The damage was everywhere as I drove south from Bujumbura, Burundi’s biggest city, down the shores of Lake Tanganyika. It was April, and flooding linked to the climate crisis had displaced thousands in the area, just as it had in the years prior.
To my right, I saw shoreside houses that had been swallowed by the overflowing freshwater lake, which is the longest in the world. To my left, were rolling hills scarred by landslides and erosion.
I finally stopped in the southern lakeside city of Nyanza Lac, which is near to where I was born. Government officials there told me that 180 houses had been destroyed by floods, and that diseases like malaria were quickly spreading.
I spoke to a local man called Kagoma who said floods had forced two of his cousins to return to a refugee camp in neighbouring Tanzania. They had left the camp two years earlier and built homes that were washed away in April.
“I was happy that my two cousins were back in Burundi,” Kagoma told me, explaining that they had fled the political crisis that erupted in 2015 after our former president won a disputed third term in office. “But now they have returned to exile.”
Punishing heat waves, costly floods
Kagoma’s story reflects a broader shift in the humanitarian situation in Burundi. Whereas conflict and political instability were previously the main drivers of displacement, now a changing climate is the primary culprit.
According to the UN’s migration agency, IOM, nearly 90% of the almost 80,000 internally displaced Burundians have been uprooted by climate-related events. That is despite the country contributing 0.02% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Recent years have brought recurring droughts and periodic downpours that have caused the overflow of Lake Tanganyika and its tributary, the Rusizi River. In some areas, whole towns are currently uninhabitable.
Even as I write this from Bujumbura, we are experiencing a punishing heatwave. Animals are getting sick, grass is disappearing, and our public water company is struggling to supply households with the most basic human need.
Rich nations and their historical emissions are primarily responsible for global climate breakdown, but deforestation for farmland has eroded soil here and increased the risk of flash floods and landslides.
And the situation is only expected to deteriorate. Temperatures in Burundi are projected to rise between 1.5 and 2.5 degrees by 2050, leading to protracted dry seasons and more flooding. For a population mostly dependent on agriculture, this will spell disaster.
Despite these current and future threats, we are considered to be one of the least prepared countries for climate change in the world. We lack funds both to build infrastructure to prevent disasters and to help those affected by them.
Right now, thousands of flood victims are living in camps with worse conditions than some of those erected during the civil war here in the 1990s and 2000s. I know that because I once lived in one of them.
Documenting the damage
I decided to begin documenting the humanitarian impact of extreme weather after recent downpours in April and May that, according to the UN, displaced more than 10,000 people.
First, I went to Nyanza Lac and nearby Rumonge, two towns where I have family.
In 2020, my niece’s home in Nyanza Lac was swept away, while a year later my uncle’s palm oil plantation in Rumonge suffered a similar fate.
In April, I saw hundreds of houses that had been damaged, and spoke to local residents that had lost their livelihoods.
Fishermen and small shop owners near the lake said they were especially affected. People told me how water had flowed down the surrounding hills and spread mud into the lake. This caused fish to move away from the shores into the middle of the water, which made it harder for people to catch a haul.
Next, I went to Kajaga and Gatumba, which are both near Bujumbura. They sit on either side of the Rusizi River, where water from neighbouring Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo flows into an already bloated Lake Tanganyika.
These two towns have been the most affected by flooding in recent years, with water remaining even during the dry season. According to residents, all kinds of diseases have been spreading.
“There are children and women who come to the health centres with skin diseases to which we are not used to,” Alice Nkumbuzi, a nurse from Kajaga, told me. “We think it is linked to the floods that occurred here.”
Landslides and deforestation
Some scientists argue that Lake Tanganyika rises on a cyclical basis and believe the levels could reduce in the next few years. But others say more flooding is inevitable, given that temperatures are increasing.
“All that one can imagine is that the rise in temperatures risks aggravating the high rainfall and de facto the rising waters of Lake Tanganyika,” Léonidas Nibigira, an environmental expert at the University of Burundi, told me.
Nor is it not just people living along Lake Tanganyika who have been affected by the flooding. Heavy rains have also triggered landslides on some of the nearly 3,000 steep hills or collines that make up much of the landscape here.
The hills host most of Burundi’s rural population, yet soil has been eroded and trees felled to make way for farmland. This has left soil exposed and decreased its ability to absorb water and mitigate flooding.
Kariko Thomas, a young boy I recently met in Bujumbura, told me he had been begging on the streets since a landslide destroyed parts of his hillside village a couple of years ago.
“I saw the ceiling of our home flying like a bird, and later on our home was destroyed by the landslide,” Thomas told me. “My mother died on the spot.”
‘I have just spent three days without eating anything’
The government and NGOs are trying to respond to some of these problems. There is an ongoing national reforestation programme, for example, and some hills have benefited from restoration projects.
Still, our authorities lack the funds for bigger infrastructure works like dykes. This has forced communities in places like Gatumba to move to other towns or relocate to displacement camps.
“With the floods, everything was lost, and I cannot find anything for my daughter and her two brothers who want to go to school.”
I visited one such camp, called Sobel, earlier in the year and found people living in deplorable conditions. The temperature was extremely high, there were mosquitoes everywhere, and families said they didn’t have enough to eat.
“We are victims of floods,” Sobel resident Jeannette Niyogusengwa told me. “We have been here since 2019 and I will tell you that I have just spent three days without eating anything.”
When I asked Niyogusengwa how she was managing without a basic cooking and kitchen kit, she replied: “We don’t need dishes because we don’t have anything to eat off of them.”
Another resident, Melence Ntomeka, told me he couldn’t afford school books and uniforms for his children. “With the floods, everything was lost, and I cannot find anything for my daughter and her two brothers who want to go to school,” Ntomeka said.
Homes not shelters
The Sobel camp is worse than what I experienced as a displaced person during the civil war: It was not as hot back then; we could go to our plantations in the mountains; and there were far more NGOs offering help.
Climate change in Burundi is causing a lot of destruction, and we are clearly unprepared. But there is a minimum that should be done to protect the population and ensure they can restart their lives in new homes rather than shelters in camps like Sobel.
More comprehensive solutions will likely depend on decisions made outside of Burundi, by rich polluting nations that have promised to finance a loss and damage fund but have not yet delivered.
I hope that progress towards a fossil fuel phase out will also be made next month when global leaders gather in the United Arab Emirates for the 28th UN climate change conference, COP28.
Still, when that summit begins I know who I will be thinking about: Jeannette in Sobel, Thomas the landslide victim, and the cousins of Kagoma who are living again as refugees.
Edited by Philip Kleinfeld.