Ignoring climate change warnings hampers degradation fight

A woman walks through a flooded trading centre at Elegu bus park after River Unyama burst its banks last year.  PHOTO/TOBBIAS JOLLY OWINY

What you need to know:

  • Presidential candidates are traversing the country to campaign and popularise their manifesto ahead of the 2021 General Election.
  • Challenges such as environment and climate change are seldom talked about yet communities are still affected by the effects from the destruction of eco-systems.

Communities at Elegu Town in Amuru District, the border with South Sudan, are trying to pick up the pieces after River Unyama burst its banks. About 7,000 households were affected, property destroyed and cross-border trade halted.  

In August, floods displaced 4,000 people and left countless property destroyed in the same area. In 2016, the town and several parts of Amuru were flagged as a disaster risk zone following occurrences such as heavy storms, drug-resistant crop pests and diseases, prolonged dry spells, and bush fires.

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

According to NECOC’s disaster risk profiling for the country, all other regions are prone to climate-related risks.

In the east, for instance,  the highland areas around Mt Elgon such as Bududa, Mbale, Kween, Manafwa, Sironko, Namisindwa and Bukwo districts are still experiencing mudslides while the lowlands of Namayingo, Namutumba, and Pallisa districts suffer from intermittent flash floods and droughts.

In the west, Buliisa, Bundibugyo, Ibanda, Isingiro, Kamwenge, Kanungu,Kibaale, Kisoro, Ntoroko, Ntungamo, Rukungiri, and Sheema districts and majority of those in the central region are all susceptible to climatic variations.

Before the floods in Elegu, government was dealing with similar occurrences in Ntoroko District in mid-October and is still trying to rehabilitate the affected persons.

Before that, it was confronted with another crisis in Kasese where River Nyamwamba’s occasional flooding left a trail of destruction and death.  

Ms Pamela Komujuni, the senior disaster management officer in OPM, told Daily Monitor that government is 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 plan 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.”

Mr Alfred Okidi, the Water and Environment Permanent Secretary, said these are warning signs of climate change, and government is taking 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 Mt areas of Elgon and Rwenzori, the rains have increased and as a result increased such risks.” 

Mr Okidi added: “The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) put it better as to where we are headed that wet gets wetter while the dry one gets drier. Cutting forests, destroying wetlands and riverbanks will only get worse but if we do something [about it], they can be mitigated.”

Government action
He said an inter-ministerial committee chaired by the Prime Minister, Dr Ruhakana Rugunda, has since established a technical team to study the floods-drought patterns in the country and come up with a report detailing measures which will be tabled before Cabinet.

In the meantime, government is grappling with disaster risk management whenever calamity strikes. Besides the floods, in October, government was contending with the mudslides in Bududa, which although were minor, they are usually a prelude to major ones, going by previous experiences.

Already, NECOC and other government departments are closely monitoring a huge crack measuring about 175 metres deep that stretches through five districts on the Mt Elgon ranges. 

Officials say in some areas, people cover it with dry grass and other concealments out of fear of being told to vacate their homes.

A May 2019 ministry of Finance budget monitoring and accountability report details that government through the National Development Plan  II (2015/16 – 2019/20) prioritised reduction on the impact of natural disasters and emergencies.

These include 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 faced challenges such as 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 in 2015.

Others are 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.

Mr Okidi said some of the natural disasters in the country are external but added that government was 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.

These include the Climate Change Policy of 2015, and National Climate Change Bill, 2020.

Some of the residents displaced by floods at Kanara Sub-county in Ntoroko District on October 8. PHOTO/ALEX ASHABA

In his New Year message last December, President Museveni cited “disrespect for the environment” which has led to the several deaths, especially in disaster prone areas” as the biggest problem the country is facing. 

He has also preached against wetland reclamation and deforestation only for investors to establish factories in the same locations.

Political parties pledge
In the NRM 2021-2026 manifesto, the President 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.

The National Unity Platform’s Robert Kyagulanyi, aka Bobi Wine,  pledges to do more about environment degradation and biodiversity and it. 

The Forum for Democratic Change party pledges to, among others, introduce a greening Uganda policy, employ 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 Mugisha Muntu’s Alliance for National Transformation is also promising to increase environment conservation, plant of 40 million trees over the next five years, and protect water sources and catchment areas. 

All these promises reveal that the environment has been degraded, putting the country at risk of more disastrous occurrences.

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

“We are seeing a lot of mudslides in the highlands and the flooding in the lowlands; Elevated temperatures, erratic rains and rare crop pests and diseases have increased overtime. While growing up, this was never the case,”  Mr Wekube said.

He said both the local and central governments are aware of what is happening” but the finances allocated to mitigation and adaptation programmes, leaving NGOs do not correspondingly reflect that and development partners like UN agencies to fill the void—and their approach has been problematic.

“We are told to mainstream environmental issues in all our local government work plans but look at the budgets for the last five financial years, you will be shocked. Without NGOs or donor support, we just have to look on,” Mr Wekube said.

But with the NGO business model, as with most donor projects, questions linger on the sustainability of the interventions, especially when projects close.

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

“Climate change projects should be 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 is planting trees, the more you plant and can show for it, the money you get. Incentives help people to do more,” she said.

Ms Attafuah said the climate change conversation needs to be widened—to stop being seen as issue of the Ministry of Water and Environment—to other sectors such as health, transport, migration “because it is about survival.”

“Climate change is an earth-shaking thing; the impacts are being seen already. There is the usually untold impact on health which has seen the rise of malaria,” she said. 

“It is high time we saw the impacts of climate change on other parts of development which we don’t talk about,” Ms Attafuah added

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.

“Different places will require different investments. But then how do we mainstream climate change in the development agenda. The government has done some riskprofiling but how do we translate that into action?” she asked. 

“From Karamoja, which is linked to the cattle corridor to the Mt Elgon and Rwenzori areas, the vulnerability levels are different and we have to pay attention at what interventions we take where,”  Ms Attafuah said.

Mr James Muhindo, the resilience and climate change coordinator at Oxfam,  called for translating the already available science into local examples for people to understand and appreciate the problem.

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

Mr Muhindo acknowledged that Uganda is responding positively through several initiatives, including the National Climate Change Bill 2020, and its implementation needs to be supported after being passed.

Climate change effects over the years

The Ministry of Water and Environment 2018 sector performance report indicates that 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 lakes Kyoga and Victoria basins alone, while 31 per cent of the remaining wetlands countrywide are degraded.

Almost half of degradation (46 per cent) happened in the eastern region, of which 55 per cent happened in Lake Kyoga drainage basin. 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. Studies also indicate that if the degradation of the ecosystem persists at the current trends and with the changing climatic patterns, the country is likely to see the worst. 

Early this year, Lake Victoria water levels swelled to unprecedented levels since 1964, submerging villages across Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania mainly following heavy rain that started last year in October/November.

There was expansive destruction of the lake’s catchment area, especially swamps and forests, that ordinarily suck up the flow to the lake. Dr Ali-Said Matano,  the executive director of the Lake Victoria Basin Commission, the regional body based in Kisumu, told this newspaper that the overflow led to bursting of rivers, including River Nile, triggering more flooding.

“The current rains are still pounding and more damage is accruing. This had massive socio-economic impacts to the more than 45 million people living with the basin, including the islands,” Dr Matono said.

Transport has also been cut off in most areas, affecting trade while waterborne diseases have increased as well as accidents on the lake.

Task ahead

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 drought.

The study indicated that the country will incur losses between $3b and $6b (Shs11 trillion – Shs22 trillion) annually in the energy, agriculture, and transport and water sectors by 2030, which raises on the country’s readiness to adapt.

The first part of this series was commissioned and co-published with the East African Centre of Investigative Reportings online Publication, www.voxpopuli.ug