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Fighting the floods

By Mubatsi Asinja Habati

Ugandan farmers fail to adjust to changing weather as counterparts surge ahead

Forty-four year-old Regina Mbambu, a single mother of six, farms coffee inter-planted with spinach, mangoes, avocados, bananas, beans and maize on her one acre patch in Kasese district in western Uganda.  Last year, most of her crop failed. The severe drought hit her coffee trees so hard that most dried up.

So when it started raining in March this year Mbambu was expected to celebrate. She did not.

“The rains came heavily. The amount of rains that we usually receive in two months poured in one week,” she said.

And they were very destructive rains.

“They swept away my entire maize and beans garden. The rains let me down because I had spent my energy, little money investing in farming but I now expect no harvest. Mangoes are rotting on the trees and coffee trees are no longer yielding as before.”

She says previously in a good season, she would get six bags of coffee (276kg) but this season, she harvested only 2 bags (92kg).


She says the unpredictable variation in weather and climate has negatively affected how much she earns from her farm produce. “My son who is supposed to be starting university education will have to wait for a good season.” However, she is uncertain when the good season will come.

Mbambu’s dilemma is made worse because meteorological information that would warn her early is lacking. The metrological department that would provide it is handicapped.  Studies of climate trends in Uganda are limited by absence of long-term meteorological data. The limited available data reveals source difficulties as it is collected from a fragile network of only 15 weather stations. There are also gaps in station records due to poorly equipped facilities, and lack of investment in infrastructure and people to man the weather departments. An official of Uganda’s meteorological department says a survey the department carried out recently found that only 10% of Ugandans use the weather forecast information it sends out. The rest do not trust it.

As we write this story, the weather station in Gulu, the biggest district by population in northern Uganda, is down. Bundibugyo district in western Uganda, which is 2216 sq.kms and home of the scenic but climatically sensitive Rwenzori snow-capped mountains has no weather station and depends on Kasese to make predictions. Neighbouring Ntoroko and Kabarole districts in the Rwenzori are equally handicapped.

Food scarcity hits

Naomi Mbambu, the Kasese District Vice Chairperson, is concerned about the changing weather and climate. She recalls that in the past, because of the cold climate on the Rwenzori mountains, crops would grow all year round. Today, she says, farmers planting crops depending on two annual seasons because it is becoming hotter.

“Food shortages which we used to hear ravaging other parts of Uganda could be dawning on us soon,” she warns.

Already, government officials are blaming the scarcity and spike in food prices for protests that have sporadically erupted in major urban centres in a wave called the “Walk-to-Work protests”. Initially, the scarcity was blamed on poor crop yields resulting from prolonged drought early in the year. The story could be changing to blame erratic rains.

A recent survey by Africa Climate Change Resilience Alliance, a regional NGO, says the “fluctuations and uncertainties of seasonal rainfall − whether premature, delayed, prolonged or failed” reflect bad news for over 70% Ugandans who depend on rain-fed agriculture. The survey notes: “Increased intensity of flash floods has led to erosion of fields, both high and low lands reported the negative impact of unpredictable seasons on cropping patterns and resultant low yields leading to reduced food availability as increasing drought periods compound the food insecurity problem.”

Regional issues

Weather and climate related crises are a regional challenge.

Kenya, Uganda’s neighbor to the east is 80% marshland, scrub, and desert. Droughts are not unusual. But this year the drought has been more prolonged and severe. Driving out of Nairobi city, the rocky ground appears thirstier.  Even in the pastoral savannah Masailand to the south, where pasture is a lifeline for man and stock, grass is barely growing. Brown stone boulders stalk travelers stretching miles all the way to the soda ash Lake Magadi.   The few desert plants that grow in this vast rocky land are hardly green. Plants in the Masailand are a rich gold on colour but the land is poor with barren soils. These days, the corrugated iron huts of Masai cattle herders that dot the vast semi-arid land are constantly under a cloud of dry dust.

“Drought has left many animals dead including in national parks. The loss of animals to pastoralists has affected them most because it’s their only source of livelihood. Government is encouraging planting of trees to absorb greenhouse gases and irrigation for famers,” says Mohamed Lugh, Deputy Director of public communications at Kenya’s Ministry of Environment and Mineral Resources.

Changing lifestyles

Changing weather and climate are changing lifestyles here. Stories of prolonged droughts that have ravaged stock are being replaced by those of pastoralists taking to farming. Irrigation schemes, like the Ngurumani, are taking root.

A largely farmers’ effort, the Ngurumani Irrigation Scheme got help from local NGOs and has recently attracted the attention of the Kenya government and African Development Bank to invest KShs 300 million. The simple surface irrigation in Kajiado, covering 350 acres – a portion of an oasis of a fertile land in the rocky soils, is changing the lives of communities. In the perfect adaptation mechanism to the adverse effects of climate change, the farmers in Ngurumani now use simple gravity irrigation to grow vegetables that they export to India.

Masailand is historically dry but elders here say it has become hotter.

Climate scientists say the earth’s average global surface temperature rose by 0.6°C during the 20th century. Many of them believe there is strong scientific evidence that much of the global warming that has occurred over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities. Emission of greenhouse gases has destabilised the atmosphere and depleted the ozone layer resulting in what known as global warming.

Xavier Baluku Bwanandeke, a resident of the Rwenzori mountain area in Uganda has experienced the effects of global warming first hand.

“In the 1970s I would wake up each morning to view the snow caps on the peaks of Rwenzori Mountain, “ he says, “The white sight of snow on top of the mountain would give us joy because this was one of the things that attracted tourists and contributed to the coldness of this land. Today I rarely see the snow and it makes me sad.”

He says the mountain is no longer as cold as before and the changing weather has brought new challenges.

“Mosquitoes which were unheard of here are now common and malaria cases have become common. Our coffee is no long yielding as in early 1990s,’’ says Bwanandeke.

Scientists led by Richard G. Taylor of the Department of Geography, at the University College London in 2006 said the ice cover on the 120km long and 65km wide Rwenzori is drastically receding. By 1906 the ice on the block mountain covered 6.5km but by 2010 it had reduced to 1.6 km. The scientists concluded that the fast receding East African equatorial glaciers will disappear within the next two decades. The study suggests that the increased air temperature resulting from global warming is the main driving force. The loss of these glaciers could have serious consequences for local economies and ecosystems.

Maria Mutagamba, Minister for Water and Environment, says the impact of climate change is manifested in the prolonged drought periods in parts of the country and intensity of floods in ravaging the country. “These climatic changes are mainly caused by the industrialized nations whose carbon emissions are very destructive to the atmosphere. They need to take responsibility and pay the suffering poor countries,” Mutagamba said. The minister’s remarks come days before the UN climate talks under the COP17 in Durban, South Africa. She said Africa deserves climate justice, and support from industrial nations as compensation for global warming.

Failing to adjust

Unlike Kenya, Uganda has up to 65% fertile of land is agricultural with fair amounts of rain. Perhaps as a result, irrigation is unusual even among pastoralist groups like the Karamojong in the semi-arid northeast.

A three year severe drought that ended in 2008 after killing herds of their stock forced some Karimajong to start farming sorghum and maize as an alternative to herding cattle. Those still clinging on to a pastoral nomadic life trek longer distances in search of pasture for their cattle, sheep, and goats. Kotido District Veterinary Officer, Pascal Panvuga says the roaming in the wilderness for pasture puts their stock at risk of attack by wild animals and diseases that are very expensive to treat.

Faced with the reality of the impact of climate change communities and countries are embarking on mitigation measures. Herders at Okiramatian Group Ranch in Kenya’s Rift Valley Province have devised adaptation mechanisms drawing a time table on which areas to graze from on 3-months rotation. The grazing patterns centre on the rains.

“When the drought is too much we graze in irrigated areas that have water dams but this is usually time to graze in the highlands. We leave the highlands to recover to graze in the plains,” says 76 year-old Orumoi Nganga, in Kajiado. The government of Kenya has established a Climate Change Secretariat to coordinate efforts aimed at mitigating climate change effects while the civil society have come together to sensitise the communities to plant more trees. Uganda has established also has Climate Change Unit in the Ministry of Water and Environment to coordinate climate activities and a policy on climate change is being drafted.

However, there is growing demand that industrialized countries which contribute more ozone depleting and global warming activities should do more to help the poor countries that suffer will suffer more cope with climate change. Helping Mbambu predict her weather in Kasese better, would be a good starting point.

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