By Ronald Musoke
New report warns Uganda on dire effects, calls for immediate action
Joyce Logiel, an affable 39 year-old mother of seven from Lokirimo in Natopojo Parish, Nakapiripirit District falls in the category of Uganda’s millions of subsistence farmers who depend on the benevolence of Mother Nature to get a livelihood from their small pieces of land.
To keep her big family – including her unemployed husband going – Joyce toils every day on the family’s sizeable piece of land to grow maize, sorghum and ground nuts.
When the season is good, the harvest normally sustains her family until the next planting season and depending on the harvest, she normally uses part of her sorghum harvest for her brewing business to earn extra income to take care of the family’s needs. That had always been the case in her 10 year-old marriage until the severe drought that hit the Karamoja sub-region this year.
In Logiel’s Karamoja sub-region, which is already semi-arid, the rain used to start in April and would last until May, followed by a short dry spell between June and July.
The second rainy season would begin in August and go on until October, before the longer dry spell begun and continued until March. This according to John Peter Okinyom, the Napak District Agriculture Officer, was the routine that the people were used to.
And it is a pattern that other Ugandans across other sub-regions can relate to. For the case of Karamoja, the expected rains in April did not show up leading to a severe drought. Although Logiel was among the lucky people who had earlier received seeds from a government programme for planting, the seeds arrived late when the sporadic rains had stopped.
What followed was a scorching sun that burnt up all her crops, leaving her family on the brink of hunger and destitution. She says her family only survived thanks to the food relief that arrived in time around July.
Logiel’s situation is one that 73% of all Ugandan farmers face, according to a recently published research assessing the level of Uganda’s vulnerability to the rapidly-changing climatic patterns. The report recommends multi-adaptive choices if the people are to appropriately cope with the gradually increasing temperatures, rainfall patterns and intensities as well as deteriorating agro-ecosystem services.
The report entitled, ‘Uganda Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment’ published in November by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), notes that although Uganda remains a great place for agriculture, in the next couple of decades, farmers like Logiel could face considerable challenges as far as their livelihoods is concerned. That should get the government thinking.
A deteriorating natural resource base coupled with a rapidly rising population in the country in addition to the ongoing threats of conflict and economic crisis are some of the hurdles that the report says the farmers would face.
Anecdotes from farmers such as Logiel’s indicate that they are facing challenges indirectly related to climate, such as declining soil fertility and increasing land pressure and according to the report, households – especially those with fewer able-bodied members, less educated and female headed – reported, on average, being food insecure for almost three months in 2011.
The systemic vulnerability of households studied also stem from the fact that they depend heavily on crops whose value chains are sensitive to climate variability and change, and as a result any change in food production critically increases overall vulnerability.
According to the crop value chain analysis in the report, the crops considered in the assessment are those most widely grown in Uganda, and many are vulnerable to the projected rising temperatures and increasing dry season rainfall; with Arabica coffee – a key cash crop – being the most vulnerable, while cassava is the least. The others are maize, bananas, beans, rice and sorghum – all staple foods in various parts of the country.
The research, which was conducted in conjunction with the African and Latin American Resilience to Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment, focused on Gulu, Lira, Luweero, Mbale, Isingiro, and Kasese—six priority and strategically-located districts for USAID. These districts were chosen for their important cropping systems and proximity to functional weather stations. The study employed a mixed-method approach that involved historical climate analysis based on 60 years of data and climate projections till 2030.
The research and analysis shows how current climate patterns shape-and how future climate patterns may influence-key crop value chains and the livelihoods of households that depend on them. According to the study, because Uganda lies within a relatively humid equatorial climate zone, and topography, prevailing winds, and lakes and rivers cause large differences in rainfall patterns across the country.
The research indicates that year-to-year variation in rainfall is beginning to be considerable and has been noted to exceed 30% of the total annual rainfall in some places. Similarly, the onset of the rainy season has shifted by between 15-30 days, and the total duration of the season has changed by 20-40 days. These inter-annual fluctuations dominate rainfall variability and there is a potential increase in rainfall in the months of December, January and February which is typically the dry season.
The rise in temperature could also have strong impacts on agriculture, especially with respect to tree crops like coffee and post-harvest activities such as drying and storage, the report warns. In addition, there is a potential for an increase in the frequency of extreme events such as heavy rainstorms that lead to disasters such as flooding and landslides.
In contrast to rainfall, temperature varies little from year to year, and significant increases of approximately 0.5-1.2 C degrees for annual average minimum temperature and 0.6-0.9 C degrees for annual maximum temperature have been observed between 1951-1980 and 1981-2010 reference periods.
This warming trend is projected to continue, with some models projecting an increase of more than 2 C degrees by 2030. It will likely have a strong impact on agriculture and livestock, increasing the risk of diseases and pest infestations.
For instance, as far as coffee is concerned, rising temperatures and erratic rainfall will increase the risk of disease and pest infestations in coffee, while the incidence of two major rice diseases [blast and bacterial leaf blight] which affect rice yields and are significantly aggravated by weather conditions such as higher temperatures, air humidity or soil moisture will rise.
The report warns that should dry season rainfall increase, maize, one of Uganda’s major staples grown by millions of Ugandan farmers, will most likely be contaminated by Aflatoxin—a naturally occurring contaminant that affects grains— consequently affecting its marketing.
As far as sorghum is concerned, increased temperatures coupled with irregular precipitation could result in the proliferation of striga, a parasitic weed that affects sorghum and is prevalent in areas with degraded soils.
For the East African Highland banana commonly known as ‘Matooke,’ while it is less vulnerable to increasing temperatures like coffee, the potential impact of pests and diseases on the crop is significant. It warns that pests like nematodes are most likely to increase, thus affecting productivity.
On the other hand, beans are vulnerable to fungal and viral diseases when excessive rain falls during critical growing periods. And although sweet potatoes and cassava—which has been feted as the answer to Africa’s climate change because it does well in warm temperatures— the two also remain vulnerable to pests and disease. Multiplying and maintaining planting materials in the dry season will be the challenge.
Erratic rains could increase post harvest storage losses of crops typically dried in the sun (maize, beans, coffee, and rice) due to increased pests and rotting.
The assessment identified measures that households are already using to adapt to climate variability and change.
They have modified their management practices by shifting planting dates, preparing soil differently, or changing the mix of crops farmed on the same plot. The households have also addressed risks by planting additional crops and crop varieties, and by investing in livestock or fruit trees.
Additionally, households seek sources of income outside of agriculture both through short term coping strategies, such as hiring themselves out as manual labourers or by producing charcoal, and through longer-term strategies such as migration and investments in the education of their children. There is thus need to strengthen the capacity of farmer groups and national extension systems to experiment with new ideas and adapt them to local environmental and social conditions.
There is also need to promote active participation and leadership by women and men, old and young and poor and better-off to assure the best mix of adaptive innovations. The experts also call for strengthening the capacity of farmer organizations to link laterally [amongst themselves] and vertically with research institutions at district, zonal and national levels to scale up the dissemination of successful innovations and adaptations. As far as improving household resilience to climate change is concerned, there is need to develop and diversify livelihood assets as a strategy for reducing household sensitivity to crop-related stresses.
The goal is to build on existing livelihoods strengthening programmes and improve the capacity of farmers to strengthen and diversify their livelihoods. This, the report says, can be achieved through provision of credit and insurance programmes as well as strengthening farmer organizations and their links to markets.
While presenting the report, one of the lead researchers, Dr. Rita Laker-Ojok, said it is going to get harder for the majority of farmers like Logiel to survive and one of the best coping mechanisms would be for farmers to stagger their planting across the season. She also recommended farmers to adopt intercropping, especially those crops that return lots of nutrients to the soil.
“It is about doing our agriculture smarter so that we can get better yields,” she said.
The report also argues that adaptive strategies developed at national scale might not be locally appropriate, particularly when climate impacts and adaptation responses are local or influenced by ecosystems and social and cultural relations unique to the area. Instead national programmes need to be complemented by locally relevant and tested adaptive strategies to produce useful strategies for farming communities.
On the other hand, this assessment reiterates that while adaptation occurs farm by farm, the identification and dissemination of adaptation options—and enabling of their adoption—requires a national effort.
In addition, although some adaptation mechanisms and adaptation policies are short term and require more immediate action, other policies and practices will yield adaptive benefits over the long run.
The report says the government will have to establish better policies and investment strategies that address large-scale, long term threats to value chains, livelihoods, and agricultural institutions.
The report particularly recommends that the capacities of the Uganda Department of Meteorology, the Climate Change Unit, and the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries be improved to boost production, distribution, and the use of climate information that meets the needs of decision makers as well as those of farmers.
The report also argues that in order to improve the way in which knowledge and information related to climate change is generated and shared, there is need to encourage the decentralization and democratization of innovation and planning while improving among other actors concerned with adaptation, and quickening the pace at which they learn from each other.
Stephen Muwaya, the coordinator for sustainable land management in the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries, says the ministry has put in place a task force to deal with climate change issues to particularly enhance the knowledge for understanding the level of vulnerability in the communities across the country.
But Michael Ssekaayi Mbogga, a lecturer at Makerere University’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, suggested that before the government worries too much about climate change, let it first concentrate upon improving the productivity of farmers in the current conditions.