13 Apr 2018 Story Climate change

Guarding against disaster: Rwandan farmers adapt to the changing climate

In Rwanda, the “land of a thousand hills”, frequent landslides and floods caused by erratic rains are literally washing people’s lives away and driving them from their homes.

Alexandre Uhere had been growing vegetables on the hillsides around his village of Kinyanja in western Rwanda for decades before sudden heavy rains kept sweeping his livelihood down into Lake Karago.

“When there was a big downpour, the seeds were going downhill and we weren’t producing anything because it was all going downhill, so people were going hungry,” he said.

“We experienced a long spell of hunger in my household - for four months,” he added.

With no food for his family for four months, Uhere headed to a town 40 km away to look for work helping other people on their farms.

The amount of mud and fertiliser washed into Lake Karago also killed the local fishing industry.

“The lake used to be in a bad state. There was water hyacinth, so no oxygen for the fish to survive,” said Venuste Kayumba, a retired soldier.

Meteorologist Alphonse Mutabazi says that western Rwanda is particularly vulnerable to climate shocks and disasters like flooding due to changing weather patterns.

Rwanda farmer
Hannah McNeish/UN Environment

“What we are observing is that is the temperature is increasing and intensive rain is also increasing, so when it rains in one day sometimes it’s the intensity of one month,” he said.

He has also seen how the unpredictable weather has sown financial ruin in communities that rely solely on farming and raising livestock to survive.

“When it floods, there are people who lose their lives, crops and domestic animals” due to drowning, he said.

When landslides took away Beatrice Mukarenzi’s rows of potatoes, corn and beans, her four children did not have enough to eat and had to stay home for months.

“The children would not be able to go to school because there was no money for fees,” she said.

The rains were so heavy and unpredictable that Mukarenzi feared they would sweep away her children, whom she would gather up and usher inside when the downpours began.

To help people in western Rwanda adapt to the changing weather and avoid losing lives and livelihoods to natural disasters, UN Environment has invested in 22 automatic weather forecasting stations and a mobile network to deliver climate information and advisories to people across four regions.

“Through the UN Environment project, we have established a system to send people an SMS every morning about the forecast so they know what will happen that same day,” said Mutabazi.

The project was such a success that Rwanda’s government decided to expand it to increase the number of SMS subscribers from 800 to more than 19,000 today.

“The SMSes are received at district level, at sector level and at community level”, and is spread from neighbour to neighbour, “so everyone is informed,” said Mutabazi.

Anthony Twshirwa, Division Manager for Weather, Climate Services and Applications at the central weather service in Rwanda’s capital Kigali, says that a nationwide programme to train people to interpret the weather has been extremely successful in helping farmers know when to go out and farm and when to keep everything inside to avoid losses.

“They are using the weather and climate information to make proper planning, like selecting the type of crop to be cultivated and when to harvest and how they dry their crops and keep them,” he said.

Rwanda lake
Hannah McNeish/UN Environment

The project helped train more than 5,000 people in western Rwanda and his department has gone on to train 10,000 more people.

The project has also improved the standard of weather forecasting nationwide by providing people with training in meteorology.

“The staff is now aware of the weather patterns, because they had a background of maths and physics but not meteorology, but now they can make good predictions and make analysis and create good weather forecasts,” said Twshirwa.

For Mutabazi, who spent years having to deliver all the radio forecasts himself, having a new generation of meteorologists providing Rwanda’s large rural population with accurate and timely information through a mobile network and live internet data is a huge blessing.

“It has changed people’s lives because they can plan using this information,” he said.

“They can do disaster management because they can know what is going to happen, what climate events will come,” he said.

Now that Uhere knows that the heavy rains are set to continue, and having dug terraces down the hills for other farmers when his own farm was destroyed, he is planting his crops on stable steps.

“When there is rainfall, instead of allowing it to take away the soil, it is absorbed and helps the crops grow,” he said.

Mukarenzi has also dug terraces and is now producing enough to keep all her children healthy and happy at school.

“Now, there’s no erosion and we can get a lot, and Lake Karago that used to be so dirty and muddy is now giving us fish,” she said.

From struggling to eke out a living catching small fish before 2012, Kayumba and other retired soldiers can now make a living from a clear blue lake.

“There used to be so much mud inside the lake and it was so congested. Now, every day we can earn a little,” he said.

Learn more about UN Environment's work on climate change.