Butiaba primary school in Buliisa district which was abandoned after heavy flooding. The compound is now grazing ground.

Extreme floods pushed hundreds of children out of school in Uganda

For decades, Isaac Wamaani (65) has lived and fished from Lake Albert at Wanseko landing site, located in western Uganda’s Buliisa district. For most of their lives, the Lake has fed his wife and five children. But recently, 40 years of peaceful coexistence came to an end.

In early 2020, shortly after the Covid-19 epidemic started in Uganda, Lake Albert experienced record breaking floods, sweeping and submerging all houses and other property nearby. Wamaani’s family scampered to safety, leaving everything behind.

‘‘We now live in an internally displaced camp. We are now refugees in our own country just because of the Lake. I have lived at the Lake for 40 years and I had never seen it flooding to the extent of submerging everything,” narrates Wamaani.

During their two years as refugees, Wamaani’s five children haven’t been able to attend school, as the family has had to struggle to survive. Like them, extreme floods in the region have displaced  hundreds of other children out of the classrooms, local authorities say.

“The flooding affected the turn up at schools. Some children relocated with their parents and they can’t be traced. This reduced the attendance of some schools. They dropped out of school,” said Gilbert Tibasiima, the Buliisa District Vice Chairman.

The Buliisa district education inspection department says about 1000 children have dropped out of school.

Over 4000 flood victims in Buliisa district have had their lives directly affected by Lake Alberta since March 2020, according to Buliisa district local government.

Lake Albert is located on the border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It is Africa’s seventh-largest lake, as well as the second biggest of Uganda’s Great Lakes.

The lake’s water level changes depending on the season, explained Dr Mohammed Hassan, a water expert at the IGAD, a WMO authorized climate monitoring center. Now, climate change could be increasing the frequency of extreme water levels.  

“Water level variation is seasonal and, in the case of Lake Victoria which mainly controls the levels of Albert, it had reached a similar level in the early 1960’s. It is possible, however, that climate change increases the frequency of reaching these extreme levels,’’ the scientist said.

At a global level, climate change is changing lakes in different ways. Not very far away, in Kenya, arid temperatures and scarce rainfall have almost erased one of the country’s most important water bodies, Lake Kenyatta. In contrast, a few kilometers away, also in Kenya, Lake Victoria —Africa’s largest lake— has seen record floods in the last few years.

Floods submerged peoples houses along the shores of Llake Albert in Uganda

Flood victims

Isaac Wamaani feared for all of his family’s life in 2020, when Lake Albert swallowed everything in its surroundings. For the past two years, he’s been trying to gather enough money to send his children back to school.

‘‘I lost everything valuable to me. I have been living in a compound of a church and where do you expect me to get the money to take my children to school? There are many requirements and I have not been able to recover financially,’’ says Wamaani.

Moreen Asaba, one of the flood victims from Wanseko landing site says that since March 2020, she has been sleeping in the cold together with her children since the floods completely submerged their home.

 ‘‘We have lived in a dark cover of hopelessness. We expected the government to come to our rescue in vain. Our children are here and we don’t know how they will go back to school’’ says Asaba.

Wasenko primary school where most of the children are overcrowded in tents and a few classrooms.

The most affected people are from areas along the shores of Lake Albert in western Uganda.

Public schools were sheltering many of the displaced people, and were shut down during the emergency. However, when the schools reopened, the refugees’ situation became more miserable, as they had to abandon the facilities. Most of them are currently sheltered under trees at churches and mosques.

Most of the children whose schools were submerged by the floods were relocated to Wanseko town primary school. Wilson Bitadwa, the school head teacher, is decrying congestion in few available classes.

‘‘We have few facilities like toilets, which we sometimes share with communities around. But most of them are full and they need emptying. (We have) few classrooms compared to the number of pupils we currently have,” said the school’s headmaster.

In 2020 at the closure of the school, Wanseko primary school had 1057 students. Now, the number has increased to 1285 pupils, Bitadwa said. The school is currently accommodating around 300 students in tents provided by UNICEF, he added.

James Mugisa, an inspector of schools for Buliisa district, said there is an urgent need for climate adaptation in this region. ‘‘Climate change has greatly affected us. I also blame our local people for this because people have caused silting of the Lake and rivers around,” he said.

Here says the district is now looking at the alternative of relocating some schools. However, according to Mugisa, this will come at a cost.

‘‘There are some schools which need relocation like Butiaba because it is located in a dangerous zone which can flood again unexpectedly. This means that we have to secure land and get resources to put up a new school’’ adds Mugisa.

A map of Bulisa distric in Uganda

Extreme floods

Gilbert Tibasiima the Buliisa District Vice Chairman says that the floods have crippled down the progress of education services. He adds the floods have dwindled economic activities and livelihood of local communities.

“The floods affected local economic activities like fishing, cultivation and it has disorganized the settlement patterns in the local communities,’’ Tibasiima added.

Many people were forced to move into neighboring towns in search of opportunities, which has increased land conflicts in the district, the community leader said.

The flooding of Lake Albert was last recorded in Buliisa District in 1962, according to Tibasiima.

In August 2021, Prime Minister Robinah Nabbanja assured the flood victims that the government was already profiling all flood-affected persons in the district and drafting a comprehensive plan for their resettlement. However,up to date nothing has been done to extend aid to the victims, according to Tibasiima.

 Dr Mohammed Hassan explained the high water levels are a result of above average rainfall and its catchment from previous seasons. Lake Albert’s water levels are influenced by Lake Victoria, which is Africa’s biggest lake and it’s located in the neighboring Kenya.

A Public Toilet and grass thatched house submerged by the floods in Bulisa district

 “The current Lake Victoria Water level is still above average hence the higher water levels and surface area in Lake Albert’’ responds Hassan

On his part, Dr. Nicholas Mukisa, a climate change official from the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development of Uganda, attributes the unusually abundant rains to the accumulation of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.

According to the 2021 report by World Bank Group’s Climate Change Knowledge Portal (CCKP) on Uganda climate risk country profile, climate change is expected to increase the risk and intensity of flooding as well as increase likelihood for water scarcity for certain areas in Uganda.

To mitigate flooding risks in the area, Dr Muhammed calls for reafforestation and re-claiming of wetlands such that they can act as water detentions and reduce peak stream flows. New school buildings and urban developments should be constructed high above the lake, he added.

In February 2022, the ministry of water and environment warned that many climate related calamities are likely to reoccur as the rainy season sets in.

Meanwhile, climate refugees like Wamaani are still struggling  to recover from the floods. They’re waiting for a miracle to get their children back at school.

‘‘We have been stuck for about two years waiting for relief aid from the government in vain. Some of us are planning to go back to the risky areas because we have nothing to do,’’ says Wamaani.

Alex Tumuhimbise
Alex holds a Bachelors degree in Journalism and Mass Communication from Uganda Pentecostal University in Fort portal City. He also has a diploma in Journalism and has worked in radio, with online news agencies, and at the Daily Monitor for the past 10 years. His work has been featured in international news organizations, such as Earth Journalism Network, Floodlight-US, Mongabay News -US, and The Guardian. Alex has special interest in reporting on climate change reporting, extractive industries, and environmental governance. He’s an alum fellow of the African Center for Media Excellence, Thompson Reuters Foundation, and Earth Journalism Network and Internews.