Natural Disasters in Tanzania: Past Catastrophes and Future Risks
Tanzania has consistently stood out as one of Africa’s most sought-after tourist destinations, attracting visitors keen on experiencing safari adventures, relaxing on pristine beaches, immersing themselves in the local culture, and marveling at the country’s stunning natural beauty. As the number of tourists continues to rise, it is imperative for them to be informed about potential natural calamities or disasters they may encounter. While natural disasters can be unpredictable, prior knowledge empowers individuals to prepare for such eventualities.
Climatic Features of Tanzania
Situated slightly south of the equator in East Africa, Tanzania’s climate is heavily influenced by its varied topography. The majority of the country experiences a subequatorial climate, with the exception of its mountainous regions, where temperature variations are significant due to altitude.
The subtropical climate manifests in distinct rainy and dry seasons. The local summer, spanning November to April, is typically characterized by rainfall, while the winter months of May to October are generally dry. In the northern regions of Tanzania, there are two rainy seasons—March to May and September to November—creating a semblance of the four-season pattern familiar to many.
Despite a lengthy coastline stretching 1200 kilometers, Tanzania is shielded by small archipelagos and coral reefs, providing protection against ocean storms, cyclones, and potential tsunamis, which minimizes damage to the country.
A significant tectonic feature in Tanzania is the large rift fault running through its western part, marked by the presence of deep lakes Tanganyika and Nyasa. This tectonically active zone remains in constant motion, contributing to the country’s geological dynamics.
Tanzania boasts extensive forests and grassy savannahs, presenting a challenge of forest fires during the dry season. Addressing this issue is crucial for the preservation of the country’s rich biodiversity.
In conclusion, as travelers explore Tanzania’s diverse landscapes and cultural offerings, understanding the climate and potential environmental challenges enhances their overall experience and ensures a safer and more enjoyable journey.
Potentially Hazardous Factors Leading to Natural Disasters in Tanzania:
- Seismic Activity: Despite not being too large, seismic activity is notable, with approximately one earthquake of average strength recorded every five years. While the frequency is relatively low, there is an increased threat of activity in the current century.
- Long Coastline: Tanzania’s extensive coastline, despite the protection of shallow waters and coral reefs, poses an increased danger in terms of storms, cyclones, and potential tsunamis.
- Volcanism: While currently hosting one active volcano, the impressive peaks of Kilimanjaro and Ngorongoro bear witness to significant volcanic activity in the past. Some level of danger persists.
- Seasonal Hurricanes and Storms: These phenomena almost never impact the Tanzanian coast and generally cause no substantial damage.
- Heavy Rains: Intense rainfall can lead to short-term flooding and the overflow of numerous rivers.
- High Mountains and Plateaus: The presence of high mountains and plateaus increases the risk of landslides and rockfalls, posing threats to transportation and settlements.
- Large Forested Areas and Long Savannahs: The expansive forested areas and extensive savannahs contribute to the potential occurrence and spread of forest fires.
The Significance of Studying Natural Disaster History: Understanding the history of natural disasters is crucial before embarking on travel to Tanzania. This knowledge allows travelers to not only choose the right destination but also select the optimal time and season of the year when the risk of being in the epicenter of a natural disaster is minimal.
For instance, being aware that the rainy season, and consequent floods, occurs from December to March enables travelers to plan their visit to Tanzania during a different time of the year. This article provides a chronological overview of past natural disasters on the island, offering valuable insights for informed travel planning.
Despite the presence of the Great African Rift, a significant fault in the Earth’s crust traversing most of Tanzania, seismic activity in the country remains low. No devastating earthquakes resulting in numerous casualties have ever been recorded. Over the last five decades, only seven earthquakes with a magnitude greater than 5 have been documented.
September 10, 2016
A magnitude 5.9 earthquake occurred on the border of Tanzania and Uganda, near the shores of Lake Victoria. The city of Bukoba was the most affected, resulting in the unfortunate loss of nineteen lives, over 250 injuries, the destruction of 840 houses, and displacement of thousands.
August 31, 2021
A magnitude 4.8 earthquake struck just south of Lake Victoria, marking one of the most recent significant seismic events. While not causing major destruction, a few buildings were damaged, and one person was injured.
Tanzania, situated in a tectonically active zone, is home to numerous volcanoes, mainly considered extinct, showcasing historical volcanic activity. Presently, there are slightly over 20 volcanoes in the country, with only three having erupted in human memory.
Africa’s highest volcano, though dormant, poses potential danger. The last eruption occurred between 1 million and 500,000 years ago. One of its cones, Shira, is considered dormant, signifying the possibility of reawakening and eruption.
Located 70 kilometers from Kilimanjaro, this grand volcano stands at a height of 4,562 meters. While generally dormant, a small eruption occurred in 1910, highlighting that even seemingly inactive mountains can be potentially hazardous.
Ol Doinyo Lengai
A relatively young and currently active volcano, Ol Doinyo Lengai’s first eruption happened approximately 500,000 years ago, with the most recent occurring in 2017. Typically, producing slow lava flows, occasional explosive eruptions have been noted. Although casualties have been avoided, livestock have suffered losses. The volcano stands at a height of 2,962 meters.
Understanding the historical seismic and volcanic activity in Tanzania is essential for both residents and visitors to ensure preparedness and safety in the face of these natural phenomena.
Tanzania’s geographical position, along with its numerous coastal islands, provides effective protection against most tsunami waves. Only the most destructive ones can breach this defense, as witnessed on December 26, 2004, following a catastrophic earthquake near Sumatra. The powerful tsunami that ensued crossed the Indian Ocean, reaching Tanzania and causing the death of 10 people. The exact number of missing individuals remains unknown, and significant impact included a massive oil tanker being washed ashore in Dar es Salaam harbor.
The rainy season, spanning from November to March, poses a significant challenge for Tanzanians, often leading to severe flooding and loss of life. While flooding can also occur in spring and autumn, it is more common in the northern parts of the country.
Heavy rains affected the southern region of Mtwara, resulting in floods that washed away houses and destroyed bridges. Within 48 hours, nearly 500 millimeters of rain fell, causing the destruction of 400 homes and the evacuation of thousands. One fatality was reported.
In this unfortunate year, severe floods impacted numerous African countries, and Tanzania was not spared. Heavy rainfall in May led to the overflow of dozens of rivers in the northern part of the republic, causing the destruction of bridges, farmland, and houses. At least five people lost their lives.
Once again, heavy rains disrupted life in the northern regions, particularly in the Khanang district and the town of Katesh, north of Dodoma. Continuous rains for a week resulted in overflowing rivers, claiming the lives of 47 individuals and injuring more than 80 others.
Understanding the patterns and impacts of tsunamis and floods is crucial for Tanzanians and visitors alike, allowing for preparedness and mitigation efforts to minimize the impact of these natural disasters on lives and infrastructure.
Cyclones and Hurricanes
Tanzania is located just north of the normal path of tropical cyclones in the southern Indian Ocean. Almost all cyclones hit Madagascar, Mozambique and partly South Africa. The coasts of Tanzania are reached only by a few and usually severely weakened.
April 27, 2016, Cyclone Fantala
A fairly strong cyclone Fantala passed over the Seychelles and began weakening north of Madagascar. It did not reach the coast of Tanzania, but brought heavy rains there, which caused flooding. As a result, many roads were washed away, houses were washed away and 13 people died.
Like most African countries, Tanzania regularly suffers from severe droughts. And, droughts can occur in certain regions of the country at the same time that others are suffering from floods. For example, in January 2022, a severe drought hit the Manyara region in the north of the country, where there had been no rain for several months. As a result, local pastoralists suffered severe losses. The drought killed more than 62 thousand heads of cattle and small cattle – cows, sheep, goats.
Forest fires are not the most pressing problem in Tanzania, however, fires on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro receive great resonance. Almost every year the high-mountain forests here go up in flames. Thus, in 2022, forests at an altitude of more than 4000 meters caught fire. For more than a week, 500 firefighters fought the fire.
The greatest threat to tourists vacationing in Tanzania is the winter maximum rainfall and floods associated with its onset. Every year people die in the torrents of water and often mud. Many areas of the mainland are prone to flooding, so tourists should be careful and cautious.
The threat of a catastrophic earthquake is small but potentially possible. There is also the threat of a volcanic eruption. However, these dangers can be neglected.
As it is possible to neglect the threat of tropical cyclones, which bypass the republic. Numerous islands and coral reefs protect the coast from storms and tsunami waves.
In the dry season forest fires occur, but they damage only unique ecosystems, plants and animals. The drought is only dangerous for local pastoralists.
The best time to travel to Tanzania is from May to September. This is the period when the amount of precipitation is minimal and the air temperature is most comfortable for the European tourist. The temperature of sea water in the country almost does not change throughout the year.