Richard Musinguzi is a resident of Kilembe, Kasese District. Last year, he joined the statistics of homeless people after a heavy flood destroyed his house. His employer, Kilembe Mines, saved him with an offer of another house. However, early this month, disaster threatened to return his name onto the list of the destitute.
His current house barely survived destruction. His compound looks like a dumping site for debris. “These days, when it rains I carry my jacket and climb the hills. It is safer,” he says.
What the floods left behind
Kilembe is a mining settlement located more than 20 kilometres from Kasese town. It is predominantly a valley. On May 8, the area dominated news headlines again. Not for the copper that it was once known for producing, but rather the harmful floods that have occurred there, two years in a row.
The road to the notorious Kilembe Mines is only passable by hoping, skipping and jumping onto the boulders that shattered the tarmac.
Some houses have no doors, windows, roofs and have been abandoned. Others only balance on a shaky foundation pillars. A strong wind would, without a doubt, send these crumbling like the proverbial pack of cards.
Residents have not fully conceived the destruction. It is more than 10 days since the occurrence, but some still stop in their tracks, look at the extent of the devastation, shake their heads and proceed amidst murmurs. Non – residents also roam the area in bigger numbers. They observe, chat and pull out their cameras to capture the misfortune on their gadgets.
The gurgle of the erratic River Nyamwamba is within earshot. The sound (which never seems to go away when one is in Kilembe) is a stark reminder, to the people, that as long as the solution to the problem is not established and addressed, more damage is bound to occur.
What promises were made
The residents say the problem is known but was simply not solved. “When the first floods took place last year, everyone including the locals and the authorities, knew the ruin would not have been terrible if River Nyamwamba was periodically dredged. So, we were all in agreement about the source of the problem,” Musinguzi states.
“The Municipality leaders therefore promised that the river would be de-silted, first. Thereafter infrastructural repairs would be done.” Was this done? No. Why? Godfrey Kabyanga, the Municipal Mayor says the local authority did not have the resource capacity to correct the situation.
“In turn, we wrote a comprehensive report to the Office of the Prime Minister indicating what had befallen the Municipality and what ought to be done. We emphasised that training or dredging the river should be done first before the affected infrastructure or people could be rehabilitated,” he says adding that the government responded.
However, it did not follow the priorities as listed for it by the local authorities. Efforts were put into dealing with the effects rather than the genesis of the problem. How? The infrastructure - bridges and road - were catered for first instead of the River Nyamwamba as had been recommended,” he explains.
Thus, the Kilembe bridge was mended. A gabion wall was put up. The damaged road to the mines was repaired at a whopping cost of Shs2.9 billion.
Did the relevant authorities choose to ignore the recommendations from the folk who were the immediate victims of the floods?
“Nothing was ignored. The challenge was the variation in availability of resources by the two players – UNRA and Ministry of Water and Environment (MWE) - that were responsible for addressing the situation,” remarks John Kennedy Kasawuli, Uganda National Roads Authority’s station engineer in Kasese.
UNRA was responsible for the bridges and the road while MWE was responsible for the river.
“UNRA was fortunate to get some funds to undertake its work while MWE was not,” Kasawuli offers. “We could not sit back and wait for them to get their funds so that we could start at ago. So, we embarked on doing what was expected of us as UNRA.”
The engineer explains the other reason why the road and bridge were given priority instead of the river; “We had not envisaged the floods re-occurring soon,” Kasawuli states. The last time river Nyamwamba behaved in the manner it has been behaving, lately, was in the early 1960s, 50 years back. There was a gap of many years between the two events.
“Bearing that in mind, there was some confidence that we should fix the roads as a stopgap measure to facilitate activities in Kilembe,” says Kasawuli station engineer in Kasese. He adds, “We did not want to put business at a standstill.
Divesture of the mines had just been done and it was necessary for the investors to access them. There is a hydro power station, which was taking off and we had to ensure that we open up the road to facilitate the project. There were also schools and other social amenities that had to be accessed.”
Kasawuli refers to the recent phenomenon as unfortunate, sad and a big surprise. The re-occurrence of the floods, he said, was a rude-awakening that the priorities should be followed as had been listed by the local authorities. The mayor refers to it as a mistake. “And we do not want to repeat the mistake,” he says. Kabyanga adds that it is the reason equipment (two bull dozers) was immediately acquired after the May 8 floods.
The impact of this effort is evident. The water is no longer running through the few surviving houses as it has been redirected to its usual course.
Much as valid explanations are made by the relevant authorities about being caught unaware, the residents insist it was negligence, not “miscalculation” as the former state, which caused the river to cause the harm it did.
The ball is now in the authorities’ court to act and mitigate the effects of the disaster, in the future, although some residents are pessimistic and believe they will tell another story of destruction next year, when the rains return.
DREDGING THE RIVER NYAMWAMBA
From 1954 to 1977, the Canadians under Falconbridge limited operated in Kilembe mines. They, among others, are recalled for their unwavering and efficient efforts to dredge River Nyamwamba annually. They had a stand by D8 bull dozer whose sole use was to clear the river of silt and boulders, says George Mfite Basaze, a former General Manager of Kilembe Mines Ltd. There was also a rescue team which was responsible for inspecting the river banks to identify and repair any cracks.
After their departure, the system was gradually abandoned. “The company was operating on a minimum budget. The funds available were not enough to sustain the company’s administrative operations as well as training the river,” he says. “We had no alternative but to reduce the number of times the river was attended to.”
Fred Kyakonye the current general manager adds that over time, the machinery that was used for de- silting run down, because of lying idle. Its spare parts was also expensive. Eventually some of them were sold off.
Today the residents have hope in Tibet – Hima group, a Chinese company that took over the mines, to revive the old days when they worried less about the river’s “anger” by periodically maintaining it.