Burundi

In dire straits : What climate change means for already vulnerable communities in Burundi

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Jeannette Niyibigira and her son in their shelter at the internal displacement camp of Kigaramango in Gatumba, near Bujumbura © UNICEF

Burundi is one of the poorest countries in the world. It is also one of the least equipped to protect its population against climate-fueled natural disasters.

Roughly the size of Massachusetts or Belgium, the Eastern African country has been facing more frequent floods and landslides in the past few years. In some regions, unpredictable rain patterns have ruined crop after crop.

It happened at night, when all the neighborhood was asleep. “Suddenly, there was water everywhere in the house. We were in a panic, trying to save our children while the house was swept away”, Jeannette Niyibigira recalls. "I finally managed to grab my kids and flee, and ended up on the main road, empty handed, soaked, cold, thinking it was Noah’s flood and the end of the world.”

It’s been over a year since the river flowing into Lake Tanganyika broke its banks, forcing more than 25,000 people to flee the remnants of their homes. Since then, fed by the rains, the level of the lake continues to rise. A large part of Gatumba, a neighborhood located along the lake’s shore, just outside of Bujumbura, is now flooded. Children are fishing in what used to be vegetable fields.

In March 2020, Jeannette and her family, along with thousands of others had to find a place to stay. Their own clay houses having melted or fallen apart, they were given an area of bush nearby for their tents made of tarpaulin and pieces of tin - what they now call home. As the rains continue, each storm brings more fear and destruction.

Thousands of others have remained in the houses that still stand, surrounded by stagnant, dirty water. They sometimes come face to face with hippos and crocodiles. They also are subject to other, less visible but equally formidable dangers: diseases caused by dirty water and malaria.

In December 2019, in northern Burundi, near the borders with DRC and Rwanda, the village of Gisheke was swallowed by tons of mud, cascading down the mountainside. “It had been raining for days, Thomas Misego, the former village chief, recalls. He was out of town, attending official meetings. “During the night, I started getting phone calls, telling me that my people were dying.” The next morning, Thomas managed to go back to Gisheke, only to start digging into the ruins. Thirty-seven people died that night, 10 of whom the bodies were never found. Over 350 houses were destroyed. “When it starts raining now,” Thomas says, “we are so scared. We never imagined this kind of event could happen in the region.”

It’s been over a year since the river flowing into Lake Tanganyika broke its banks, forcing more than 25,000 people to flee the remnants of their homes. Since then, fed by the rains, the level of the lake continues to rise. A large part of Gatumba, a neighborhood located along the lake’s shore, just outside of Bujumbura, is now flooded. Children are fishing in what used to be vegetable fields.

In March 2020, Jeannette and her family, along with thousands of others had to find a place to stay. Their own clay houses having melted or fallen apart, they were given an area of bush nearby for their tents made of tarpaulin and pieces of tin - what they now call home. As the rains continue, each storm brings more fear and destruction.

Thousands of others have remained in the houses that still stand, surrounded by stagnant, dirty water. They sometimes come face to face with hippos and crocodiles. They also are subject to other, less visible but equally formidable dangers: diseases caused by dirty water and malaria.

In December 2019, in northern Burundi, near the borders with DRC and Rwanda, the village of Gisheke was swallowed by tons of mud, cascading down the mountainside. “It had been raining for days, Thomas Misego, the former village chief, recalls. He was out of town, attending official meetings. “During the night, I started getting phone calls, telling me that my people were dying.” The next morning, Thomas managed to go back to Gisheke, only to start digging into the ruins. Thirty-seven people died that night, 10 of whom the bodies were never found. Over 350 houses were destroyed. “When it starts raining now,” Thomas says, “we are so scared. We never imagined this kind of event could happen in the region.”

It’s been over a year since the river flowing into Lake Tanganyika broke its banks, forcing more than 25,000 people to flee the remnants of their homes. Since then, fed by the rains, the level of the lake continues to rise. A large part of Gatumba, a neighborhood located along the lake’s shore, just outside of Bujumbura, is now flooded. Children are fishing in what used to be vegetable fields.

In March 2020, Jeannette and her family, along with thousands of others had to find a place to stay. Their own clay houses having melted or fallen apart, they were given an area of bush nearby for their tents made of tarpaulin and pieces of tin - what they now call home. As the rains continue, each storm brings more fear and destruction.

Thousands of others have remained in the houses that still stand, surrounded by stagnant, dirty water. They sometimes come face to face with hippos and crocodiles. They also are subject to other, less visible but equally formidable dangers: diseases caused by dirty water and malaria.

In December 2019, in northern Burundi, near the borders with DRC and Rwanda, the village of Gisheke was swallowed by tons of mud, cascading down the mountainside. “It had been raining for days, Thomas Misego, the former village chief, recalls. He was out of town, attending official meetings. “During the night, I started getting phone calls, telling me that my people were dying.” The next morning, Thomas managed to go back to Gisheke, only to start digging into the ruins. Thirty-seven people died that night, 10 of whom the bodies were never found. Over 350 houses were destroyed. “When it starts raining now,” Thomas says, “we are so scared. We never imagined this kind of event could happen in the region.”

Responding to natural disasters in Burundi is a challenge. While coordination led by the National Platform for Risk Prevention and Disaster Management has significantly improved and the authorities have demonstrated a strong investment in organizing the response, humanitarian actors lack capacity in terms of funds and thus contingency capacity.

Because these crises are recurrent in the country, UNICEF and humanitarian actors always aim to find sustainable solutions to the problems encountered and the needs expressed by the affected populations. However, the response to immediate needs remains extremely limited, hampering the recovery capacity of the people affected, posing a high risk of protection for the most vulnerable, particularly children and women~,~

In 2020, UNICEF managed to cover only half of the needs of the populations affected by the floods in Gatumba. It is estimated that UNICEF Burundi needs $6 million to support Burundian families affected by natural disasters this year.

By Donaig Le Du – Chief of Communication, UNICEF Burundi