Floods destroyed 13-year-old Arielle’s home in western Burundi. She and her family have been living in a one-room hut since they were displaced in April 2020. Credit: Daphnee Cook / Save the Children.
Forgotten Crisis: Families in Burundi Languish as Homes Disappear under Lake Tanganyika
AIRFIELD, Conn. (Sept. 19, 2021)—At least 103,305 people have been forced from their homes by climate shocks in Burundi in recent years, where an increase in floods, storms, and landslides has led to a new displacement crisis, says Save the Children. The agency spoke to hundreds of displaced families this month who reported having no hope of returning home because their land had been lost to a risen Lake Tanganyika.
The small landlocked country in East Africa is experiencing a period of relative political stability following peaceful elections in 2020. However, displacement due to climate shocks is now replacing conflict displacement, with all internal displacements over the past three years the result of natural disasters.[I]
Over 84 percent of all internally displaced people in Burundi today have been displaced due to natural disasters rather than conflict, mostly due to the rise of Lake Tanganyika, Africa’s second-largest lake. It rose to 776.4 meters [2,547.2 feet] above sea level in April compared to the normal average of 772.7 meters [2,535.1 feet], swallowing hundreds of homes and farms in the process.
Children are being uniquely affected by the crisis, with Burundi having one of the highest fertility rates in the world, and displacement camps are currently overrun with children. An estimated 7,200 of the displaced people—or 7 percent of the total number—are babies under the age of one.[ii]
In Gatumba camp, which is home to 3,000 flood-displaced people, over 80 percent of residents are children. Most are out of school and many are only eating one meal per day.
Arielle, 13, lost her home and family income when Lake Tanganyika broke its banks last year. She now lives in a displacement camp, earning $1.20 per day carrying and stacking bricks. She told Save the Children:
“It was during the night, the water came onto the house and inside the house. I was sleeping and I woke up and the water was in the house. The house was destroyed a short time after we left it. We took some materials but others were taken by water…. Sometimes when I am working for money I can get food, but sometimes not, it depends on the days. When I get food, I eat cassava and beans. I eat most days, but some days I miss meals altogether.”
Save the Children is calling on the international community to urgently fund Burundi’s humanitarian response, where at least 2.8 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance—including nearly 1.3 million children. Burundi’s 2021 Humanitarian Response Plan is only 15.3 percent funded, leaving huge gaps in the provision of basic essentials, including food, clean water, and shelter.
Marie, 47, is a mother of three and lost her home to the rise of Lake Tanganyika. She told Save the Children:
“I was a farmer before the floods came, but now my home is underwater… The situation with flooding has become worse than it used to be. This time, the flood came over everything and never went back, and now it goes beyond the limit of what was there before.
“I fear the children are going to die from hunger. Today they haven’t had anything to eat. I have no support most of the time, and have nothing to feed the children.”
Maggie Korde, Save the Children’s Country Director for Rwanda and Burundi, said:
“While many families in Burundi have over the years experienced conflict and poverty, most have until now been able to keep a roof over their heads and feed their families. Now, with the rise of Lake Tanganyika, we are seeing families that previously had solid homes, all children in school, and two working parents, reduced to living in tents with no employment, no food, and kids having to work for a dollar a day to support their family. This is a gross injustice for a community that has already experienced so much hardship.
“The world seems to have forgotten Burundi, and yet it’s bearing the brunt of global climate change, with children the most affected. We have a collective responsibility to support the children of Burundi to respond and adapt to these changes, while at the global level work to combat the devastating trajectory of climate change.”
The crisis in Burundi comes at a time when the world is facing its biggest hunger crisis of the 21st century, with an estimated 5.7 million children under five on the brink of starvation across the globe. A further 13 million children under 18 are facing extreme food shortages, the organization said.
A deadly combination of COVID-19, conflicts, and the impacts of climate change have pushed hunger and malnutrition levels to a record global high. Without urgent action, the world could see tens of thousands of children starving to death, reversing decades of progress.
To limit the impact of climate change on the lives of millions of children, Save the Children is calling for an increase of climate financing so vulnerable communities can prepare for crises, with specific criteria to ensure child-centered investments, and to support poorer countries to manage unavoidable impacts. Governments must also ensure financial safety nets are available for the most vulnerable families to help them face the impacts of climate change.
Save the Children has a team in Burundi providing assistance to thousands of displaced children and their families. The agency is providing support in child protection, preventing and responding to gender-based violence, responding to the flood crisis, supporting children to re-enroll in school, and distributing educational materials.
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