with the Reciprocal Bamboo Frame Emergency Shelter, which they use to provide temporary accommodation to the homeless people returning from Sudan.

It is built using bamboo poles and sisal ropes or recycled rubber tyre strips; it takes about seven bamboo poles to set up the shelter, which can easily be dismantled and relocated. By using bamboo instead of timber or metal, the NGO is saving resources, and they are able to help more people. .

Following the floods in Kasese and other parts of the country, Uganda Red Cross Society and the ministry for disaster preparedness are mobilising resources to provide temporary shelter and other basic needs to the victims. As usual, the resources are inadequate.
Kasese alone will require an estimated Sh1.8bn to sort out. The funds will be used to supply tarpaulins, construction kits, essential household items and planting material for resettling the victims.
We need to borrow a leaf from our brothers in northern Uganda and South Sudan, who successfully utilised bamboo to deal with similar challenges.

Besides using bamboo poles to erect temporary shelters, both the ministry and the Red Cross should give out seedlings to the victims to plant.
One of the leading causes of floods is reckless clearing of vegetation especially along hill slopes. The ground remains exposed, leading to massive soil erosion; since there is nothing to hold back the rain water. The soils end up in the river, leading to flooding.
There is a need to plant bamboo on the slopes of Mt Rwenzori and along the banks of River Nyamwamba, all the way from its source at the top of the mountain.

With its dense and wide-spreading root system, it will help hold the soils in place. This will help control erosion and prevent mudslides.
Since bamboo is easy to establish and can grow in every part of Uganda, communities in flood-prone areas such as Kasese, Bundibugyo and Bududa should include this fast-growing multipurpose grass in their disaster preparedness strategy. The bamboo will hold back and slow down the water, reducing the amount that reaches these areas. The same strategies can be applied to other regions of the country.

Bamboo offers other benefits. The poles can be used as raw material for crafts, the shoots can be harvested for food, and the leaves make good forage for livestock.
It is a sustainable and environment friendly raw material with the capacity to enhance people’s lives at every stage of its life cycle.
Although it is stronger than many trees, bamboo is actually a grass. It is the fastest growing plant in the world and this enables frequent harvesting.

Under favourable conditions, it can grow up to a full foot in 24 hours. A pole will achieve full height and thickness in three to four months.
One hectare (two and a half acres) of bamboo stand can store over 30,000 litres of water in its culms during the rainy season and gradually release it back in the soil during dry season.
Planted along a river bank or lake shore, it will act as a natural filter, its interwoven system of roots and rhizomes forming a wall to prevent the flow of soil sediments into the water, while its canopy provides a shade over the water and help reduce the rate of evaporation.
In the rainy season, bamboo absorbs large amounts of water. This gives bamboo a very high water storage capacity. The leaves help reduce the impact of heavy raindrops, by dispersing them into smaller particles.

It also adds a lot of organic matter to the soil. The large mass of leaves, twigs and dry stalks contribute to nutrient cycling, thus conserving soil fertility. So, besides putting a roof on your head, bamboo will ensure there is food on your table.

The author is a farming journalist
and a consultant.