The most visible is the rapid loss of the ice field, which shrunk from 6.5 sq km in 1906 to less than one sq km in 2003, and could completely disappear before the end of this decade, research shows.

In 2012, forest fires reached altitudes above 4,000m, which would have been inconceivable in the past, devastating vegetation that controlled the flow of the rivers downstream.

Since then, the communities living at the foot of the Rwenzori have suffered some of the most destructive floods the area has ever seen, coupled with a pattern of less frequent but heavier rainfall.

In May last year, five local rivers burst their banks after heavy rains. The waters came down the mountain carrying large boulders, sweeping away houses and schools and razing the entire town of Kalembe to the ground.

Around 25,000 houses were destroyed and 173,000 people were affected.

While science may provide an explanation for these events, the local Bakonzo culture has another way of framing them – according to their beliefs, they happen because the gods are angry.

The name Rwenzori comes from rwe nzururu, which means “place of snow” in the Bakonzo language. There are 30 gods associated with different natural resources living on the mountain, according to Bakonzo cosmology.

But deforestation and rapid population growth around the sacred mountain, as well as the melting glacier, are changing things.

During last year’s floods, the water submerged hot springs and washed away the vegetation around a waterfall that was used as a place for rituals. Since then, spiritual leaders have been unable to perform those ceremonies.

Other spiritual sites are getting eroded or filled up with silt and the destruction of the vegetation has weakened the banks in many areas.

All this is threatening centuries-old rituals.

The Bakonzo community is made up of around one million people living on both sides of the border between Uganda and DR Congo, and their heritage could be lost as a result of climate change.

The intensification of weather patterns observed in the mountains is happening throughout the tropics.

The lessons are being shared with other institutions working to protect cultural heritage from climate change, mainly in East and North Africa and the Middle East.

The Embugha or Rwagimba hot springs are believed to have physical and spiritual healing powers, particularly for skin diseases

Finding solutions that highlight the close link between the Bakonzo culture and the natural environment

By Laura Mmosi

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