Working together to anticipate floods in Uganda

Joint development of Early Action Protocol for flooding in Uganda

Disasters and development are inherently linked. Disasters can wipe out decades of hard-fought poverty reduction and development gains of communities. Climate change is aggravating this. In addition, disasters disproportionally affect the poor: low levels of development make the population more exposed and vulnerable to disasters.

Many predictable extreme weather events such as floods and drought result in disasters and suffering by vulnerable communities. The Uganda Red Cross National Society (URCS), together with key stakeholders has been working on reducing or even avoiding these impacts through the Innovative Approaches to Response Preparedness (IARP) project. Weather forecasts are used to inform communities in time about early actions that can be taken by themselves and by relevant organizations before an upcoming hazard reaches them. This reduces risks for vulnerable communities and saves money and time for humanitarian response. URCS, the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM), the Directorate of Water Resource Management (DWRM), Humanitarian Open Street Map Team, Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre and Red Cross Data & Digital team 510 have co-developed an Early Action Protocol (EAP) to help communities fight the impact of climate change and anticipate disasters.

The Netherlands Red Cross and the Uganda Red Cross Society present a personal reflection given by the key stakeholders involved on how they experienced the process of the EAP development. The stakeholders have reflected on specific memories, moments or situations throughout the process of jointly developing the EAP.

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What type of risks are posed by flooding?

"It was so scary, people were screaming at her that she should be careful not to be washed away."

"The teachers and students had to pile up desks to pick us up and take us to a safer area."

"During the rainy season we would need to take longer routes to school."

"At one time my mom was about to be swept away by running water."

"It was a marvel seeing how much bedrock had carried down the rocks to the river."

The hard thing about these kinds of risks is that it is often a risk in the future. It is always hard to see what a future risk actually means, how big it really is. That is why you often see there needs to be a flood first before people see the need to put measures in place to prevent floods. It is sometimes just so far from their minds, in addition to the day-to-day issues that need their attention.

Flooding affects everyone differently, in one way or the other.

"Floods are interrelated to any other issue affecting communities."

Uganda is predominantly an agricultural country and the agriculture is rain fed. The majority of the people affected by flooding are pastoralists and agriculturalists, so their livelihoods are dependent on climate and weather. When flooding or drought happens it has a direct effect on their livelihoods in a community. For example, most people grow sweet potatoes. During flooding these sweet potatoes are mostly submerged, which affects how much harvests you have and how much will be available for you to eat and sell.

In most cases, communities that are exposed to floods are communities that are most vulnerable in society. Floods or other climate-related disasters worsen the situation of these communities. They are the ones that are often in areas that have poor living standards, low literacy levels and in lowlands (more prone to climate-related disasters).

Who are the people we try to protect from flooding?

"One time a lady was being washed away downstream."

"The soil had covered the whole community, the houses, animals, everything wiped away."

"The 6-year old girl kept telling her grandmother “there is soil in my bed”, “there is soil in my bed”."

"They did not have a single coin on them to evacuate, so they chose to stay and pray to god to save them."

"It literally cuts off the entire community from access to any kind of help until the water has receded."

How was alignment between all stakeholders within anticipatory action in Uganda reached?

“In order to help these communities better anticipate floods, URCS works together with various stakeholders in a Technical Working Group”

"When everybody felt that we had to develop this information with the communities on the ground."

"One of the pivotal moments was how easily we seemed to agree on the top 3 priorities."

"When we received approval from IFRC it was one of those moments I walked with my head high."

The work on EAPs opened doors for me and built my knowledge in the area. It increased my interest in the area and as a result I am more involved at the national level in further discussions to contribute to other types of EAPs. I hope that we shall eventually be able to develop EAPs for other hazards by applying what we have learnt in this engagement.

"When they gave us the floor to present some of the work of using open data in disaster response."

"People wanted to hear what we, as Red Cross, had to say."

What is the value of combining modern, local and traditional knowledge to predict floods?

"Traditional knowledge of determining floods is very, very important."

There is a big difference between traditional and local knowledge: the traditional knowledge is understood more as longer term knowledge that has been communicated through generations and often has a certain value system and culture, and sometimes even religion, attached to it. Local knowledge can be understood as literally every knowledge that can be understood about a local place by a local community.

"Knowledge that is highly adapted to the place where it is useful, making it extremely valuable to the communities."

The local knowledge on early warning is based on the close relationship of people with their surroundings and the observations they make. For example, if fishermen observe more fish in the river, they know floods are coming. Or if people observe the riverine water gets darker this is also a sign. And if rainfall intensity and duration changes, people can anticipate how severe flooding will be. They understand how waters reach and spread throughout their villages. This local knowledge on early warnings allows them to subsequently select the best possible early actions based also on their local knowledge, such as moving livestock to the uplands or digging a drain around their house.

"When the river flow changes to dark brown that means it will flood in the next 10 to 12 hours."

"People are constantly triangulating all these types of knowledge in order to make decisions. "

Local knowledge never exists on its own. When scientific weather forecasts reach a community sufficiently in time, people start observing more closely their surroundings for additional early warning information. Also, the other way around, governmental, and scientific organizations can learn from local knowledge. It can help them in the analysis of large-scale global weather-related datasets, for example based on satellite data and in the construction of weather models.It is clear that we need insights from these complementary local and scientific knowledge to address the complex challenges in predicting floods and their impacts.

What is the first thing you do when you know a flood is coming?

"I would sound an alarm."

The first thing that I would do when I know that a flood is coming to my community, is to inform my people in the high risk areas, to vacate and to go to higher grounds and other safer areas.

The first action I would take when I receive the floods early warning, would be to share this information quickly with people within the flood zones. I would work with our Red Cross volunteers to help evacuate those at risk to a safer zone. Also, we need to lobby with all other partners to see that these actions are taken.

"I would make sure that everybody knows what is coming."

What is the added value of the developed Early Action Protocol (EAP)?

"The development of the EAP really influenced the way we look at things."

It also changed the way we view these stakeholders from a competitive point of view to a more collaborative point of view.

There would definitely be differences in the mindsets of the people: most likely without having an EAP in place, the people would just continue with their normal life and just wait until the flood hits. They would haphazardly try to cope with the impacts of the floods and belief and hope that things would change.

"From the institutional point of view there has been a shift in the mindset towards Anticipatory Action."

It grounded the mindset change from emergency response to preparedness, which was segmented with the review of the systems and policies and all these systems were not in existence for the National Society before the IARP programme. It brought on board so many stakeholders and it rebuild the National Society's strength in response preparedness like it was never before. This resulted in a whole new structural transformation.

"We tasked ourselves to include early warning early actions as part of the contingency plans of the districts."

"There is still a fear of taking action and nothing happens: acting in vain."

"If you prepare for a flood and the flood doesn't happen nobody loses, because our work still contributes to community resilience."

Artwork by Kyra Sacks

Next to Early Action Protocols for floods, the IARP programme also supports the development of Early Action Protocols for droughts in Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya.

The IARP programme is supported by the IKEA Foundation

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