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Natural Disasters Cause Food Shortages and Displacement in Burundi

By Maria Mitri

Burundi, a landlocked country at the intersection of the African Great Lakes and East Africa, has been pummeled by extreme weather events in recent years. Floods, landslides, and earthquakes account for 85% of internal displacement in the country. In the Gatumba region alone, 50,000 people have been displaced by heavy rains leading to increased floods, per data collected by the IOM.

"According to the IOM, in September alone, there were 113,408 civilians displaced within Burundi, 83% of which were displaced by natural disasters"

Lakes have overflowed, schools have been forced into closure, and homes have been swept away by the changing climate. Burundi is ranked 171st out of 181 countries in terms of vulnerability to climate change, explaining the vast numbers of people internally displaced by natural weather events.

Between 2018 and 2021, Burundi was struck by 445 natural disasters that affected an estimated 270,000 people. From 2020 until 2021 alone, IOM recorded 168 natural disasters including torrential rains, floods, landslides, hailstorms, and strong winds have created hazardous conditions in Burundi. One of the main concerns for Burundi is the fact that almost the entire population relies on farming. This has ultimately created food insecurity for the people of Burundi and has forced children into some type of employment as families are left with no other way to feed themselves.

This child labor is often forced and exploitative, done in exchange for food and shelter. UNOCHA has concluded that this food insecurity and general scarcity of necessary resources also puts the children of Burundi at higher risk of sexual exploitation and gender-based violence in displacement camps.

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, there are currently 1.8 million people in need in Burundi. The repeated occurrences of climate shocks deteriorate the country’s infrastructure and resilience, and increase reliance on humanitarian aid that is not provided at the degree that it is demanded.

According to the International Organization for Migration, in September alone, there were 113,408 civilians displaced within Burundi, 83% of which were displaced by natural disasters. This number has grown mostly in the last three years with the frequency and severity of natural weather events, especially floods, increasing and displacing thousands of people at a time. Lake Tanganyika, one of Africa’s Great Lakes and the world’s second deepest lake, has risen to dangerous levels, according to ReliefWeb.

Following years of relentless heavy rains, flooding, landslides, and powerful winds, Lake Tanganyika has swallowed entire portions of Burundi’s society including roads, schools, churches, and markets.

The country’s natural soil is already under stress due to general degradation and overuse and climate change only worsens this. According to the World Bank, Burundi loses an estimated 38 million tons of soil to land degradation, and this diminishes the country’s GDP by 4%.

The country’s agricultural sector is predominantly related to coffee production, but the extent of the soil erosion that has occurred in the last few decades has decreased the production of coffee by 2/3, increasing poverty among Burundian civilians. Burundi’s climate vulnerability combined with their dependence on natural resources creates a recipe for internal displacement and greater numbers of people living in poverty, especially with rising rainfall and temperature variability predicted to increase within the next few decades, according to the World Bank.

Almost all Burundians live with less than $1.90 per day, according to the United Nations, and the situation is especially difficult for refugees who face limited job options especially in urban areas.

In 2021, over 60,000 Burundian refugees returned home voluntarily, mostly from Tanzania and smaller groups coming from Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, and Uganda. Most refugees returned after Burundi held elections in 2020 and the voluntary return initiative to repatriate Burundian refugees began in 2017, helmed by the United Nations Refugee Agency.

By 2022, an estimated 243,473 Burundian refugees will have returned to Burundi, running the risk of resources growing scarce and tension within communities. However, the country’s ability to handle the returned refugees is hampered by current crises including limited funding for humanitarian services, the socioeconomic effects of COVID-19 and recurring natural disasters.

The United Nations predicts that, in 2022, about 1.8 million people will be in need of humanitarian aid. This is a sizable decrease from 2021, but this progress should be taken with a grain of salt. COVID-19 still poses a great threat to Burundi and bears socioeconomic detriments to Burundian civilians; climate change will continue to disrupt Burundi’s economy, the ways that civilians earn wages, and the ways that they are able to fulfill their most basic needs like food and shelter.

Weather forecasts predict an inadequate cropping season to start off 2022, affecting food security, and a more severe 2022 rainy season which will lead to more flooding and increased water levels especially in flood-prone areas that have already been slammed by floods in years past. It is clear that Burundi is experiencing what is just the tip of the iceberg of what climate change has in store.

Those displaced by the rising of Lake Tanganyika and the other disasters that cripple Burundi face food insecurity, sexual violence, and labor exploitation, with no guarantee of safe shelter or refuge. It is crucial that humanitarian aid is provided sooner rather than later, before the climate crisis makes conditions in Burundi even more precarious.


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