Lessons from the Mbale floods disaster

Author: Brian Mukalazi

What you need to know:

No single training, no matter how ingenious, will ever be sufficient to prepare for a natural disaster

By the time of writing this, the number of people confirmed dead from the fatal flash floods that rocked Mbale city and surrounding areas on the night of July 30 had hit 29. At least 800 households are estimated to have been affected, leaving thousands homeless. Everything was left in ruins.

 First, I would like to send my deepest sympathies to all those who lost their loved ones and property. I know, the floods could have washed away so many valuable things out of your life, but I pray that they do not wash away your strength, positivity and hope.

 In the same vein, I give kudos to the brave, fearless young men who sacrificed their own safety to save the lives of others. The circulated images and video clips of exhausted, half-naked men using rudimentary tools to retrieve bodies and property were both horrifying and heart-warming.

 These floods, like many other natural disasters before, caught the country off-guard and on all accounts, the response has been a failure. In fact, failure is an understatement; the Mbale floods response has been a national disgrace.

 But as a country, we need to ask ourselves some important questions. For instance, how can we boost our readiness for the next disaster? And how do we turn these failures into future success? Here-under, I will share a few lessons that I have learnt from the Mbale floods disaster. 

First lesson: The best possible way of responding to future flood disasters will be through effective preparedness and planning. Based on risk-based disaster scenarios, the country will need to develop well-funded response plans, experimented with simulation exercises. Preparing for major problems requires practice.

The Ministry for Relief, Disaster Preparedness and Refugees can convene critical players, including representatives from National Environment Management Authority, Uganda National Meteorological Authority, District Disaster Management Committees, and Non-profit agencies, to undergo planning exercises.

 The simulation exercises should be as practical as possible. For instance, if a job calls for 100 boats, participants should find those boats and not just wish them to exist. We should not be thinking that magically 100 boats would show up when disaster occurs!

 Emergency simulations are not supposed to be perfect predictions, just credible ones, and ideally, the parties involved get multiple opportunities to build knowledge and skills that will be needed in an emergency. When disaster strikes, they will already know the players involved. They will understand the linkages in the system. They will know where to go for resources. You don’t want to be exchanging business cards in the middle of an emergency!

 Another key lesson for the government: Improve communication with the public. Before the intense rains that caused the flash floods of July 30/31, there was a constant downpour lasting more than a week but there was no prior warning from the respective government agencies about the impending floods.

 Using the various communication channels available today, the public should always be informed of what is happening - before, during and after disasters. This reminds me of the 11 people, travelling in a Toyota Super Custom to attend a marriage ceremony in Mbale, who tragically perished when their car was swept into the river by the floods. They probably had no idea about what was going on!

 Last lesson: No single training, no matter how ingenious, will ever be sufficient to prepare for a natural disaster. But if we do some things right, the country will certainly incur less expenses in supplemental spending in rebuilding the affected areas. And when disasters come, the consequences will be bad but not as bad!

Mr Mukalazi is a Ugandan executive and socio-Economic thinker