Let’s gear up for the floods and fires to come

Mr Charles Onyango-Obbo

What you need to know:

...what Kenya and Tanzania do with the environment, should be Uganda’s business. It is a national security issue.

The  United Nations’ big 28th climate change conference (COP28) continues in Dubai, with Uganda, and other African governments, having carried stadiums full of delegates to go shopping.

Away from Dubai Mall, the largest mall in the world by total land area, Climate Central, a non-profit news organisation that analyses and reports on climate science, has done some modelling and presented unsettling images about how the world would look like, if countries fail to halt the planet’s catastrophic march toward warming up to 2.9 degrees Celsius. A recent UN report showed we are currently on a steady path there.

With cyclones and searing global temperatures causing glaciers and ice sheets to melt at very high rates, there would be devastating sea level rise globally.

Some of the worst devastation would begin at the coast, where large chunks of countries there will be lost to the seas. Inland, for different reasons, as this column reported previously, swathes of Uganda would be underwater too.

Immediately, we can see that the risk that hinterland countries like Uganda face from sea level rises is less. Or maybe not.

It is projected that even at 2 degrees Celsius, the sea could rise 70 centimetres in Tanzania within the next 50 years, wreaking havoc with the port infrastructure at Dar es Salaam.

A rise of 1.5 degrees could result in 30-30-centimetre rise in sea level could submerge 17 percent of Kenya’s Mombasa city. Up to 95 per cent of Uganda’s international trade travels through these two ports. Uganda’s economy would kaput (as would Rwanda’s, and Burundi’s. South Sudan’s and nearly two-thirds of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s.

Some of this could be averted, and technology might render ports less critical if the world would have moved to transportation using large drones, and new forms of 3D printing most of its products, removing the need for shipping as we know it today.

But that will not solve the issues of human living. It can be expected that millions of people would move further inland. By 2075 the populations of both Kenya and Uganda will be north of 100 million, and Tanzania’s nearing 200 million. DR Congo will be almost 340 million.

Many areas in the Bugisu, the wider Rwenzori, northwest Uganda, and the lake regions of Uganda could be under water. Entebbe could be an island, and the Entebbe Expressway, if it miraculously survives after being retrofitted, could be the only land connection to the rest of Central Uganda. The 100 million Ugandans, therefore,  will be scrapping for perhaps half the current dry land.

To the East and West, we will be squeezed by populations fleeing collapsing coastal landscapes. Flooding would have devastating consequences in the west, leading to a record number of mudslides. It would silt up many lakes and rivers in the region, meaning that at the next downpours, the floods would be more deadly.

The lower regions of Mt Elgon would come down, blanketing large parts of Bugisu and Sebei regions. And like in the west, making the next floods more deadly.

There is no scenario, if this happens, in which we don’t kill each other at scale over land, considering the tensions we already have today in relatively normal conditions over this resource. Half an acre of land, at that time, could be worth one million US dollars.

I have also thought of the cultural and spiritual damage. To Ugandans and other Africans, it is still important where we, our parents, and grandparents are buried. It is an important part of our identity, our sense of place, and our deeper spiritual connections.

But with rising seas, the graves at the Kenyan and Tanzanian coasts could end up being carried to India or Australia. The graves of Luwero could be carried away to Pakwach. The dead in Pallisa could end up in Juba, South Sudan.

Lake Nalubaale/Nam Lolwe (Lake Victoria) could also surprise. If it rises and rises, maybe only the highlands of Mukono will be safe. But it could also collapse – at least partly – or change its site. Hundreds of square kilometres of dry land would open up between Uganda and Kenya.

Everyone will make a mad dash for it because there will be no existing “kyapa” for it, and Uganda and Kenya won’t agree on where the border line is.

The short of this is that what Kenya and Tanzania do with the environment, should be Uganda’s business. It is a national security issue. At the cultural level, it will soon be time to think of new forms of dealing with our dead – like cremation. When the floods come in future, the great-grandchildren would run away with their ancestors stashed in urns in suitcases.

But, above all, instead of flying 600 people nearly 7,000 kilometres away to Dubai, let’s get just six of them to travel 600 kilometres somewhere in East Africa and sit with our Kenyan and Tanzania kin, to talk about the coming peril.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”.