24 October 2005

Uganda Threatened By Looming Desert

Kampala — UGANDA'S woodland is fast shrinking. The country's exposure to natural hazards is escalating as human activities drastically alter the delicate ecological balance to a mere windswept desert.

Persistent droughts, floods, reduced river flows, shrinking lakes, decreasing agricultural outputs and famine are all part of the problem.

Where there were once lush vegetations, are now bare patches of land. The vast arable land can merely support a few tufts of grass.

"We used to have two rainy seasons of three months each. But now the rains come at unexpected times. Sometimes it does not even rain for a whole year ," says Perusi Kyakuhaire, 63, from Pakanyi Village in Masindi.

Masindi is one of the main charcoal producing districts hit hard with climate change.

Scientists warn that the country's shrinking forests, may be gone by 2025, if no action is taken.

"The very survival of Uganda is threatened by a looming desert," says Paul Drichi, coordinator of inventory and surveys at the National Forestry Authority (NFA).

Drichi says the situation on the country's woodland is getting worse with the growing population and infrastructure.

"The demand for forest products is increasingly more than supply and this is disrupting the ecosystem that support life," he says.

Uganda has an annual wood consumption of about 26 million tonnes. Charcoal, which is produced using traditional kilns with efficiency as low as 10%, accounts for between 15% to 20% of the wood supply, mainly used in urban areas.

According to the 2002 national population and housing census, woody biomass caters for 97% of Uganda's energy needs, about 30 times petroleum and electricity combined. The NFA study on national biomass in 2004 showed that the demand for wood will triple to over 60 million tonnes by 2025. Moreover, the high tariffs imposed on insufficient alternative sources of energy like electricity and petroleum dictate that wood will continue to dominate as a source of energy.

John Kuteesakwe, an energy officer in the Energy \Advisory Project (EAP) at the ministry of energy, says there are indicators of environmental disaster. "Today, the distance moved to collect firewood in the charcoal-producing districts of Masindi, Nakasongola, Kiboga and Mubende has increased from 0.06 to 0.73km between 1992 and 2002. Meaning an increase of more than 12 times in a period of only eight years," he says.

"In many areas like Bushenyi, Mbale and Tororo, unusual sources of fuel like plastics and dry banana leaves are used for cooking."

People continue to cut trees for fuel, construction and to clear land for agriculture.

"We all need to embark on a major campaign to promote a culture of planting trees," Drichi told district environmental officers during a recent charcoal workshop in Masindi.

State minister for environment, Lt. Gen. Jeje Odongo, says it is unfortunate that people look at tree-planting and management as government's role despite their involvement in the destruction of the forests. "There is unsustainable use of wood. Many trees are cut without a replacement because people don't mind ," says Odongo.

The Forestry Act 2002 promotes community participation in tree planting and management as a solution to challenges of deforestation.

However, Kuteesakwe said it is unfortunate that using firewood and charcoal is cheaper than using electricity, blaming the Government for failure to recognise the charcoal sub-sector. "There is no reason why the government can't control environmental degradation, but quite often they make excuses. We say the people are poor and they can't impose taxes on charcoal."

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