Impending El-nino worsened by climate change - experts

A man walks through a flooded road in Nanfuka Zone, Rubaga Divisin , Kampala on Wednesday. PHOTO | MICHAEL KAKUMIRIZI

What you need to know:

  • Uganda has of recent experienced more erratic rainfalls leading to frequent busting of rivers, mudslides and landslides that lead to loss of lives and property of communities especially those living in the mountainous areas, while those in low lands experience floods.

On Thursday, the government issued a warning about the possibility of social and economic disruptions, as well as a loss of livelihoods, in various parts of the country due to El Nino. 

This was after the Uganda National Meteorological Authority had earlier in September declared 2023 an El-nino year and warned that the country will experience heavy rains in the next four months. 

According to Deus Bemanya, the Director for Applied Meteorology Data and climate services at UNMA, El nino means above normal rainfall and it occurs when the Eastern and Central pacific ocean is warming, hence evaporation which leads to rainfall. 

“Unfortunately due to climate change, the effects are becoming severe that even if it rains normally, you will see floods. And now with el-nino, intense flooding is expected,” Bemanya says.  

Uganda has of recent experienced more erratic rainfalls leading to frequent busting of rivers, mudslides and landslides that lead to loss of lives and property of communities especially those living in the mountainous areas, while those in low lands experience floods.

Steven Opwoya, an official from the Directorate of Environment Monitoring and compliance at the National Environmental Management Authority explains that the effects from climate change are being manifested more severely now than ever before.

Increased evaporation

“Changes in temperatures due to climate change have increased evaporation rates and the amount of moisture in the atmosphere. This has resulted in fast rainfall formation characterized by flash floods, with atmospheric moisture increasing by 7 percent for every 1C (1.8F) change in temperature. And while excess rains and flash floods have hit wet areas, dry regions are becoming drier as a consequence of the expedited loss of water amid high evaporation rates,” Opwoya says.  

Dr Steven Sserubiri from the  College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at Makerere University concurs with Opwoya. 

“The globe is on track to breach the 1.5 degrees Celsius warming threshold by 2030, and for every 1°C of warming, extreme precipitation may intensify by seven per cent. What is happening in Uganda is a direct consequence of a warming climate,” Dr Sserubiri explains. 

“Already, the globe has warmed to 1.1°C and Africa is warming up at twice the global average. East Africa has seen temperature increases of up to 1.7°C. This means the consequences of a warming globe, which includes extreme events such as precipitation, will continue to escalate,” Dr Sserubiri says. 

Sserubiri adds that expected flooding is a result of among others plastic bags clogging the waterways. “Single-use plastic bags account for up to 12 per cent of waste in Uganda. Floating plastic is a significant risk factor that reduces the efficiency of drainage systems causing flooding. The government has come up with some good laws in regard to plastics, but we need to be more stringent in implementing them if we are to save our environment,” he says.  

Dr Sserubiri further cites the suboptimal planning resulting in encroachment into natural drainage areas such as swamps and wetlands as one of the key factors leading to flooding.  

“People have constructed and cultivated right up to the riverbanks. Wetlands have been encroached on and that is a problem because when wetlands are intact, they at least help to control the pace of the water when it rains heavily. Building on flood plains and other riparian areas reduces the efficiency with which flood waters can be drained to these natural drains, swamps and wetlands within settlements. They are part of the critical green infrastructure needed to control flooding,” Dr Sserubiri explains.

Uganda has lost 7 percent of its wetlands in the last two decades and the loss is projected to be one of the worst on the continent, resulting in adverse effects on the seasonal weather patterns and ecological features critical in environmental protection. 

The forecasted el-nino comes at the backdrop of a prolonged drought that affected most of parts of the country last year, with the worst hit areas being the northeastern part of the country. The death toll attributed to hunger and starvation was estimated at 900 people. 

Most Vulnerable 

Experts say, Uganda’s economy is heavily reliant on agriculture, making the country highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and this calls for urgent utmost government led conservation efforts. 

In a 2018 survey conducted by Afrobarometer, 85percent of Ugandans, more than in any of the other 33 countries that were surveyed, said climate conditions for agricultural production in their area had gotten worse over the previous decade.

According to the Notre Dame Global Adaptation Initiative (2021), Uganda ranks as the 13th- most-vulnerable country in the world to climate change and 160th out of 192 nations in readiness to confront the threat.

Moses Mugisha, the programme director Green for Tommorow calls on the government to be “heartless” when it comes to the protection of wetlands. “The president has on many occasions issued directives to wetland encroachers to vacate them with immediate effect, but no one vacates them. Instead, we are seeing more investors occupying them by setting up factories.  There is more effort needed in that regard,” Mugisha says. 

Mugisha further calls on the government to promote and encourage the planting of trees by coming up with several incentives. “They can for example design conservation agreements with potential investors, give them support such as free seedlings, and sign agreements not to cut trees for a period of ten to thirty years, with a target of creating micro-forests throughout the country, without necessarily having government control over them.”