At least 130 people died amid severe flooding and landslides in Rwanda in early May, while thousands were displaced as entire villages were engulfed. Beyond the 5,000 homes, 17 roads, and 26 bridges destroyed, a whole hospital was lost amid torrential rain that followed an extended drought.
The small, mountainous, landlocked African nation—often called the “land of a thousand hills”—is one of the most densely-populated countries in the region, note researchers.
More and more usable land is being eroded and degraded to service a growing agricultural-based economy that employs 65 per cent of the population, reported the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). As a result, its inherent vulnerability to climate shocks is increasing.
Climate the likely culprit
Globally, there has been a 134 per cent increase in climate-fuelled, flood-related disasters between 2000 and 2023, according to the UNDP. And Rwanda, which is naturally vulnerable to floods, has become a flashpoint.
“The whole region looks like a tornado went through,” Simone Schlindwein, a journalist located in the Ugandan capital of Kampala, told DW in early May. “Literally whole villages were washed away. It is quite a dire, disastrous situation.”
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Richard Munang, deputy regional director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Africa office, believes that temperature rise is increasing the frequency of extreme weather events.
While the globe has warmed to 1.1°C, he notes that Africa is “warming up at twice the global average,” and that “extreme events” will only get worse.
“East Africa has seen temperature increases of up to 1.7°C,” Munang said. “This means the consequences of a warming globe, that includes such as extreme precipitation will continue to escalate.”
Flooding impact on agriculture could lead to famine
In 2021, Rwandan President Paul Kagame promised to respond to worsening extreme weather—devastating rains and windstorms later that year also sparked mudslides.
“In Rwanda, the changing climate is already making itself felt in unusually heavy rainfall and flooding,” Kagame said. “Changing weather patterns also affect agriculture. We are responding by investing in water resources management, restoring catchment areas and wetlands.”
Reforestation and forest conservation are important means to combat the rapid soil erosion and landslides that follow heavy rain, according to Damascene Gashumba, the country director of Rwandan environment NGO, the Rural Environment and Development Organisation (REDO).
Flooding and landslides not only destroy the built environment and biodiversity but also badly erode the soil that sustains crops. Nearly 600 million tonnes of soil is lost annually in Rwanda as a result of torrential rain, with sloping croplands losing the most, noted the UNDP.
The loss of harvest due to heavy rains means communities could “experience a famine”, said Gashumba.
“The Rwandan government has focused strongly on adaptation and resilience to climate change, but this is not enough,” Gashumba said, pointing out that developed countries are the primary source of climate-inducing emissions and beyond their own climate mitigation must help Rwanda improve resilience.
Working together to build resilience
The Green Gicumbi Project in the highlands of northern Rwanda is working to make hilltop farming both flood and drought resistant. Much of the land was so eroded that it has been left fallow. But the building of terraces and run-off channels along with water storage for irrigation during the dry months is rapidly transforming the landscape.
“The harvest that we are expecting this season is a miracle,” said Jacqueline Nyirabikari, a Green Gicumbi Project farmer. “This land was no longer usable. But since the arrival of Green Gicumbi, climate change is no longer stopping us from growing crops.”
The transformation of an arid wasteland into a productive and climate-resilient agricultural region was mostly funded by the Green Climate Fund that emerged out of the Paris climate agreement and has been implemented by the Rwandan government.
Will it be enough?
UNEP’s Munang notes that cities and towns in Rwanda and across the region continue to encroach on “natural drainage areas such as swamps and wetlands that surround cities”.
But while priority needs to be given to preserving wetlands and forests, and to increase the efficiency of these drainage areas to limit flood damage, the other benefit will be to retain biodiversity and store more climate-killing carbon.
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“We are positive for the future,” said Gashumba. “We have hope.”
Another dimension of this climate adaptation will also be to simply relocate vulnerable communities to safer, less flood-prone areas, he added. But the solution is not ideal. “When you shift from your home you lose everything.”