Sobel, 19 June 2023 – Under the scorching sun, Jaqueline leads the way through the newly built emergency shelters, to what she and her family now call home. Severe flooding had recently forced Jacqueline and her seven children to move from Gatumba – a peri-urban area of Bujumbura province on the banks of Lake Tanganyika and the Rusizi River – to seek shelter at the Sobel site for internally displaced persons.

In just a few days, Sobel has expanded significantly to accommodate the arrival of those affected by the most recent climate-induced disaster in Burundi. Over the past weeks, construction teams composed of members of the displaced communities and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) technical specialists have built 215 emergency shelters at Sobel. 

IOM as the lead of the Shelter/Non-Food Items sector is working closely with the Government of Burundi and other humanitarian actors to provide lifesaving assistance to the displaced population. Photo: IOM Burundi 2023/Laëtitia Romain

After being repeatedly displaced by climate-induced disasters, Jackson resigned himself to living one day at a time. Photo: IOM Burundi 2023/Laëtitia Romain

The site is home to people who lost their homes to the devastating floods that hit Gatumba at the beginning of May 2023. The floods displaced more than 10,000 people in only a few weeks.

Jaqueline opens her shelter and invites us in. The heat is stifling under the 3.5 by 5 meters of tarpaulin, which nonetheless constitutes a much-welcome shelter for the 48-year-old mother of seven and her family. In 2021, Jaqueline’s brick and tin house in Gatumba was destroyed by the floods but she was able to rehabilitate it. This time though, there is nothing left to rehabilitate as the floods have washed everything away.

Torrential rains have caused devastating floods in East Africa’s Great Lakes region in the past months, affecting not only Burundi but also the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Rwanda.

Crops and houses have been destroyed by the heavy floods in the Gatumba area, where Jaqueline and Jackson used to live. Photo: IOM Burundi 2023/Laëtitia Romain

A few days after the floods had hit Gatumba, people sought refuge in makeshift shelters. Photo: IOM Burundi 2023/Laëtitia Romain

IOM is working closely with the Government of Burundi and other humanitarian actors to provide lifesaving assistance to the displaced populations. In addition to the emergency shelters, the Organization has so far provided 442 hygiene and non-food items kits to displaced people, with the financial support of the United States Bureau of Humanitarian Assistance.

"When I was young, I had heard of people forced to move because of conflicts, but never because of disasters like floods," says Jacqueline.

In recent years, around 90 per cent of internal displacements recorded in Burundi were induced by disaster events, according to the IOM Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM). From 2008 to 2022, floods are estimated to be the cause of over three quarters of those displacements, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC).

The recurrence of climate-induced disasters in Burundi, combined with the rising cost of living and other external shocks, continue to undermine the resilience of affected populations. In addition to losing their homes, many have repeatedly lost their livelihoods as the floods destroy crops and damage businesses.

“We live one day at a time, and painfully so.” Jackson, 35 years old and father of six, has also been affected by the flood for the second time. Both times, the floods took him by surprise, destroying his business plans along with his hopes for a better future.

"These floods have turned our lives upside down. I rented a plot of land for 200,000 Burundi Francs [around USD 70]. That investment would have returned more than two and a half million [around USD 880]. But with the floods, I lost everything. My livestock project also went up in smoke: my goats, pigs, ducks, and chickens – they all died because of the floods. It's a huge loss for me. When a flood strikes, you lose everything, it even affects you mentally."

Ninety per cent of the population in Burundi rely on agriculture for their livelihoods. Perils like that of Jackson are prevalent in the aftermath of climate-induced disaster events, due to their linkages with livelihood sources, in this case agriculture.

Even though she does not farm her own land, Jaqueline’s income also depended on farm work for her to provide for her seven children. Now, having found shelter further away from the where she worked, she can no longer find employment on the farms. She left her two younger children with neighbors back in Gatumba so they could continue with their schooling. But not all children can count on such a social support structure when disasters disrupt their lives in many aspects. For some, classes have been interrupted because of the floods while others had their schools converted to shelters for the displaced.

To help people like Jaqueline and her granddaughter look forward to a dignified future, IOM, in close collaboration with the Government of Burundi, does not only respond to the aftermath of forced displacements, but also works on preventing them in the first place. Photo: IOM Burundi 2023/Laëtitia Romain

For the time being, Jaqueline is living with one of her daughters and her five-month-old granddaughter, entirely dependent on humanitarian aid.

Both Jaqueline and Jackson are grateful for the lifesaving assistance received but also worry about its temporary nature.

“Floods are like a vicious circle. I feel safe here compared to Gatumba, but it’s not a lasting security. The emergency shelter is a transitory solution. I would like a durable solution, such as the construction of a dyke to be able to get my land back and protect it from further flooding, or to be relocated in areas less prone to risks,” says Jaqueline.

Jackson also underlines the need for preventive measures to protect Gatumba. “We want a dyke so that we can return to our homes, where we are used to living.”

To break the cycle of recurring disasters and protracted vulnerabilities, recovery and strengthen resilience to future crises, a holistic response that goes beyond emergency response and humanitarian assistance, with both longer-term support and preventive measures, is required.

Along this line, IOM, together with governmental counterparts, currently implements Burundi’s largest Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) programme to strengthen preparedness and reduce disaster risk, thanks to the financial support of the European Union.

Informed by a detailed risk mapping of the major natural hazards in Burundi, the administration, local leaders and communities as well as humanitarian actors are now able to better identify which mitigation activities to implement to address further disaster risks or where to plan relocation when there is no better option to protect people from climate-induced disasters.

Regional policies and frameworks relating to climate change, DRR and development play a critical role in supporting communities to adapt to climate change and reduce the risks associated with disasters, the adverse effects of climate change and environmental degradation.

Some of the key commitments of the Kampala Ministerial Declaration, endorsed by Burundi in July 2022, include strengthening climate resilience and adaptation, and taking action to avert, minimize and address displacement in the context of climate change and disasters both across and within borders.

IOM is working in close collaboration with the Government of Burundi to ensure a holistic crisis response strategy. Climate change and the protection of the environment must continue to be considered and further integrated into long-term policies and interventions designed to achieve durable solutions.

Written by Romain Laetitia, Communications Officer in IOM Burundi

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