Kampala — The ice caps on the Rwenzori Mountains along Uganda's western border have receded significantly in the past century and could disappear completely in the next few years, experts said.
"The results of recent mapping are alarming," Philip Gwage, assistant commissioner in charge of meteorology in the ministry of water and environment, said. "Over the last 100 years, the total glacier area has dropped from 650ha in 1906 to a mere 108ha in 2005. At this rate the Rwenzori will be completely [devoid] of glaciers by 2025."
Already, melting ice caps have hit water catchments and eco-tourism. Should changes continue at current rates, Uganda would also suffer lower agricultural productivity due to reduced, erratic rainfall and the emergence of new pests, and increased incidences of diseases such as malaria.
"South-western Uganda, where temperatures have risen by 0.3 degrees in a decade, is one of the hardest-hit areas in terms of disease outbreaks, especially malaria," Gwage said. A two-degree rise in temperature, he added, would see many areas in Uganda losing their main livelihood of cash crops, including coffee.
Other crops such as cassava and soya would be affected by new pests, despite being staple crops. "There are many negative impacts of climate change," the official said. "These include reduced capacity for electricity generation, which would have an impact on the economy."
To try to mitigate the situation, the water and environment ministry has prepared a National Adaptation Plan of Action (NAPA). The strategy aims to increase awareness within local communities and will invest in science and technology to facilitate long-term weather forecasting to prepare communities.
Critics, however, say the government lacks policies and funds to implement comprehensive strategies to contain the impact of climate change.
"Looking at the current status in Uganda, there is no weather and climate policy, low levels of awareness of weather and climate among population, and inadequate determination of adaptation and mitigation options to control greenhouse gas emissions," Robert Bakiika, executive director of the NGO Environmental Management for Livelihood Improvement, said.
"The situation in Uganda is alarming," he added. "Over 90,000ha of forest cover disappeared per year yet deforestation is responsible for up to 20 percent of greenhouse gases."
In addition, the country experienced rapid urbanisation and unprofessional urban planning without eco-housing guidelines, and widespread wetland degradation.
A village cut of by past floods in northeastern Uganda: An official of Makerere University's Faculty of Forestry and Nature Conservation says climate change threatens efforts geared towards poverty reduction
"South-western Uganda, where temperatures have risen by 0.3 degrees in a decade, is one of the hardest-hit areas in terms of disease outbreaks, especially malaria," Gwage told IRIN.
A NAPA survey found an increase in malaria cases of 43 percent in Ntungamo District, 51 percent in Kabale and 13 percent in Mbarara.
"There was a general increase of malaria incidences throughout the country, particularly in south-western Uganda where it reached epidemic proportions," notes the plan. In semi-arid areas, tick-borne diseases have also become rampant because of higher temperatures; the tsetse fly belt has expanded; while meningitis and eye infections have increased.
"Climate change threatens efforts geared towards poverty reduction in an agricultural country like Uganda [where] the majority are peasant farmers relying on rainfall to produce," Gorreti Nabanoga, dean of Makerere University's Faculty of Forestry and Nature Conservation.
"This trend threatens to undo decades of development [and] threatens to frustrate poverty eradication programmes and the Millennium Development Goals [MDGs]."
Between 1991 and 2000, the country experienced drought seven times. As a result, water tables have dropped, leaving many boreholes, on which the rural poor rely, dry and affecting hydro-electric power generation.
In addition, what little rain fell came in concentrated heavy showers and storms, causing floods in lowlands and landslides in highlands. In 2007, for example, floods hit eastern Uganda, spreading waterborne diseases and destroying crops and infrastructure.
"A large proportion of the rural poor lack latrine coverage," Gwage said. "Floods pose serious pollution problems to sources of drinking water, with the potential danger of outbreaks of waterborne diseases such as cholera, typhoid and dysentery."
In areas where rainfall could actually increase, greater evaporation due to rising temperatures would undo the benefits.
"Drought is the single most important and widespread disaster in Uganda," the NAPA report noted. "It is increasing in frequency and severity, particularly in the semi-arid areas of the cattle corridor. The rural poor, whose livelihoods are dependent on natural resources, are most affected.
"This has affected food production and led to perpetual dependency on food aid in some parts of the country, for example in areas of Karamoja."
Karamoja, in north-eastern Uganda, experiences cycles of natural disasters and inter-communal conflicts mainly over pasture, water and livestock. It has received very limited investment.
In February, the UN World Food Programme noted it was on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe, after drought cut agricultural output to as low as 30 percent in some areas in 2008. Global Acute Malnutrition (GAM) was bordering on emergency levels.
"Ultimately, the economic crisis and losses of climate change will prevent Uganda from reaching ... the MDGs," Bakiika told IRIN.
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]