AS FLOOD WATER LINGERS, OBONGI RESIDENTS BEGIN NEW LIFE

Fishermen rowing a canoe in flood waters on what used to be a compound of a house submerged in water

BY RICHARD DRASIMAKU

OBONGI: Nov 17, 2021

From the far flung horizon, the setting sun illuminates the skyline, its rays dappling the banks of River Nile where parts of Obongi town once blossomed.

But beneath the spectacle lie the ruins of destruction – of shops, rentals, residential apartments and grass thatched houses.

Combined, they provided shelter and livelihood to more than 500 local households and foreigners converged by trade and the crisis of refugees from South Sudan.

On what previously was the compound of these buildings, fishermen row canoes, looking for fish in the body of the river extended by flooding.

Young canoe operators transport people with goods  across to Adjumani district. They charge sh5,000 per trip and extra for goods.

The Obongi-Sinyanya ferry is stranded at the pier 418.54 metres from the fence of Obongi Town Primary school, the new bank of River Nile.

Banio, the policeman, keeps guard of the giant hydro-master during the day, occasionally entertained by the huffing of hippopotamus and Congolese music blasting off his radio set, until he is relieved by two colleagues for the night duty.

At the new shoreline, opposite partially submerged Riyadah mosque, Rukia Dawa joins a handful of other female fishmongers under rickety stalls, nearly half-a-kilometre away from where their former fish market before the floods was. 

In between the wooden stalls, smoky ovens process the fish, sending a pleasant aroma wafting through the air.

Rukia Dawa and Isa Candiru at their new make-shift fish market in Obongi town, battered by flooding of River Nile

“This is my 20th year of buying and vending fish. We buy fresh fish from the fishermen, smoke it on ovens and sell to travelers,” said Dawa.

“I used to sell between sh200,000 and sh500,000 of fish to customers from Arua, Kampala and other places. Since the flooding, I only sell to buy food to eat at home. Sometimes you buy fish at sh50,000 and you sell it at sh70,000, customers are few,” she explained of the situation.

How it started

Back in 2019, an event known as positive Indian Ocean Dipole took place, caused by warmer sea temperatures in Western Indian ocean region with the opposite in the East.

Dr Modathir Zaroug of the Nile Basin Secretariat explains that the positive Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) occurs when the westerly winds weaken and easterly winds form, allowing the warm water to shift towards the African continent.

He says the 2019 IOD was the most extreme event over the past 40 years and this resulted in more-than-average rainfalls leading to flooding in parts of East Africa, notably the Lake Victoria basin.

Lake Victoria is the largest freshwater lake in Africa and the second largest in the world, fed by 23 inlet rivers but having only one significant outlet, the River Nile.

Dr Zaroug says the implication of this sustained heavy downpour has been displacement by floods of people in lower area surrounding the lake, disruption of electricity generation from Owen Falls Dam caused by blockade by floating islands and further displacement of downstream communities as the Nile carried bigger volumes of water on its more than 6,600 kilometres journey to the Mediterranean Sea.

In Obongi, Dawa began witnessing the water volumes rise in late June 2020 without heavy rains in her area.

“Each time you went to the riverbank, you would find the water had extended outwards to another area. This went on for almost one month. Then, there came a heavy rainfall here which caused the river to burst its banks, covering a wider area,” she narrated.

She had five grass thatched houses; one fell on that first day when the riverbank burst, the second one collapsed after one week.

The former registration and screening office of Obongi Ferry are in accessible due to flooding.

“I got so scared, I told my children if we don’t leave this place we are going to die,” the widow, and mother of six recounted.

Quickly they gathered whatever belongings they had and moved to rent a one-room grass thatched house at sh20,000 a month.

Dawa says she thought the water levels would recede and they would go back to their houses but that was never to be.

Instead all her remaining houses collapsed, and crop gardens were swept away, replaced by water hyacinth.

The remnant of a solar street light pole rendered useless by flooding in Obongi

As living conditions deteriorated, Dawa sent two of her children to stay with a relative in Koboko district.

While Dawa grappled with the floods and it’s unpleasant aftermath, Abdulai Rangaranga, the LC2 chairman of Yakimini parish was having his studies in Mbale district interrupted by phone updates about his home and gardens being submerged in Obongi.

On a plot of 60 meters by 60 meters purchased at sh15m, Rangaranga had constructed a boys’ quarter at sh5m and a five-roomed house to beam level at sh25m, all of which are now in water.

He had to call and calm down his wife and children.

 “I told her what has happened is like you produce a child and the child dies. Life has to continue after your child has died,” he says.

His family evacuated to a sh120,000 a month house before relocating to a sustainable sh55,000 a month, three grass thatched houses.

53-year-old Rashid Aliga says the economic toll of the floods have remained immense.

The new docking station for canoes is a flood water on the road about 500 metres away from the original river bank

Some businesses including drug shops and general merchandise groceries had to relocate to Yumbe, Koboko or Arua City and others closed due to the inevitable dwindle of customers as the ferry remains cut off in water 

Aliga, a motorcycle repairer says his daily earnings have since fallen from over sh30,000 per day to sometimes nil per day.

“The number of bodaboda cyclists has reduced as there are also fewer people who need their services,” he disclosed.

According to Siraji Karala, the Local Council III chairman of Itula sub county, flooding affected more than 3,000 people in six sub-counties along the River Nile.

The villages of Bito, Indilinga, Odraju, Odonga, Lionaga, Yakimini and Go-down were some of the worst hit.

Houses were washed away, others still surviving more than one year on, a red cross water purification plant was shattered, crop fields submerged and people displaced into classrooms and churches.

They eventually moved to erect temporary structures along the Obongi-Moyo road before resettling without outside support.

A lady prepares fish for sale at her new stall after the previous fish market was washed out by flooding

Habib Khemis Buga, the Obongi district chairman said the district organized a sh15m relief package of maize flour, beans and carpets to help the people affected by the emergency as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the office of the Prime minister that had parts of their Palorinya refugee settlement base camp affected by the flooding looked on.

Rangaranga contends that the help from the district covered no more than 100 families in the Obongi town center.

“All that we are asking from the government is to give us iron sheets, we could lay the bricks ourselves,” he said.

This story was republished by InfoNile as Rising Levels of Lake Victoria Displacing Communities in Uganda

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