The impact of the fury of nature on the environment

 The heavy rainfall in Kenya and Tanzania is causing Lake Victoria to overflow. PHOTO /AFP

What you need to know:

  • Recently, the country has been grappling with rising water levels that have led to floods in some areas. Despite continuous interventions in place to mitigate such disasters, there continues to be a steady increase in the frequency, magnitude, and intensity of these climate-induced disasters.

In February, the Climate Prediction and Applications Centre of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development in Eastern Africa (IGAD) released the March to May 2024 seasonal forecast, which indicated a higher probability of wetter-than-normal conditions for most parts of the Greater Horn of Africa.

 The highest probabilities for wetter-than-usual conditions are indicated in central to western Kenya, and in the cross-border areas of Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda.

 For the past two weeks, heavy floods have swept through parts of Kenya and Tanzania, displacing people and destroying livelihoods. 
Anthony Wolimbwa, an environmental activist and national coordinator of Climate Action Network Uganda, blames the floods on the effects of the El Nino climate pattern and the Indian Ocean Dipole.

 “El Nino is a climate pattern that describes the unusual warming of surface waters in the Pacific Ocean while the Indian Ocean Dipole, another climate pattern, is causing higher temperature on the western side of the ocean, which is our East African coastline. So, the Pacific Ocean is pushing warm moisture towards the equator, right into the positive phase of the Indian Ocean Dipole. That is why we are having a lot of rainfall all over the region,” he says.
 Proscovier Nnanyonjo Vikman, the board chairperson of Climate Action Network Uganda, says environmental degradation has worsened the impact of the floods.

 “The Kenya highlands are not as affected by the floods as the lowlands or range lands. However, the strong winds will still lift your roof even if you live on a hill, if you do not have windbreakers (natural trees) around you,” she says.
 Wolimbwa says we need to think through how we can integrate our development plans in the climate change adaptation strategy, so that our ecosystems and the livelihoods of the people are protected.

 “How preserved are the wetlands and the forests? If these ecosystems are in a healthy state, even if it rains a lot, the impact of flooding may not be as bad as you are seeing now. From the videos coming out of Kenya, you can see that the areas that are flooding are probably degraded places or range lands with very scanty vegetation. With this kind of ecosystem, even a little rainfall will sweep everything it finds in its way. This brings us back to Uganda where we are always advocating for conserving wetlands and forests,” he says.  

 While Uganda seems to have escaped the worst of the heavy rainfall, we are not yet out of the cold. On Friday morning, nine people died in Kasese district, in the southwestern part of the country, after a heavy downpour in Bukonzo County.
 A few days earlier, last Sunday, floods submerged four sub-counties in Bukedea district after River Sironko burst its banks, following heavy rainfall in the Elgon region, in the eastern part of the country.

 The affected sub-counties include Kamutor, Aminit, Kolir and Kangole, in which over two thousand people such as Michael Opolot, a farmer, were left homeless, facing a looming hunger.
 “I lost my garden, full of the season’s maize crop. Some of this maize was supposed to feed my family, while the rest was to be sold for money to buy household items. I invested Shs2 million in that garden. The money was a loan, which I took out to buy seeds, fertilizer and to pay workers. I do not know how I will recover that money,” he says.

 Uganda has three rainy seasons, with the first one running from March to May, then June to August, and September to November. Dr. George William Omony, the manager for forecasting services at the Uganda National Meteorology Authority (UNMA), says the seasonal forecast issued by the Authority indicated that the country would receive enhanced rainfall until May. 

 “The month of May is the peak month for this season’s rainfall. The heavy rains have caused water resources to swell and burst their banks, hence the recent floods in the Karamoja sub-region, Katakwi district, and more recently, Bukedea district. Uganda is on the downside of Lake Victoria, while Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda are on the upper side. The heavy rainfall in Kenya and Tanzania is causing Lake Victoria to overflow. This is going to displace our people who live or eke a living along the shores of the lake. We need to be a little more worried,” he says.

 Cecilia Alonyo, a climate change officer in the Ministry of Water and Environment urges the public to concern themselves with the changing climate patterns.
 “Rising water levels, increased flooding and threats to critical infrastructure pose significant risks to the country’s security, economy and public safety. Addressing these challenges requires proactive measures to mitigate the impact of climate change and adapt to its consequences. Ignoring these issues could lead to severe disruptions and endanger lives and livelihoods across the nation,” she says.

Looming hunger
Last month, the United Nations released the Global Report on Food Crises 2024, which confirmed that in 2023, nearly 282 million people in 59 countries faced high levels of acute food insecurity. In Uganda, the arrival of floods has fuelled concerns over food insecurity.
 Patrick Washila, the local council chairperson of Acomai village, one of the localities affected by the floods in Bukedea district, says most of their gardens were washed away.

 “At the start of this season, the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries gave us maize seeds. We planted them. Others even hired gardens to plant the excess seeds. But now the water has destroyed our gardens. Yesterday, we tried to uproot some cassava to feed our children but it had rotted in the ground,” he says.

 The floods did not only destroy gardens; the water also washed away pit latrines. Vikman says the effects of the floods go beyond hunger.
 “Climate change impacts are not only environmental. They are also social, domestic and economic. Let us brace ourselves for food insecurity but also diseases are coming up. The other effect is that domestic violence is going to increase because of the lack of food,” she says.
Lack of suitable response to climate crises
In 2020, Uganda was ranked 15th globally and 1st in Africa, among countries most affected by climate-related natural disasters. Over 80 percent of the districts in Uganda are prone to droughts, with over 25 percent of the population exposed to the impacts of floods.
 In Kasese and Bukedea districts authorities are encouraging affected families to seek refuge with relatives in neighbouring communities until the rains stop. While this is a knee-jerk measure, it does not take into account the long lasting effects of climate change on livelihoods.

 “The capacity to respond is very low because a good response system needs to run on substantial financial resources. We need a lot of money to relocate people to other districts and to do restoration on the ecosystem that has been damaged,” Wolimbwa says.
Emmanuel Ntale, who manages the Climate and Environment Unit of the Uganda Red Cross Society, says the frequency, magnitude and intensity of climate disasters the country has been facing has rendered most interventions ineffective.

 “Sometimes, waiting for responses (from the government) is no longer sustainable. That is why we are designing and implementing long-term interventions, digital systems and models that can avail possible points of interventions before disaster strikes. We are also setting up disaster management committees and eco-based restoration activities,” he says.

 Climate and weather experts have continuously mentioned in their reports that the weather patterns in the last 20 to 50 years were steadier and predictable compared to the current times.
 Dr. Revocatus Twinomuhangi, the Dean of the School of Forestry, Environmental and Geographical Sciences in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, affirms that today’s climate has changed.

Anthony Wolimbwa, National Coordinator,  Climate action Network Uganda

 “The newer climate scenarios put forward by scientists are quite worrying, if nothing is done to address the source of climate change, with its causes being greenhouse gas emissions mainly those coming from burning fossil fuels including from the energy and transportation sector. There is also the issue of deforestation and the way we keep cattle. Cows, for example, emit methane, a greenhouse gas that doubles as a hazardous air pollutant. The key to a long-term solution to the climate crises is in addressing the causes and not short-term interventions,” he says.

 While Uganda has a number of environmental laws and presidential directives, lack of enforcement has brought us to this point.
 “Just look at Kampala where people have built houses in the wetlands without regard to environmental considerations. The other problem – which I find very ironic – is the political will. The president is always on our side on the matter of conservation, and then all of a sudden you see in the media that an investor has been given a forest or is building in the wetlands. So, politicians who are juggling investment needs and conservation needs find it easier to go with the former, because of job creation,” Wolimbwa says.  
 The way forward, though, is to make communities more resilient to the increasing changes in the climate, to limit the damage caused by floods and landslides.

 The enhanced rainfall the country and the region are facing is likely to positively impact agriculture, water resources and livelihoods. The earlier the country hastens its emergency response rate and adaptation of climate resilient strategies and agriculture, the better for everyone.

Uganda advances to tackle climate change and disasters
In June 2023, Uganda embarked on the development of a National Adaption Plan (NAP). This process aims to strengthen resilience to climate change impacts by mainstreaming adaptation into policies and programmes at different levels. The ongoing work on this new national action plan is an opportunity to bring disaster risk reduction (DRR) into the climate change adaptation conversation. 

Uganda is facing more frequent and intense disasters that have dire consequences on the country’s economic and human development. Globally, over the last two decades, climate-related disasters have almost doubled compared to the previous twenty years. This trend undermines the progress of many developing countries in implementing the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction.