Flirting with desertification

The army helped Karimojong fire victims rebuild their settlements recently in Moroto. The district is one of those that face desertification if nothing is done in the immediate future. Photo by Steven Ariong

What you need to know:

If nothing is done to ensure Uganda stops depending on rain-fed agriculture, there is the stark reality that it could become a desert.

Ordinarily, Kamuli District would not be considered as one on the verge of being hit by food shortage or drought. In this particular July season with the return of the rains, green covers the entire land scape, making any passerby assume that crops are thriving.

This is however not the case as already, farmers are already grappling with deteriorating yields and soil nutrient loss on their farms year after year.

For Margaret Ogwayo in Kiyunga Parish Kisozi sub country, her crops started becoming stunted way back in 2005. The 40-year-old subsistence farmer says since this started, the yields have not been good and now she reaps nearly four times less what she used to on her two-acre piece of land.

“The maize first started becoming yellow, then it never gained height, it remained short. Those that grew a bit did not flower. The sweet potatoes just bring leaves but no potatoes and the leaves dry after some time. All other crops fail to flower and the leaves become yellow,” says Ms Ogwayo.

“I used to get at least 15 bags of maize on my two acres per season but now, I get three bags and in a very good season I get five,” she says adding that she can no longer sell much produce since her family has to feed on the little they manage to reap. She says she has no alternative land to grow her crops and has to continue tilling this same piece year after year.

This is probably because most soils in the area have very low pH and phosphorous, according to Mr Peter Senyonga, a technician at the department of Soil Science at the School of Agricultural Science Makerere University, who carried out soil tests in this area.

Poor soils
Senyonga explains that it is the lack of soil pH that affected crop performance and hindered availability of nutrients to crops while soils deficient of phosphorus led to stunted growth and the leaves turned colour.

He says that a combination of these generally lead to loss of flexibility of land and natural resources and increases vulnerability to climate change.

“People here are aware that the soils are depleted but they are not aware what exact nutrients are lacking meaning they are unable to effectively salvage the crops from nutrient loss,” Mr Senyonga said.

The United Nations has defined desertification as land degradation in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas resulting from human activity and climatic variation, while land degradation is the loss of biological and economic productivity of cropland, range, pasture, forest and woodlands resulting from human use of land.

Statistics from the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries indicates that approximately 36 per cent of the country is affected by severe land degradation and 10 per cent by very severe land degradation, with soil erosion and soil nutrient depletion as the most serious form of land degradation.

But why exactly are the soils losing their fertility? According to the Focal Point Officer of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, Stephen Muwaya, poverty and high population growth are the major reasons that cause majority of people to till the land endlessly and carelessly in addition to poor farming methods all of which jointly act to deplete soils of their nutrients and decrease productivity.

“Many people depend on annual crops like maize and beans which makes people open up land all year round. The population also over depends on land and people are farming on it endlessly, increasing soil erosion,” Muwaya explains. “Increased urbanisation and invasion of wetlands have also increased, leading to silting of lakes which make it a hotspot for desertification.”

Cattle corridor under threat
For now, Muwaya says that the entire cattle corridor stretching from the south western highlands to the north eastern part of the country as well as north and east have in the last 30 years been faced with increased desertification and could worsen if nothing is done about it. The only relatively free area from this phenomenon is the Albertine Rift of which there is ongoing massive deforestation.

In commemorating the World Day to Combat Desertification in Kamuli district on July 5, the State Minister for Agriculture Prof Dr Zerubabel Nyiira called on farmers and other land users to urgently make changes in their production systems to protect soils in order to sustain agricultural production and adapt to the effects of Climate Change.

He said that farmers should embrace technologies like conservation agriculture, proper farm planning, soil and water conservation, water harvesting, tree planting, wetlands protection, sustainable irrigation and mechanisation of production systems.

Although demonstrations were made on how to use these technologies, many of the residents in Kiyunga were hearing about them for the first time, many saying that nobody had ever come to assist and show them ways of improving productivity on their land, and that they had never heard of plant clinics.

This is despite the existence of government projects like the National Agriculture Advisory Services (Naads) and the National Environment Management Authority supposed to help these farmers.

Prof Zerubabel said that the ministry is revising its Naads approach to see that extension workers are brought back to the main agriculture ministry rather than be placed under local governments. This, he said, will bring value to farmers rather than Naads which only provides a supervisory role.

“Extension services have been weakened with the decentralised system of governance. Having Naads as a strong coordinator is now being reviewed so that extension workers can fall directly under the ministry, where the ministry can offer direct technical support and guidance,” Prof Zerubabel said.

He also said that the ministry has developed a Strategic Investment Framework (SIF) for Sustainable Land Management (SLM) (2010 – 2020).

For now though, given that most farmers rely on purely rain-fed agriculture, experts warn of serious drought, hunger and desertification in the next 50 years if systems of sustainable land management are not adopted.

Areas in danger:
> 36 percent of Uganda’s land is degraded
> The cattle corridor, south western, north eastern, north and east (Mbarara, Isisngiro, Lyantonde, Rakai , Sembabule, Kotido , Kyoga, Nakasongola, Moroto) are all facing desertification. Only the Albertine Rift is free of the phenomenon.