Why rain doesn’t have to turn into a catastrophe

During the night of February 9, I was woken by the sound of a powerful downpour. Burundi was being hit by torrential rains. Little did I know at the time just what the consequences of this severe weather would be: a death toll of 77, a tragic 70% of which were children. More than 3,700 houses were destroyed that night, forcing hundreds of families to evacuate. The total number of affected persons was estimated at over 20,000 in and around the capital Bujumbura. And it all happened a short distance from where I live.

The bridge in front of the UNICEF office had collapsed, limiting staff movement. I stepped up to coordinate our emergency interventions. Four camps for families that lost their homes were installed within 72 hours by the national Red Cross with our support.

Access to water and sanitation came first: preventing cholera in these situations is a priority. We supported the Red Cross in pulverising all areas where latrines had been destroyed, and an emergency water system in the camps was immediately provided. Child protection and health were also major priorities for us – we provided psychosocial support to separated children and high energy food rations and recreational kits for vulnerable and displaced children.

During disasters like these, children always are the most affected. At the same time, children can be amazing at coming to help other children. Immediately after the catastrophe, I saw dozens of youth, most of them just as affected by the floods as others, in the streets providing support to the national Red Cross, running up and down helping the most vulnerable, pulverising the streets, and helping to install tents for the most affected. One of our child journalists, Princia Iradukunda, 15, who wanted to make sure people were aware of just how much this disaster had affected children’s lives, came to join us in the camps. She spoke to children that could no longer go to school – because not only were their homes washed away, but so were their school materials and school uniforms – and then hurried back to send her article out to print media and social media.

But despite this impressive youth involvement, much still needs to be done. Most of the schools that were damaged are still not functional because mud is blocking the classrooms. Constant monitoring and prevention of cholera is needed, more latrines need to be built, and cleaning of community water sources still needs to be done. But funding these activities is a big challenge for us.

When I think back to the morning after the rains, I remember stepping outside onto my wet driveway strewn with twigs and leaves. I realized already at the time that the amount of rain that had fallen over Bujumbura had been substantial, but not uncontrollable. If the same quantity of rain had fallen over the capital of a developed country, the consequences wouldn’t have been nearly as disastrous for children and families. Knowing this motivates me – because I also know there are solutions. The first one is to pursue a solid resilience program that can ensure that if other natural disasters occur here in Burundi, the community has the means to reduce its effects – and in the long term, prevent such events from becoming catastrophes altogether.

Currently a UNICEF Emergency Specialist in Burundi, Matteo Frontini has been working in emergency and post-conflict environments over the past 15 years. Other emergencies he has worked in include the 1999 crisis in Sierra Leone, the Bunia, DRC crisis in 2003, and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.


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