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Planting trees on that bare hill could save you painful droughts

By Enock Nimpamya

Of recent, different parts of Uganda have been severely hit by unexpected drought spells characterised by deepening water shortages, crop failure and abnormal rise in temperatures. Global average surface temperatures have increased by 0.7°c since mid 1800 and future climate change impacts will be significant, affecting people and biodiversity globally. Studies by US scientists have underlined the inevitability of climate change even if greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) are severely reduced. Under the most optimistic emissions scenario, global temperatures will continue to rise by up to 0.6°C over the next 100 years.
These are at least immediate visible effects of drought damage. This is the beginning of the worst moment we have to brace ourselves with.

Despite the good environmental policy regimes especially on conservation like National Environment Management Policy (1994), National Environmental Statute (Statute No. 4 of 1995), National Policy for the Conservation and Management of Wetland Resources of 1995, Forestry and Tree Planting of 2003, among others, many have remained merely on paper.

However, Forestry and Tree Planting Act (2003) which divided the forest reserves into Central under NFA and Local reserves under the Local government, has resulted in creation of 506 Central reserves and 200 Local forest reserves. At least this is a promising trajectory in the conservation of water catchments though far from reversing the tragic effects of climate change so far felt. Despite the recent government’s exercise of large scale tree planting and conserving certain areas as forest reserves, it is not uncommon to find highlands in different parts of the country bare and massively encroached on.

Thus, environmentally related disasters are getting both more frequent and serious in the country. There are two broad reasons for these increases. First, as population and poverty increase, more and more people live on vulnerable land like steep hillsides and flood plains. Our lifestyle patterns and chiefly poor farming practices must be reckoned with.

Second, the Earth’s natural defences against disaster are becoming ever more eroded. For example as forests and trees (which absorb the rain) are cut down and wetlands (which soak up floodwater) are drained.

Hills and mountains are the principal water catchment areas albeit almost all the hills and mountains in the country are encroached on.

Encroachment and destruction of trees and green cover in highlands across the country have generally translated into decreases in production or income and thus in the availability of food, declining soil fertility, massive soil erosion, deterioration in water quality and quantity and rise in temperatures in the area. Rivers like Rwizi, Kafu, Katonga, Kagera and Nyamwamba have suffered severe reductions in their water volumes. Many streams have dried up in different parts of the country while others are on the verge of extinction. These changes have cosmic effects like changes in river runoff which affects the yields of rivers and reservoirs as the recharging of groundwater supplies. An increase in the rate of evaporation will also affect water supplies and contribute to the salinisation of irrigated agricultural lands.

Thus, planting of trees and forests could reduce on the drought spells and possibly reduce on the rate of water loss.

Forests and trees have an important moderating influence on carbon dioxide levels, both for what they can add and what they can remove. Tropical deforestation and burning of wood contribute 20-30% of the world’s annual carbon dioxide emissions (IPCC, 2000). Yet trees are also responsible for close to 70% of all carbon absorbed by vegetation. Any carbon dioxide contributions on a global scale caused by deforestation are more than offset by the sequestration capacity of forests and agriculture. The Kyoto Protocol recognises forestry as an appropriate sequestration vehicle and that forestry can have significant influence on global carbon levels. The good thing about forests is that they are not dependent on any new science or technology. They can be designed to generate many collateral environmental and social benefits like flood/erosion protection, biodiverse wildlife habitat and restored ecosystems. You can plant them immediately at relatively low cost.

Dr Govindasamy Bala, an atmospheric scientist at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in the US, has shown that only tropical rainforests are beneficial in helping slow global warming.

The state of forest and green cover in Uganda is messy. Destruction and encroachment on the forest cover are most visible and it’s expected to become worse given the high population growth rate. Over the last three decades, Uganda has lost a number of hectares of forests. It is estimated that the forest cover has fallen to 3.5 million hectares in 2005

‘We have been observing using satellite imagery that over the last 15 years we have lost more that 1.5 million hectares of forest cover,’ Xavier Mugumya, Uganda’s forest management specialist at the National Forest Authority, told Reuters recently. This immense loss is as a result of global warming and human activities.

It is apparent that unless the status quo is remedied, the forest cover will be a nightmare soon.

What is clear though is that there is no single solution to global warming and climate change. However, the environmental benefits of trees and forests are manifold, but they have to be supplemented with other strategies of protecting the environment. It is from this account that existing natural forests must be protected and more reserves be created.

It is thus prudent that the government of Uganda makes it compulsory to plant trees and forests on all the bare hills and mountains across the country. Otherwise unless we change many of our lifestyle patterns, the country will face dire environmental damage and human suffering. We should not wait for that moment.

Enock Nimpamya is the Director for Research at Action Coalition on Climate Change Kampala.

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