Schools fill with everything but students during Uganda flooding

Posted: September 20, 2007 in Blog
 
KATAKWI

Clouds rolling in from the north, whose threat of rain looms over the area, obscure the late afternoon sun as Michael Malinga emerges from the library of the primary school at Ngariam IDP Camp.

The schoolyard in front of him should be filled with children, considering this week marked the start of a new term for students. Instead, the yard is empty, and the school is closed. The flooding that has plagued much of northern and eastern Uganda, especially Teso region, for the past month, has forced many of those who live here to move into the neighbouring primary and secondary schools.

NO ACCESS: Several roads have been rendered impassable by the floods that have swept off some bridges.
DISPLACED: Mr Malinga in the library of Ngariam IDP Camp Primary School, where he and is family of nine have been living for a month. Photos by Christopher Mason

The situation here is being played-out across Teso – huts are collapsing, people sleep on water-saturated mud floors, latrines are sinking or overflowing due to flooding and schools are full of people crammed into every corner.

Mr Malinga is no exception. He normally teaches P3. But today, and for the past month, he lives in the tiny library, along with his nine other family members because the interior walls of his house collapsed.

“We stayed as long as we could, but when the walls started falling, we had no choice,” he said.

So far, the flooding throughout north and eastern Uganda, and much of sub-Saharan Africa for that matter, has been about numbers – how many affected, how many schools closed, how many cases of sickness and how much aid required – so much that the people behind those numbers, who fall under the “affected” category, get lost in the chaos.

Residents of the camp said most are fortunate to get a single meal of beans each day. The camp’s health centre ran out of medicine long ago.

“We have a situation where we have no medicine, where we are at risk of an outbreak of malaria, dysentery, cholera or any of the viruses people can get during heavy flooding,” said Thadeo Ariko, a clinical officer in charge of Ngariam Health Centre. Across Teso, it is the IDP camps established for those escaping LRA violence and Karimojong raids that have suffered the most during the flooding.

Initially, the district identified two IDP camps that were waterlogged and unsafe for living. But now, district officials say some 25 camps are uninhabitable and need to be resettled because of flooding, a scenario that would require massive mobilisation efforts and funding, to pull-off such a move on short notice.

Regardless of whether such action is needed, international aid organisations and the government are mobilising relief efforts as officials begin to realise, a month into the flooding, the full extent of the damage.

Unicef and its partners plan to reach a total of 210,000 people in Teso with safe drinking water and mosquito nets. About 120,000 of them will also get water jerry cans, blankets, tarps and tents to help restore safe living conditions.

The traditional image of flooding does not suit the current situation in Teso. Villages have not been swept away by surging water, but instead, are fully saturated by a water table that, in places, sits five centimeters below the surface. It means that large-scale evacuations have generally not happened. Rather, people have to do what they can to stay healthy in mud huts whose floors squish underfoot and whose bricks are quickly deteriorating in damp conditions.

In the coming days, tents will be set-up at schools to allow for classes to take place outdoors, temporary latrines are to be brought in and local health officials plan to intensify immunisation efforts in an attempt to stave off any major disease outbreaks. Government efforts to provide relief have been criticised by many local residents and officials in the affected regions.

In Katakwi District, many roads have been washed-out by flooding. District officials say they have the equipment and manpower to do repairs, but are not able to do the work because the central government has not released money to put fuel in the vehicles.

During a drive through the region on Monday, repairs were underway on several flooded roads, not by district or central government employees, but instead by local residents who asked passing vehicles for donations to pay for food or soap as payment for their work. Most repairs consisted of drainage ditches being dug and rocks or logs being laid across the mud.

Katakwi District has been without either of its two ambulances for the last week.
The funding provided to the district’s health department for vehicle maintenance is the same amount the district used to receive when its ambulance service consisted of a single motorcycle, according to Dr. Simon Omeke Ichumar, a medical officer in Katakwi.

“Over the last 10 years, the money we get from the central government has not kept up with changes,” he said. “So in a health crisis like this, we can’t get to the communities.”

Aid organisations plan to put fuel in road maintenance vehicles and to pay for ambulance repairs, but the situation has led to grumblings that the central government has not responded well to the emergency.

“This country is not a failed state,” said Jeremy England, the Eastern Uganda Region Manager for Unicef, in arguing that international aid organisations should not be providing support for services the government is capable of supplying.
“The vehicles are here, the crews are here, the capacity is here. All the central government needs to do is release some funds to allow the districts to do their job.”

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