World Humanitarian Day: Empowered communities thrive

“When lives are on the line; when a disaster strikes; when children are starving, Humanitarians are there,” World Vision, 2022.

This notion is made on the premise that human beings are generally hard-wired to offer assistance to others in need. As a result, our ability to offer social, economic and environmental support to those challenged offsets a feeling of social connectedness.

Since time immemorial, communities have relied on the company and comfort of others to survive crises.

Every 19th of August is internationally recognized as World Humanitarian Day (WHD) in honor of individuals or organizations committed to helping vulnerable communities or people survive the devastating impacts of disaster.

This year, the WHD paid tribute to individuals who risk their lives and safety to restore peace and hope to those suffering. The day celebrates people who have lost lives or have been injured while in the line of duty and those who against all odds still continue to offer relief in form of food, shelter, water, and protection to those affected by the crisis.

Each year, the day focuses on a theme that rallies partners from across the globe involved in humanitarian work to advocate for the welfare of people affected by the crisis and for the safety of aid workers.

The theme for 2022; #IttakesAVillage is based on the fact that in times of crisis, there is always someone helping another person, there are people helping other people when disaster strikes.

Oftentimes we have used the phrase; “it takes a village to raise a child”. To mean it takes the community to instill character in a child that makes them proper members of the community.

This involves the family itself, the teachers in school, the local nurse at the village clinic, the elderly person he or she meets along the way to school or home, to the local leaders and religious leaders at religious houses, etc.

Similarly, it takes a community to restore safety and hope among individuals affected by a crisis. This can be the affected people themselves who are always first on-site and still able to respond (helping those in a worse state than them) when disaster strikes to the global community that supports them as they recover.

Usually, it’s the communities themselves first to respond when disasters happen. Hence the need to have these vulnerable communities empowered with the knowledge and skills to reduce risk or respond when such calamities strike.

The Hyogo Framework 2005-2015 on building the resilience of nations and communities, prioritizes five key areas for action: make disaster risk reduction (DRR) a priority, know the risks and take action, build understanding and awareness, reduce risk, be prepared and ready to act.

Seven years later, how resilient are Ugandan communities to disasters like drought, earthquakes, mud/landslides or floods which seem to be on the rise due to climate change and other environmental-related problems? Not so much.

On the 31st July 2022, Uganda woke up to the news of heavy rains that had caused rivers Nabuyonga, Namatala, Nashibiso and Napwoli to burst their banks resulting in a flash flood that caused mass destruction of lives and property in the Elgon subregion in the districts of Mbale, Kapchorwa, Bududa and Sironko.

While the region has suffered a number of such calamities for so long, this particular one has been regarded as the worst if not one of the worst given the topographic nature of the area and the agricultural behavior of the locals.

According to a report by The Guardian, over 5600 people were displaced from Mbale City alone, 400,000 were left without clean water and more than 2000 hectares of crops were destroyed after the heavy rain.

When it happened, social media was awash with pictures and videos of locals attempting to retrieve bodies from the waters, save people and animals being washed away, plantations destroyed and helpless locals looking on as the disaster struck.

Given how heavy the rains were, which even continued into the following afternoon, the number of deaths could have been higher but because locals were moved to join efforts to rescue people, only 29 lives were lost.

It is reported that the Government under the office of the Prime Minister and other humanitarian organizations like the Uganda Red Cross, the Association of Ambulance Professionals Uganda, the World Health Organization and medical teams later came to the rescue of the locals, boosting rescue efforts and responding to any health emergencies.

The first aid to those affected by the flash floods was from the locals themselves who were the first on the site to help themselves and also help their fellow community members.

You could see them use rudimentary tools like ropes, sticks, and hand-to-hand holding to pull people, animals and property from the waters, which of course were not satisfactory means and also posed a life risk to the rescuers.

WHD advocates for the safety and protection of all humanitarians. An aid or health worker or an ordinary citizen offering a humanitarian service should feel secure. At any time a disaster strikes, they should have confidence in their safety when undertaking humanitarian work.

The government of Uganda has for years asked locals living in the vulnerable areas of Elgon subregions to relocate but the calls have fallen on deaf ears. Many say they have ancestral attachments to these areas and therefore are reluctant to move.

Since relocation calls have failed, the Government needs to think of alternative ways to protect its people without relocating them. Governments and partner organizations involved in humanitarian schemes should take meaningful action to achieve this.

Government should fast-track the establishment of the National Disaster Management Commission whose role will be to oversee all disaster committees in the districts. Parliament of Uganda has over time demanded that the Office of the Prime Minister establish this commission but it’s yet to be done.

It also needs to incorporate disaster risk reduction training in all villages on risk and safety for survival. In schools, firefighters are invited to train children on how to use fire extinguishers. The same can be done in this case. Regular community workshops are put in place where experts can facilitate these trainings.

Knowing that the Elgon region is prone to such disasters, the early warning system should be enhanced. All districts with non-functional early warning systems should be identified and the systems installed and protected from vandalism.

Testimonies have been registered for example in Bulambuli on how the installation of an early warning for flooding has helped save lives in Bulambuli district by simply alerting people who in turn alert others when a disaster is about to happen.

To reduce the risk of disaster, locals should be encouraged to manage their land productively and sustainably through a landscape approach. Agriculture along river banks should be strongly discouraged.

In 2017, UNDP in collaboration with the Ministry of Agriculture ran a project on integrated landscape management in Eastern Uganda. Such projects should be continued in the region to encourage proper agricultural practices.

Damages caused by natural disasters continue to threaten our socioeconomic status. The statistics over the years: 1900 to 2018 say they amount to over 200,000 deaths and at least $80million in economic loss to Uganda.

A recent study by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reveals that thousands of Ugandans are forcefully being internally displaced due to the sudden and gradual adverse effects of environmental degradation and climate change processes.

The sooner the Government implements a Disaster Risk Management Plan for the country, the better for the at-risk communities and the country in the management of emergencies and disaster risks.

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