The world was supposed to end just at the beginning of the New Year 2000 (Y2K), prophesies of doom said.
Media caused panic as it constantly reported that the 19th Century would end with death and destruction. And that clocks and computers would stop working.
In Rwanda, villagers prophesied that a mysterious stone would fall from the sky and crash the whole country.
As Christmas approached, thousands of Rwandans packed inside churches to pray and repent, hoping to be clean on then judgment day. Nothing happened.
Two months later after the doomsday, however, strange things started happening in Bugesera district, Eastern Rwanda.
It was February 2000 and farmers had started planting seeds, waiting for the rains. Until March, there was no single drop of rain. The sun continued burning. The vegetation dried and turned into dust. Seeds never germinated. The drought began hitting hard.
This was happening in a district home to nine lakes. The region was covered with green vegetation around the lakes and the district was known for supplying cassava, rice, vegetables and other crops.
Laurent Bicamumpaka 40, resident of Shetwe village in Ngeruka sector and his wife escaped to Ngoma district in the furthest of Eastern province.
“Rain had not stopped in Ngoma. We used to work in farms in exchange for food,” said Bicamumpaka.
However, some people in Bugesera remained hopeful that it would rain.
Eugene Habimana 30, from Nyakariba village in Ngeruka sector recalls that, Cyohoha Lake on 630 hectares started drying up and until gradually silt from the lake’s bed got exposed.
Many residents in Bugesera started believing that indeed the end of the world was real. Marshlands dried up and Lake Cyohoha was reduced to a small trough.
Gahingiriza, a trader from Ruhuha trading center created a short-cut route for his truck driving through hardened clay that was once part of the lake.
Residents continued migrating to Ngoma district and other parts of Rwanda searching for food.
The government declared Bugesera chronic food insecure. Reported cases of malnutrition increased from 290 to 710 between January and December 2000 at the Rilima hospital.
The Drought Curse
A 2007 study conducted by the Environment management authority (REMA) indicated that East and southeast part of the country such as Bugesera, Mayaga and Umutara tended to experience prolonged cyclical and persistent droughts.
However, Bugesera since 1960s, received migrants from other parts of the country, in search of pasture and fertile land, thus exerting immense pressure on land.
“Bugesera had immense forests until 1970s, but neighbouring Kigali city, its forests were over exploited for charcoal,” says Charles Sindayigaya, an environmentalist from REMA.
He added that this uncontrolled exploitation contributed to reduction of rain water.
Lakes like Cyohoha and Rweru could not resist the severe drought. Experts say the two lakes were formed from overflow of River Akagera.
Bugesera gets rain
The government began efforts to restore the Bugesera ecosystem. Residents were urged to plant as many trees as possible.
Two years later, in April 2002, dark clouds started forming above the sky in Bugesera. “Hope to see the blessing from heaven started forming in the minds of us who believe in God. But traditionalists also said ancestors had heard their pleas,” Theogene Habimana, a village chief told KT Press.
That day, it rained cuts and dogs and, Habimana said, every family hastened to harvest rain water that was full of dust, believing it was just a-one day blessing. Little did they know the rainy season was back.
“Our neighbors who had fled to several areas returned and that very year, we planted and harvested plentifully.”
Despite this joy however, fishermen were still “mourning”.
“I enjoyed cassava with beans and would enjoy sorghum beer, but I was still missing smoked fish,” says Emmanuel Nzigira, a fisherman.
However, between 2007 and 2008 some water began returning into the Lake.
Fishermen began tying their nets back again. However, as water levels began rising in the lake, water hyacinth weed grew so fast and this created a new threat to fish survival.
In 2013, the government developed a project to curtail the challenges at the lake.
Ten fishermen and their families estimated at 900 people convened at the lake with REMA technicians.
They were tasked to clear the bush and weed from the lake and get paid.
“At first we feared snakes and other wild animals, but we ended up taking the offer because our lake was precious,” said Nzigira.
The group of workers included divers who dived into the swamps to uproot weeds using their hands. Others were tasked to help pull the shrubs from the lake and then use boats to dispose of them.
They received a daily wage between Rwf1500 and Rwf4000.
“From the earnings in this project, I have built a house, got married and I am not complaining about lack of food,” Francois Nsabimana, a diver told KT Press.
Other fishermen have bought bicycles and land while others use their salary to pay tuition for their schooling children.
So far 140 hectares out of 600 hectares have been cleared within two years.
There is some good news for the people around the lake.
Wilson Rutaganira, coordinator of aquaculture program in Rwanda agriculture Board (RAB) told KT Press, that Lake Cyohoha currently contributes 35 tons of fish per year, out of 20,000 tons of fish produced annually countrywide.
Similar work was completed on Lake Rweru where 100 hectares were reclaimed.
What was the cost?
After Cyohoha disaster, a holistic approach in environment protection is insuring that no drop of water is detracted from lakes and no other natural resource is lost.
Reforestation, terracing and other mechanisms that intend to fight erosion have become a priority. Citizens contribute through community work-umuganda. The government and partners also contribute funds.
Funded reforestation includes the November 2001 Rwanda Forestry Management project which planted 567.56 hectares of trees around the Bugesera area and Lake Muhazi in Kayonza district.
The Muvumba River banks in Nyagatare are protected by forestations of Acacia Kirikii over 127 ha.
The same project did reforestation of roughly 15,000ha of bare hills in Bugesera and Nyagatare in the Eastern province and other parts of the country.
It also restored the 1000ha of the remaining Gishwati natural forest in Western province. Gishwati is now a national park.
African Development Bank funded this multi components project with $ 48.16 million (Rwf37.2 billion).
Along the vastest Kivu Lake (2,700 km²), every neighboring district is drawing from the government budget to ensure this resource’s safety.
Ananias Niyibeshaho, in charge of environment conservation in Nyamasheke district told KT Press, that they have kept aside Rwf800 million for demarcation of their 600 km long buffer zone for two years.
Provided by FONERWA, the national fund for environment protection, the money will serve in forest rehabilitation, bamboo planting and terracing.
Fonerwa has approved 30 more projects in this environment protection via its $80 million fund.
“We do not want any harm to our precious lake Kivu,” says Niyibeshaho. According to Rutaganira, over 80% of Rwanda’s fish production is contributed by Lake Kivu and consists mainly of sardine species.
The 2005 law on environment protection provided that any agricultural activity shall respect a distance of 10 meters and 50 meters away from the banks of streams/rivers and lakes respectively.
The country is surrounding its 101 lakes (149487 ha) with a forest belt at the buffer zone. The same applies to 861 rivers totaling 6462 km in length.
On November 28, a campaign to plant 30 million trees was launched.
The country also finds mechanisms to reduce pressure on existing forests.
Sylvie Uwacu, in charge of environment conservation in Bugesera district told KT Press that over 78% of district households use the kitchen stoves that consume a few fuel woods.
Meanwhile, Bugesera resilience to climate change is not only reclaiming Cyohoha Lake. The district has again become a food basket for the country.
For example, rice yields have risen from 4tones/Hato7.5tones/Ha in the last five years. Maize yield increased from 3tones/Ha to 5.2tones/Ha.
As a result, Bugesera is among the top 10 districts of the country where poverty incidences are lower, with 34.3% compared to Nyamasheke, 62%.
Bugesera is now catching up on forest cover currently at 17%, compared to Nyamasheke, Nyamagabe and Rusizi districts with 40% each. The three districts include the vast Nyungwe national park.
“Bugesera still needs more, but it is no longer among vulnerable districts,” Adria Mukashema, in charge of forestry department at Rwanda Natural Resources Authority has told KT Press.
Kayonza, Rwamagana and Ngoma districts have least forests and are susceptible to desertification. Forests in these districts cover less than 10% of the entire surface.
Every year, each of the three districts is given Rwf300 million for reforestation. Bugesera gets Rwf100 million annually, according to Mukashema.
With a few days left to begin another new year, 15 years later, Bugesera residents have no worries of doomsday any more.