Uganda: Paying the Price for Ignoring Climate Change Warnings

(File photo).
23 November 2020

Elegu Town in Amuru District at the border with South Sudan is trying to pick up the pieces after a week of heavy floods saw River Unyama, one of the tributaries of River Nile that flows upstream, burst its banks.

The deluge affected close to 7,000 households, destroyed property, including washing away vehicles, and bringing cross-border trade to a standstill. In August, floods displaced about 4,000 people and left countless property destroyed.

In 2016, Elegu and several parts of Amuru were flagged as a disaster risk zone with other occurrences such as heavy storms, drug resistant crop pests and diseases, prolonged dry spells, and bush fires partly exacerbated by human activity, and environmental degradation.

Still in northern Uganda, the National Emergency Coordination and Operations Centre (NECOC) in the Office of Prime Minister (OPM) flagged the districts of Apac, Arua, Dokolo, Kitgum, Kole, Lamwo, Lira, Adjumani, Agago, Alebtong, Amolatar, Gulu, Otuke, Gulu, Pader, and Oyam--almost the entire region--as prone to various climate disasters.

According to NECOC's disaster risk profiling for the country, all other regions are prone to a myriad of climate-related risks. In the eastern region, the highland areas around Mt Elgon; Bududa, Mbale, Kween, Manafwa, Sironko, Namisindwa and Bukwo are battered by land/mudslides while the lowlands of Namayingo, Namutumba, and Pallisa, experience intermittent flash floods and droughts.

In the western region, parts of Buliisa, Bundibugyo, Ibanda, Isingiro, Kamwenge, Kanungu, Kibaale, Kisoro, Ntoroko, Ntungamo, Rukungiri, and Sheema, and almost all central districts, including Kampala central business district are all susceptible to climatic variations.

Before the floods in Elegu, government was dealing with similar occurrences in Ntoroko in mid-October, and is still trying to rehabilitate the affected persons. Before that, it was dealing with a comparable crisis in Kasese where River Nyamwamba bursting its banks and displacing hundreds of people has become an annual ritual.

The senior disaster management officer in OPM, Ms Pamela Komujuni, told Daily Monitor that government is fully aware of the situation, which partly informed undertaking the country risk profiling.

"The risk of floods and land/mudslides is high in several parts, and over the last years, we have intensified our early warning mechanisms because we know the obvious triggers," Ms Komujuni said.

"We know the areas considered the most at risk; we continue enlisting the community leaders, advising communities to relocate at what point they should. Previously, our challenge was that we did not have a comprehensive policy of evacuation and resettlement which we have now," she added.

Going by the resettlement master plan, Ms Komujuni said they target to relocate at least 10,000 people from particularly high risk areas--starting with Mt Elgon and Rwenzori areas--but owing to resource constraints "we do it in bits as and when need arises."

Yet not much a priority

The Water and Environment ministry permanent secretary, Mr Alfred Okidi, explained that these are warning signs of climate change, and government is taking drastic actions.

"Climate Change refers to the intensity and severity of weather conditions; floods or droughts over a period of time, say 15 to 30 years, and environmental degradation contributes to it. We are seeing a pattern to it and models done for Uganda show that especially in the mountainous areas of Elgon and Rwenzori, the rains have increased over time, hence increasing such risks," he said.

Mr Okidi added: "The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) put it better as to where we are headed that wet gets wetter and dry gets drier. With the degradation happening around, cutting forests, destroying wetlands and riverbanks, these will only get worse but if we do something, they can be mitigated."

He revealed that an inter-ministerial committee chaired by the Prime Minister has since established a technical team to study the floods-drought patterns in the country and come up with a report detailing short, medium, and long-term measures, which will be tabled before Cabinet.

As crises are imminent, government seems to be tottering from one disaster risk management calamity to another. Besides the floods, in October government was trying to deal with the mudslides in Bududa, which although were minor; they are usually a prelude to major ones, going by previous experiences.

A May 2019 ministry of Finance budget monitoring and accountability report details that government, through the second National Development Plan (2015/16 - 2019/20), prioritised reduction on the impact of natural disasters and emergencies through, among others, developing a disaster risk and vulnerability profile map of the country, and coordinating regular disaster vulnerability assessments at community level, and coordinating timely responses to disasters and emergencies.

However, the plan has been beset by challenges, including lack of a law to govern disaster risk reduction and management, failure to operationalise the Contingency Fund for emergencies since enactment of the Public Finance Management Act, 2015, lack of funding for local governments towards disaster management and preparedness, and government continuously spending heavily on managing and responding to disaster as opposed to managing and reducing disaster risk.

Uganda, like everywhere around the globe, is suffering from different stress levels of changing climatic patterns mainly from floods, landslides, droughts, increased crop failure as a result of changing farming seasons and drug resistant pests attacking crops, and a surge in communicable diseases such as malaria. However, these development challenges are not so much pronounced in political manifestos, especially in Africa, ostensibly given a number of pressing problems at hand.

Across the world, the UN has flagged the rising sea level trends as a result of a combination of melt water from glaciers and ice sheets, and thermal expansion of seawater as earth's average temperature has already risen beyond 1°C (degrees celsius) above the pre-industrial period which spans 1850-1900, while the last five years have been the warmest on record.

Mr Okidi defended that some of the contributory factors to what the natural misfortunes befalling Uganda are external "but government is fully aware of the situation and is taking action." This, he said, is through enacting several polices from the National Adaptation Programmes of Action (NAPAs) of 2007 that provide a process for least developed countries to identify priority activities to respond to their urgent needs to adapt to climate change, the Climate Change Policy, 2015, and National Climate Change Bill, 2020.

Talk is cheap

With the country sucked in high-octane politics, there is no place at the pulpit to debate environmental degradation.

In his New Year Message last December, President Museveni described "disrespect for the environment," which has led to the several deaths ,especially in disaster prone area" as the biggest problem the country is facing.

He has also variously preached against wetland reclamation and deforestation, only for the investors he lavishes with praise to establish factories in the same locations. In his sixth term (2021-2016) manifesto, the President's ruling NRM party promises to focus on restoration, protection and demarcation of critical ecosystems such as wetlands and forest reserves, and embark on building a sustainable green economy.

National Unity Platform (NUP) presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi delves into the degradation of the environment and biodiversity somewhat in detail and pledges to do more about it.

The Forum for Democratic Change, (FDC) in its yet to be launched manifesto, pledges to, among others, introduce a greening Uganda policy, employ an army of youth in every district to plant at least two million trees per year, and scrap taxes on liquefied petroleum gas to promote transition by an additional 30 per cent of charcoal users to gas.

Presidential candidate Maj Gen Mugisha Muntu's Alliance for National Transformation (ANT) is also promising to increase environment conservation, plant 40 million trees over the next five years, and protect water sources, lakes, rivers, swamps and water catchment areas.

According to the Ministry of Water and Environment 2018 sector performance report, wetland coverage dropped from 15.5 per cent in 1994 to 13 per cent in 2015 with 50 per cent of permanent loss recorded in the Lake Kyoga and Lake Victoria basins alone, while 31 per cent of the remaining wetlands countrywide are degraded.

Likewise, forest cover, mainly as a result of deforestation, declined from 24 per cent in 1990 to 11 per cent in 2015; the forest coverage in the country is now at 9 per cent and only 12 per cent is under strict nature reserve.

Yet all available studies detail that if the degradation of the ecosystem persists at the current trends, the country is likely yet to see the worst.

Not so long ago, Lake Victoria water levels swelled to unprecedented levels since 1964, submerging villages in Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania. This was mainly as a result of above normal rains that started last year in October/November and expansive destruction of the lake's catchment area, especially swamps and forests, that ordinarily suck up the flow to the lake.

Lake Victoria dangers

The overflow of the lake, Dr Ali-Said Matano, the executive director of the Lake Victoria Basin Commission, the regional body on its sustainable management based in Kisumu, told this newspaper led to bursting of rivers draining the lake, including River Nile, triggering more flooding and hence damage.

"The current rains are still pounding and more damage is accruing. This of course had massive socio-economic impacts to the more than45 million people living with the basin, including the islands. Infrastructure has been destroyed and so are farmlands, people have been displaced in tens of thousands and their basic livelihoods destroyed, transport has been cut off in most areas affecting intra and inter trade. Water borne diseases have increased and lately we have witnessed increased accidents and incidents in the lake," Dr Matano added.

A 2015 government commissioned study warned that Uganda will need to "carefully" manage the impacts of climate change as average temperatures are expected to rise, the threshold set in the UN Paris climate change agreement, over the next 50 years which means severity in calamities from floods to droughts to drought.

The same study detailed that the country will incur losses between $3b and $6b (Shs11trillion and Shs22 trillion) annually in the energy, agriculture, transport and water sectors alone by 2025 which raises big question marks on the country's readiness to adapt.

In Mbale, the district environment officer, Mr Charles Wekube, told this newspaper that the entire Elgon region is increasingly prone to different climate variations, met with varying interventions as a result of low prioritisation.

"In the highlands we are seeing a lot of mudslides and the flooding in the lowlands; throw in elevated temperatures, erratic rains and rare crop pests and diseases, which trends have increased overtime. While growing up, and also when you ask the elderly, this was never the case," Mr Wekube said.

He said both the local and central governments are "fully aware of what is happening" but that is not reflected by the finances allocated to mitigation and adaptation programmes leaving NGOs and development partners like UN agencies to fill the void--and their approach has problematic."

"We are told to mainstream environment issues in all our local government work plans but look at the budgets for the last five financial years, you will be shocked," Mr Wekube said. "So in essence without NGOs or donor support, we just have to look on," he added.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Resident Representative, Ms Elsie Attafuah, told Daily Monitor that ensuring sustainability should be "a collective" responsibility for both government and donors.

"There are a couple of ways to look at it; one, climate change projects should filtered across the board starting from a strategic/policy point of view to ensure that once they are started there should be mechanisms of seeing them through. Secondly, what capacity/incentives are we providing; India for example, has this approach that for each local government that scores highly on a particular intervention they get more money; if it's planting trees the more you plant and can show for it, the money you get. Incentives help people to do more," she said.

Experts speak out

Overall, Ms Attafuah argued that tackling climate change should be multi-sectoral and be widened beyond the Ministry of Water and Environment--to other sectors such as health, transport, migration, "because it is about survival at the end of the day."

"Climate change is an earth shaking thing; the impacts are being seen already. There's the usually untold impact on health which has seen the rise of Malaria," she said.

And with Uganda, like most sub-Saharan countries, relying on "nature based solutions"--from agriculture to tourism--the UNDP boss said the crisis is getting out of control bit and by bit.

"Different places will require different investments. But then how do we mainstream climate change in the development agenda. The government has done some risk profiling but how do we translate that into action?" Ms Attafuah added.

According to Mr James Muhindo, the resilience and climate change coordinator at Oxfam, what also needs to be done is "translating the already available science" into local examples for people to fully understand and appreciate the extent of the problem.

"If you ask people in the Mt Elgon areas, they will concur that that frequency of the disasters in the area has increased. But besides that, how else can they made to appreciate whatever is happening or that it can no longer be business as usual?" he said.

The good thing is, Mr Muhindo acknowledged, that Uganda is responding positively through the several initiatives, including the National Climate Change Bill, 2020, and that its implementation needs to be supported after it has been passed by Parliament While the good news is that government is gradually waking up to reality, the uphill task is where to raise the approximately $160m (Shs588b) for the different adaptation interventions.

Recurring disasters

Floods in West Nile. In June this year, River Nile burst its banks, letting waters submerge houses, shops and hotels in the districts of Obongi, Adjumani and Amuru. More than 10,000 people have since been displaced.

Ntoroko floods. Flooding in the district is a perennial problem but the problem escalated at the start of the year when Lake Albert burst its banks. Since then, more than 10,000 people have been living in camps after being displaced by the floods.

Lake Victoria floods. Between March and June , thousands of people occupying the lake shores and some islands were displaced after water submerged various landing sites in various districts near Lake Victoria .

Kasese floods. About 10,000 persons were displaced in May when several rivers in Kasese burst their banks.

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