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Climate change poses new challenges

By Maya Prabhu

The rains have come. The streets of Kampala run fluid brown, ladies heads are half-hidden under thin plastic bags as they hop from island to island along the roadsides, and inside-out umbrellas quiver uselessly in the hands of miserable boda-boda passengers. Early in the hours of Feb. 22, a violent crack of thunder heralded the onset of a rainstorm that would last over fourteen hours. The heavy precipitation marked a sharp break from the previous days sweltering heat, and left many residents of the city unexpectedly drenched and shaking their heads.

On March 1, events in Eastern Uganda placed the rains in Kampala in grim perspective. The landslide in Bududa district, which left at least 90 dead and around 300 missing, exposes the harsh reality of the devastation unpredictable weather patterns are capable of causing. The United Nations news service, IRIN, reported on March 5 that the heavy rains which caused the disaster have not slowed their onslaught, flooding homes, upsetting sanitation systems and leaving relief workers concerned about the risk of cholera.

For people like Chebet Maikut, however, recent increasingly erratic weather patterns are a tangible testimony to the broader trends, and potentially much bigger problems represented by climate change. Maikut, who is the Principal Programme Officer for Mitigation at Uganda’s Climate Change Unit, stresses the immediacy of climate change: Climate change is here in Uganda. Its a reality, and its affecting all sectors of our economy. He lists recent extreme events like the landslide, including instances of flooding, prolonged drought, hurricanes and storms to illustrate his point that Uganda has already suffered losses in crop yields, infrastructure and productivity, as well as destruction of property and even loss of life at the hands of climate change.

Climate change is projected to increase the intensity and frequency of all extreme weather events, including, for example, rainfall over Lake Victoria and the Lake basin.  The landslide in Bududa places focus on the dangers of wetter weather. Underscoring the grave impact heavy rains might continue to have,  Stephen Magezi, Commissioner of the Meteorology Department told The Daily Monitor: Other disasters may arise from possible landslides mostly in mountainous regions of western, south-western and eastern […] Uganda with strong gusty winds, hailstorms, lightening etc. Appropriate measures should be taken to avoid loss of life and destruction of infrastructure.

Even so, over the last couple of decades, it has been the increased instance of drought, especially along the Cattle Corridor, that has represented the biggest challenge attributable to climate change. Between 1991 and 2000, Uganda struggled through seven periods of drought, whereas the preceding 50 years saw an average of only 1.6 droughts per decade. Drought is the single most important and widespread disaster in Uganda, states the National Adaptation Programme of Action (NAPA) released by the Ministry of Water and Environment in 2007 to address the challenges of climate change. Karamoja has been a focal point for drought-associated problems, and Stephen Magezi says that a culture of aid-dependency has grown up in the region. Magezi also highlights further-reaching impacts of drought and food-security issues, including displacement and conflict, resulting out of competition for resources. He argues that on a small scale these knock-on effects are already evident in Kampala. He calls the Karamojong children, who beg at the Kampala Road crossing climate change refugees, and while the city has the capacity to absorb them, elsewhere such displacement could quite possibly lead to clashes. The fact that an additional 1,500 people displaced by the Bududa landslide now also need to be regarded as part of this category hints at the potential scale of the effects of climate change on Ugandan society.

Drought and the increase of average temperatures, has already had a heavy impact on the production of coffee, Uganda’s most valuable export crop. In February of this year, The New Vision reported that the export forecast for the product had been reduced from 3.4 million bags to 3.1 million bags. The Uganda Coffee Development Authority (UCDA) told The Independent that, in the last four months alone, production volume has fallen 10% short of these expectations. This is largely, but not exclusively, due to lack of rainfall last year.

Increasing average temperatures  global warming  have been seen to increase incidence of certain diseases, and while the UCDA emphasise that research is still in progress and results are yet unpublished, Magezi, among others, suspects that warmer weather is increasing the prevalence of pests like coffee wilt. Where average temperatures have already risen by up to 0.3 degrees centigrade in recent decades, a rise of 2 degrees could make most of Uganda unsuitable for coffee planting.

One illness which has certainly thrived under the warmer conditions Uganda has seen over the last two decades is malaria. Twenty years ago, the disease was virtually unheard of in cooler regions like the highlands. Nowadays, says Magezi, malaria outbreaks in these areas can reach epidemic proportions as a result of locals poor immune resistance to the disease.

One obvious manifestation of increased temperatures is a heavy reduction in the size of glaciers on Uganda’s mountains. Between 1955 and 1990, the ice caps of the Rwenzori Mountains decreased by 40%. One of the three peaks has reportedly lost so much of its glacial volume that the run-off from the mountain has turned from a river into a trickle, for most of the year, and endangers residents downstream with flash floods when the rains are heavy.

While the outlook might seem bleak, both Magezi and Maikut, emphasise the life-saving importance of preparation for climate change. Magezi bemoans the lack of attention given to weather forecasts issued by his department: I want to see the farmer and the government planner use the information we provide like the aviation sector does, he says. If forecasts had been heeded, Uganda could have capitalised on the severity of last years drought in neighbouring Kenya, exporting food and reaping the financial benefit. Maikut stresses his hope that various government agencies, ministries, [will] ensure there are provisions to address climate change… and of course that government, including local government, [will] ensure they have strategies, plans and the budget to address climate change.

Currently, lack of awareness, as well as infrastructural, financial and technological deficiencies render Ugandans more vulnerable to the effects of climate change than their western counterparts. However, plans aimed at adaptation to climate change are hoped to mitigate this risk.

The NAPA of 2007 represents an important first step in the Government of Uganda’s involvement with adaptation to climate change. Magezi says a new, more comprehensive plan is in discussion, though it may take another year until release. While Maikuts Climate Change Unit, a body intended to co-ordinate various government agencies in their involvement with climate change, was founded with donor money  a grant of US$ 2.2 million for four years issued by Danish government  Maikut claims government commitment to adaptation is illustrated by the fact that it has already made budgetary provisions for the body. Plans to increase irrigation in the more arid regions are taking form, and Maikut is enthused by the fact that climate change has been recognised as a significant priority in drafts of the National Development Plan. He hopes that this will be reflected in the next National Budget. Furthermore, certain mitigation strategies, like carbon trading, make good business sense for heavily-forested Uganda, and might eventually curb deforestation in the 70.2% of unprotected, privately owned forest land.

Yet, while these plans show some progress towards addressing the potentially devastating effects of climate change in Uganda, Magezi expresses some impatience,  some doubt, even, about the seriousness of initiatives to address future challenges.  Few initiatives have so far progressed beyond discussions, and Uganda, with its vast swathes of wet and agriculture-friendly land, should not need to have a food-security issue at all. Improved planning and better funding could indeed alleviate these problems. The question is whether Uganda is truly ready to recognise that, in Magezi’s words, climate change is real. It is now.

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