How OPM officials mishandled disasters in three years

Mr Richard Bikala ,a resident of Bunamasa Village in Bududa, District sorts what remained of his property from mud following landslides that hit the district in 2019. PHOTO | MICHAEL WONIALA. 

What you need to know:

  • Nine districts, including Bunyangabu, Kasese, Bulambuli, Kabarole, Napak, Moroto, Bududa, Butaleja and Mbale, experienced an unexpected natural disaster such as floods, landslides, earthquake, hailstorm and lightning.

A value-for-money audit report by the Auditor General (AG) has revealed that the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) mishandled numerous natural disasters, which led to the death of 500 people and loss of properties worth billions of shillings in three years.

Unlike the 325 deaths which were purely caused by Covid-19, the rest of natural disaster deaths, the AG said, could have been avoided if the OPM had handled the disasters well through early warnings and timely responses in places where they occurred.

Nine districts, including Bunyangabu, Kasese, Bulambuli, Kabarole, Napak, Moroto, Bududa, Butaleja and Mbale, experienced an unexpected natural disaster such as floods, landslides, earthquake, hailstorm and lightning.

OPM officials, in reaction to the audit report, said the issues raised by the AG could be reversed if there was enough funding to enable them acquire more experienced staff and proper equipment.

Mr Geoffrey Sseremba, the OPM acting Permanent Secretary and Undersecretary, said “all issues you are talking about need a formidable staff, adequate funding and that is how you will be able to not only detect but also respond timely to the disaster that have occurred somewhere.”

The report titled “Value for money audit report on the preparedness of the OPM to respond to disasters”, reveals that the OPM did not put in place enough measures to either mitigate or help communities adapt to these disasters.

It further reveals that the OPM had not conducted any disaster profiling, not installed any early warning system, and never responded early to disasters during the three years that were reviewed.

“……to a large extent, OPM is inadequately prepared to respond to disaster incidents. However, the department can perform better if the recommendations proposed to address the challenges identified are implemented,” the report reads in part.

AG John Muwanga, for example, points out Kasese District, which experienced two waves of floods in May and December 2020, leading to massive loss of lives and properties.

“When a mudslide happened in Rukooki Sub-county, Kasese District on September 7, 2022 where 16 fatalities occurred and 1,190 people were displaced, a rapid damage assessment was undertaken in two days. However, the first tranche of relief items was only available on September 16, 2022 (nine days later) and other items such as tarpaulins and beddings were yet to be provided to the victims by the time of writing this report on September 21, 2022. Because of this, victims were left to improvise on how to get shelter until relief is provided,” he said.

Early warning

The December 2022 audit report reveals the OPM not only failed to procure and install disaster early warning systems but also failed to maintain the only existing one that had been installed in Butaleja five years ago.

The district disaster risk management committee, which blamed this on poor maintenance, said the system has been “providing false alarms in form of sirens to the public even during dry seasons yet it must provide warnings for floods from River Manafwa.”

Mr Sseremba cited constraints in funding of the disaster management department.

“All this issues need a formidable staff, you need to buy the necessary equipment and I am sure if the funding is availed, then it will be easy to put in place mechanism which will not only detect but also respond to disasters timely,” he said.

Mr Muwanga in his audit report, however, says OPM’s department of disaster preparedness and management (DDPM) had spent Shs148.6b out of the approved Shs157.9b in the period that was reviewed. This implies that the budget of DDPM, whose major mandate is spearheading the coordination of disaster preparedness and management, had risen by Shs106.7b from Shs41.9b that was spent between 2006 and 2008.

During this period, DDPM spent Shs25.4b on development expenditure but failed to even put in place necessary arrangements on how they could access disaster information from systems installed by non-governmental organisations.

“Due to the absence of functional early warning systems, the OPM could not generate and disseminate timely and meaningful warning information,” Mr Muwanga says in the audit report.

Questioned on this, Mr Sseremba refered us to Ms Catherine Ahimbisibwe, the commissioner in-charge of disaster management at OPM, for a more detailed explanation. Ms Ahimbisibwe declined to comment on the matter, referring us to OPM spokesperson Charles Odongtho.

Our efforts to get a comment from Mr Odongtho were futile by press time.

The report reveals that some of the disaster-prone districts had functional early warning systems that had been installed by NGOs and other institutions.

For example, there is an earthquake-detecting system in Bunyangabu District, that was installed by the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development. There is also a floods-detecting system in Kasese and Bulambuli districts, installed by the Uganda Red Cross Society and the Ministry of Water and Environment respectively.

Disaster risk profiling

In addition to the lack of functional early warning systems, the AG also discovered that the OPM did not undertake any risk profiling for the three years that were reviewed.

“The last disaster profiling was conducted in 2018 (yet this should be undertaken once every three years) as the basis for producing the latest National Risk and Vulnerability Atlas of 2020. Also, the OPM has only produced one annual state of disaster report since 2020,” the report reads.

“This affects the accuracy and reliability of these risk results since a lot changes over time. A review of the work plans for the three years under review revealed that OPM did not make a budgetary provision for the risk profiling. As such, no funds have been availed for undertaking the activities. The audit also noted that the last profiling undertaken in 2018 was funded by UNDP [United Nations Development Programme],” it adds.

Mr Muwanga says OPM did not make a budgetary provision for the risk profiling during the three years under review.

“Although the DDPM was filled at 86 percent, only three (16 percent) of the staff attached to this department had training in risk assessment. The study further noted that departmental staff also lacked critical skills like geologists, engineers, statisticians, land surveyors and geomatics that are key in conducting hazard profiling and risk assessment,” the report adds.

He says there was ineffectiveness in search and rescue operations resulting from the unavailability of equipment. The OPM has challenges handling post-disaster resettlement and lacks the law to aid its operations.

The absence of updated risk profiling, mapping and the skills gaps, according to the audit report, led to an unstructured approach to disaster management because they hindered the accuracy and reliability of these risk results since a lot changes over time.

Non-functional district disaster management committees

District disaster management committees

The audit report further faulted the OPM over the non-functionality of the established district disaster management committees (DDMCs). Four of the nine DDMCs, including Bunyangabu, Kabarole, Butaleja and Mbale, were not functioning in September 2022 when this audit was conducted.

“The non-functionality of the four DDMCs affected the effectiveness of the response to victims given that these are the closest structures for response. For example, in Bunyangabu District, the DDMC did not submit rapid damage needs assessment reports to OPM for any disasters that occurred during the period under review. This partly explains why OPM experienced challenges in responding to the floods by River Nyamwamba,” reads part of the report.

OPM officials, however, attributed this to staff turnover at the district local governments (DLGs), lack of tools and equipment, and inadequate funding.

Mr Sseremba said all these issues can be solved once the OPM is fully funded and adequately staffed.

Delayed response

OPM was also faulted over its delayed responses, which were also uncoordinated. Like in Kasese, Mr Muwanga also singles out the issue of Karamoja region, which was hit by drought in the months of April to June 2022, resulting in hunger and death.

Here, he says the OPM responded with food relief in mid July 2022, which resulted in the death of 35 people due to starvation. 

However, Mr Sseremba said the OPM is already implementing the Disaster Risk Management (DRM) plan and will soon solve all the issues.

“We are only waiting to access requisite funding and proper logistics and all disasters will be managed,” he said.

The DRM was launched on November 17, 2021, in Kampala by the OPM and other partners, with an aim of improving the understanding of disaster risk, hazard and vulnerabilities at all levels, strengthening disaster risk coordination and governance at all levels of government, and advocating for investments in disaster risk reduction for resilience through structural and non-structural measures, capacity building and research.

The loses

At least 32 classrooms, 24 five-stance latrines and 419 three-seater wooden desks were destroyed in floods that affected more than 5,800 people in Kasese District in May 2020.

An additional 16 houses, 50 retail shops, 390 acres of crops and 50 pit-latrines were destroyed in other floods that ravaged the same district in December of the same year.

Properties worth Shs9.1b were lost in the floods that killed 23 people and affected 18,000 others in Mbale District in May last year.

Properties, including schools, plantations, and houses were destroyed in the disasters that affected different districts.

According to the annual state of disaster report 2020, natural disasters caused Uganda an economic loss amounting of Shs552.3b ($152.2m) in the Financial Year 2019/2020.

This loss, according to the report, was distributed across key sectors like transport and infrastructure (Shs206.7b); commercial and residential housing (Shs154.2b); agriculture (Shs77.37b); education (Shs35.44b); environment and natural resources (Shs33.75b); health (Shs31.86b); and water and sanitation (Shs23.88b).