25 April 2007

Uganda: Environment Debate is Bigger Than Mabira Forest


We shall at some other time address ourselves to the political opportunism and xenophobia, which have come seething to the fore in the Mabira saga.

In the meantime, what the controversy does underline yet again, is the need for nothing less than a national economic doctrine, underpinned by a national strategic doctrine - to inform the overall national economic policy framework, as well as specific policy options adopted by the country. It is within this context that the country would delineate the appropriate balance between the needs of preserving the eco-system on the one hand, and of social transformation on the other.

The other matter that the controversy does bring up yet again is whether or not a President, with a direct and popular mandate and whose party enjoys the overwhelming electoral endorsement of the population, should not have additional powers to deal decisively with strategic issues of social economic transformation.

The point is how fast and decisively we can move to transform our society in the face of a self-defeating lethargy from the political class, technocrats in the state, and from "environmentalists".

To put it crudely, we are told by the "experts" that if part of Mabira is degazzetted for purposes of the sugar industry, we shall kill Lake Victoria (Nalubale), with all manner of tragic consequences, etc.

What does not come out in all the commentary unfortunately, is that warming is a global phenomenon.

Average global temperatures have risen by more than 1 degree Fahrenheit over the last century. Since thermometer records started in 1860, 2005 was the second hottest year on record beaten only by 1998, when El Nino conditions in the Pacific contributed to above-average temperatures.

Even if greenhouse gas concentrations were stabilised today, heat already in the oceans will warm the atmosphere by an additional 1 degree Fahrenheit by the end of this century. This global warming is progressively contributing to rising sea levels, melting polar ice, loss of mountain glaciers and snow packs (like in the case of the Rwenzori). All this has potentially disastrous consequences for the planet.

But some of the climatic problems we face locally, have global origins - needing global responses.

Think about this: Lake Turkana in Kenya today gets half the inflows of water it used to get. Lake Tanganyika has dropped five feet over the last five years. Lake Chad has shrunk to 2% of its 1960s size. Overuse of the waters? Deforestation?

All these could be factors in the "disappearances" of the lakes - but they play out in the context of long term climatic change. 85% of the water loss from Victoria is not via the hydro-electricity power dams - it is through surface evaporation.

Consider also, (according to various studies) that Victoria almost certainly dried up between 10,000 and 14,000 years ago - which Victoria had originally come into being when the Kagera and other rivers which used to flow westwards, turned and flowed eastwards because of an upward thrust in the basin some 35,000 or so years ago.

Lake Chad, similarly dried up in 8500 BC, 5500 BC, 2000 BC and 100 BC. What all this means is that on matters of the environment and climate, decisions must be based on the most exhaustive research, and a multidisciplinary pro-development approach.

The writer is a Private Secretary/Political Affairs, at State House.

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