Why villagers haven't left mudslide-prone mountain — and how a novel plan might help
Mount Elgon's red earth slopes are home to hundreds of thousands of people who eke out a living growing coffee and vegetables on small plots cleared from the forest. As climate change has made annual rains ever more intense, the deforested areas have become increasingly prone to deadly mudslides.
Now this extinct volcano in Eastern Uganda offers a case study of not just the threat that climate change poses to people in the world's poorest communities – but also a novel potential solution.
Uganda's government has taken a number of steps to move people out of harm's way, with limited success. Now the American non-profit GiveDirectly, an aid group known for its research-driven approach, is testing whether a more effective solution is to just give people a sizable cash grant with no strings attached.
Their approach, implemented with the endorsement of Uganda's government, is aimed at a seeming contradiction: Many Mount Elgon residents haven't jumped at government offers to re-settle them. Yet, in a recent survey, GiveDirectly found that people are, in fact, desperate to leave.
Take Wasika Mubarak, a young father who was standing just outside his house during a devastating mudslide in 2018.
"I saw a great wave of water rushing down the mountain," he recalls, in the local language Lumasaba. "It was picking up giant boulders. Swallowing houses."
Mubarak says he ran screaming to his wife, who was in the kitchen cooking with both their sons, then age 6 and 5. She grabbed the oldest and raced outside. Before she or Mubarak could go back for the youngest, the water surged past them, blocking the way
"It took us two hours to reach my son," says Mubarak. "He had been hit with a rock and was bleeding from the head."
The boy recovered. But for Mubarak, what happened in the years that followed has felt almost as scary. With their home destroyed, the only new place they could afford to move to seemed just as dangerous.
"It's also right on the mountain," says Mubarak. "And there are cracks in the ground around it. So we've been living in fear that at any time another landslide could kill us."
To understand why previous efforts to help people like Mubarak have not solved the problem, GiveDirectly's global research director Miriam Laker-Oketta gives the example of a government plan developed after a mudslide in 2010 that killed more than 300 people. Officials bought agricultural land in an alternative location for people to move to.
"It looks like a really great idea," says Laker-Oketta. " 'Let's move these people to this place that is not yet overpopulated. Give them larger pieces of land than they have currently.' "
But she says before long, many people seemed to have returned to Mount Elgon. "The fact is that people did not want to move to those places."
Officials have been slow to build promised new housing there. Droughts have cut into annual harvests. But also, the new plots were 230 miles east, in a part of the country with a different language, different traditions – where people lacked the connections that help them survive.
Most significantly, says Laker-Oketta, it was a top-down solution – a problem that has undermined other attempts to help people in Mount Elgon and likely elsewhere too.
"As human beings we all want agency — the ability to make decisions based on what we believe is important for us," says Laker-Oketta. "And I think that the big gap was [not] going to the people and trying to understand from them, 'What do you want to do?' "
One way to do that, she says, is to just give them cash grants that they can use however they see fit. Indeed, this is the insight that prompted GiveDirectly's founders to start the charity. For more than a decade they've been giving out no strings cash grants across the globe to help lift people out of extreme poverty.
And so, says Laker-Oketta, it seemed a natural next step to see if the approach can also help people protect themselves from climate change – specifically by trying it out with the residents of Mount Elgon.
First the nonprofit surveyed them to ask, "How much money would you need to relocate to a new set-up of your choice?"
"We got an approximate figure of $1,800," says Laker-Oketta.
Then GiveDirectly started handing out no-strings grants in exactly that amount to about 4,000 households on the mountain.
The results should be available by early next year.
Charles Kenny, a senior analyst with the think tank Center for Global Development, who is not involved with GiveDirectly's efforts, says the project could have implications for poor people all over the world who live in the path of predictable climate disasters. This includes those residing in other mudslide zones – for instance in Rwanda and Bangladesh. But it could also help people residing on riverbanks prone to deadly flooding in Mozambique and Nigeria, or on farmland across sub-saharan Africa that's being rendered all but unusable by drought, or on islands ravaged by cyclones.
Right now, argues Kenny, too much of climate aid is being spent on projects aimed at preventing further climate change, such as helping countries shift to renewable energy in order to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions.
"But the thing about climate change is it's having an impact now," says Kenny. "And where it's having an impact is in the world's poorest countries. These people need help today to deal with the impact of climate change today."
Kenny says many prior studies have already shown that poor people tend to use no-strings cash aid effectively.
"And I think it makes particular sense when it comes to the climate crisis," he says. "Giving people cash allows them to respond in the ways that they know best."
Early anecdotal evidence from the Mount Elgon study points at the ways people's individual priorities may vary.
Mubarak, for instance, says he immediately used the money to buy land in a nearby district — "out of the dangerous area," he says.
He also bought metal sheets and poles and nails to build a house. He's still working on it, but he's already been able to move in.
"I'm finally going to save my family," he says.
Then there's Jane Florence Kalenda, a 56-year-old widowed mother of four.
She says she, too, has used her grant to buy land off of the mountain and some construction materials. But she also decided to spend part of it on school fees for her children, even though that's left her short of the money needed to complete a new house.
"I estimate I still need about $530," she says.
She's hoping to raise the money in a few more months by growing some onions from seeds that she also bought with the GiveDirectly grant.
Laker-Oketta of GiveDirectly says while the nonprofit is obviously hoping this effort will get people off Mount Elgon right away, if people opt for paths like Kalenda's that slow the move, it's important to respect their choices.
"We need to know that people are going to make decisions based on what's important for them." After all, she says, "we're dealing with human beings. Not lab rats."
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