Africa-Press – Tanzania. As climate change continues to affect lives across the world, it has caused immense emotional anguish for people in Tanzania’s port city of Dar es Salaam, with floods washing away graveyards and bursting open the caskets of many residents’ deceased loved ones.
Flooding and rising sea levels pose significant risks for cemeteries in Dar es Salaam, which has a population of 6 million. Tombs are routinely destroyed and carried away by the floodwaters to the distress of grieving families who hoped to provide their late relatives a peaceful final resting place.
In one such instance, floods that engulfed the Msimbazi River valley last month damaged numerous graves in the impoverished Vingunguti neighborhood, eroding caskets and bodies.
The incident prompted city authorities to swiftly exhume 238 graves and relocate them away from the flooded cemeteries.
According to eyewitnesses, some of the caskets were carried away by the swelling waters and left stranded on the river bank when the flood receded.
Rising seas, landslides, and flooding, which experts believe have been caused by the worsening impacts of climate change, are putting some of the city’s graveyards at risk, with locals saying that many burial areas around the city are sinking in swamps
Plans to preserve graveyards
As climate change continues to take its toll, Dar es Salaam, one of the fastest-growing cities in Africa, has become all the more vulnerable to flooding.
Rapid population growth has caused a scarcity of burial spaces, forcing grieving families to bury their loved ones in cramped cemeteries at risk of flooding
Omari Kumbilamoto, the Dar es Salaam city mayor, said authorities are drawing up contingency plans to preserve graveyards threatened by extreme weather.
“At the moment, we can do very little to ensure that nothing happens to coffins in low-lying graveyards in the event of floods,” he told Anadolu Agency.
Kumbilamoto said extreme weather has affected not only the Butiama graveyard in Vingunguti, but also other cemeteries located in flood-prone areas where the ground is waterlogged, making it hard to dig new graves.
According to him, heavy rains have repeatedly deterred grave diggers from digging down to the customary six or seven feet (about 80 inches) because by the time they reach this depth, water gushes in from the surrounding soil and the grave collapses in on itself.
“As soon as you start digging, the grave fills with water, which can be quite dangerous for gravediggers,” stressed Kumbilamoto.
As sea levels rise and flooding becomes more frequent, experts say burial solutions in the city need to evolve to prevent the erosion of graves during floods.
Martin Rulegura, an independent environmental engineer based in Mwanza, a city on the Lake Victoria coast roughly 840 kilometers northwest of Dar es Salaam said although the aftermath of climate change is inevitable, city authorities should draw up better policies and plans to guide people on the right places to bury their loved ones and avoid low-lying areas that are prone to flooding.
“If you keep on allowing people to bury their dead in such high-risk areas, then engineered reinforcement of the area has to be done beforehand,” he told Anadolu Agency.
Rulegura said the manner of burial also needed to change, including by introducing well-engineered burial sites that can withstand climate phenomena.
When a retired teacher, Jesca Kahisi, was buried at Butiama cemetery, adjacent to the Msimbazi River, in 2014, it was supposed to be her final resting place.
But, erosion over the years worsened by floods washed away some of the graves and left the remains of Kahisi precariously perched on the edge of the eroding riverbank. Her bones were exhumed on Dec. 28, and now, city officials are trying to figure out what to do about other affected cemeteries.
“There is no doubt burial grounds in the city are threatened by the effects of climate change,” said Joyce Nyoni, professor of Anthropology at the Institute of Social Work in Dar es Salaam.
The residents of Dar es Salaam are no strangers to flooding. As extreme weather becomes more common, flooding has had effects other than the physical damage it wreaks on roads and homes, including emotional trauma among the loved ones of the dead as they watch the reopening of their relatives’ graves.
According to Nyoni, when a grave is destroyed by floods, rebuilding it can be emotionally painful to relatives.
As city workers dressed in navy blue jumpsuits, utility gloves, and rubber boots dug graves to recover bodies and place them in caskets, in line with local Christian traditions, on Dec. 28, relatives wept bitterly as the remains of their loved ones were taken away.
Nimzihirwa Mjema, a local ward leader at Vingunguti, said soil erosion has been affecting graveyards for the past three years.
“Whenever it rains, some graves are destroyed and caskets are carried away,” he told Anadolu Agency.
Dar es Salaam, which has two rainy seasons per year peaking from March to May and October to December, received over 45 inches (1,150 millimeters) of rainfall last year, up from 33.7 inches in 2011, according to the Tanzania Meteorological Agency (TMA).
However, due to extreme weather, the agency warns of irregularity in rainfall patterns, with major downpours occurring in relatively dry months, as happened in December 2021.