Thursday, March 10, 2011

The water of life....

I really woke up to the fact that I was in Africa the day I was told by a kindly but more experienced volunteer that, no, it would not be a good idea to set up water play at Royal Pride Academy.  You see, I had had this lovely picture of my own two sons splashing around in bowls of water in their pre-school years.  They never tired of pouring water from jug to container and through sieves and funnels, all the time learning about quantity and volume, about floating and sinking.  Somewhat naively, I thought that this would be a great activity to introduce to Royal Pride so I started saving all my plastic containers and squeezy bottles.  All we would need were two or three large plastic bowls and the nursery class would be well set up.

Alas, no.  There is no water on site at Royal Pride.  It all has to be carried down the hill from the standpipe.  Water is precious.  Uganda may normally have a high rainfall, but water is not necessarily safe for infants to play in.  The water from the standpipe is ‘improved’ water, but far too precious to splash around with.  Every drop matters.  The same, of course, applies to food.  I must admit that I have always been a bit uncomfortable about the propensity of Scottish primary schools to use macaroni, lentils and kidney beans for purely decorative purposes.  These are foodstuffs, not craft materials, for goodness sake!  Well, even more so in Uganda.  If you are a hungry child, the last thing you want to see is your teacher ‘wasting’ good food on making musical instruments or decorating pictures.

Water is for health and survival, whether it’s for drinking or washing.  One of the government’s Basic Requirements and Minimum Standards for schools includes access to a clean water supply.  In practice, ‘access’ is defined as the availability of water within one kilometre of the school.   Schools without a bore hole or access to a standpipe with national water either send pupils to collect (and possibly pay for) water from the nearest village or trading centre, or expect them to bring their own supply.  We quite often see the more fortunate children walking to school with small water bottles. 

Link’s health programme for primary schools includes promotion of safe water and sanitation.  Link provides practical support for schools in making the best use of what water they do have.  For example Link officers may demonstrate how to make a ‘tippy tap’ out of easily available materials: a clean used 3 litre jerry can, a stick to fit through its handle, lengths of string, support poles and a stick to act as accelerator.  With such simple devices, schools can protect children from disease and train them in basic hygiene.  In so doing, they help children to develop attitudes, skills and knowledge which they can take back to their families as well as use when bringing up their own children, in many cases not long after they leave primary school.

A tippy-tap (Caritas)
At Royal Pride Academy, the water butt and guttering have now been installed, you will be pleased to hear.  Fortunately there has been enough rain to partially fill the tank and the system is now in operation.  The water is for hand washing, so drinking water still has to be brought from the standpipe further up the hill.  Nevertheless, it’s a great improvement.   Many thanks to all those who contributed to this project. 

Rainwater butt at Royal Pride - almost finished, a pipe and tap
to be placed where you see a damp patch on the right.
Access to water is a basic right.  Yet, like many Europeans, we have often felt quite far removed from the natural rhythms of rain and sunshine.  In Scotland we always felt that we saw too little sun and too much rain!  Even here in Uganda, we are quite protected.  When the tap in our kitchen dries up, we use the taps in the bathroom or shower-room which are supplied from the tanks on the roof.  Lack of water at work, a long standing situation, simply means that we don’t receive our usual thermos of boiled water to make coffee.  Instead, we have to remember to bring bottled water with us, but then we can afford it.  Yet whole areas of Kampala and its suburbs have been without water for weeks.  Embarrassingly, because we find food here very cheap by UK standards, we often don’t even notice any increase in prices.  Uganda is beginning to educate us, but we are still very privileged, indeed, spoilt.

Uganda as a whole is going through a prolonged dry season just now, as a result of La Nina.  We should be well into the rainy season in March, but despite the occasional clouds and a few modest drops of rain, there is little sign that it is on its way.  As in many areas of Africa, and indeed, across the world, the climate in Uganda is changing as a result of global warming.  People tell us that the seasons are not as distinct as they used to be and that the timing of the rains is becoming more difficult to predict.  The water table has gone down and water levels in Uganda’s lakes have fallen, including in Lake Victoria.  The expansion of the Sahara further south is affecting Uganda.  

In Uganda, the areas suffering most are in what is called the ‘cattle corridor’ from Kampala to the west, as well as to the north and east. In Uganda, cattle are very important.  They are not just the source of milk and very good quality beef, they are also a form of currency and the cause of much pride.  Indeed, the bride price may often still be paid in cattle.  So important are cows that in Karamoja, cattle-rustling is a way of life. 

Cattle on the road to Masindi, before the drought set in.
Lack of water affects cattle-rearing areas disproportionately. In Kasese, to the west, many animals have died as the pastures have dried up.  The few water sources remaining are being overwhelmed by a sudden influx of starving cattle from elsewhere.  The Daily Monitor writes of some farmers having to trek 13 kilometres with their cattle to reach water.  It is a similar story in the Masindi and Sembabule areas, where it is said that the milk yield has gone down by half.  The Ministry of Agriculture is advising farmers to cull some of their herds, a hard message.

In Karamoja, the rains have failed frequently over the last few years with resulting food shortages and feeding programmes run by international agencies.  The government has an agreement with Israel for support in water conservation, including the building of damns.  Agricultural agencies are educating people about introducing more varied approaches to farming, trying to persuade semi-nomadic pastoralists to grow crops and rear goats and chickens.  Such approaches, however, require changes to centuries-old cultural practices.

Even though, traditionally, Uganda has not had a problem with water because of its relatively high rainfall, access to water is becoming an important feature of government policy and daily life.  Almost all families rely on water from standpipes.  The national water department is working its way across the country burying pipes and setting up community taps.  Uganda has been doing reasonably well in extending access to improved water compared with its neighbours.  Over 90% of urban residents now have access to such water, and about 70% in the rest of the country. 

However, in rural areas, the distance which women and children have to travel to collect water is getting greater as bore holes fail and water courses dry up.  Two kilometres may not sound much, but they are if you are carrying a fifteen litre container of water on your head.  The time taken to collect water at the beginning of the day eats into children’s school time.  The further they have to walk, the later they are for school.  And if they are late for school, they are often beaten.  We see them struggling along with two or three water containers.  Children often have to join long queues at the standpipes, many of which have started to run quite slowly.  They may even have to make several journeys, for Ugandan families are large and need a lot of water: for drinking, cooking, washing and often for watering animals.  In Kamuli, people told journalists that they get up as early as 4am but still find 50 jerry cans ahead of them in the queue.  They are cutting down on mopping their homes and washing their children.  Sometimes boreholes have become contaminated with worms and maggots or with human and animal faeces.  In whole areas of the country like Bukedea, hand-dug wells and springs have long since dried up. Even the River Rwizi, which serves the major city of Mbarara is running dry.  Enterprising individuals sell jerry cans of water, but the prices are steadily rising.  The price of a 20-litre jerry can has risen from Shs200 to as much as Shs1,000 (around 30 pence).  This may sound very cheap, but many people live on less than Shs3,000 a day.  

School child fetching water
Crops are dying in the fields in Acholi-sub-region to the north and food prices are going up.  The newspaper reports that rice has gone up from Shs1,800 to Shs2,000 a kilogramme, beans from Shs1,200 to Shs1,700 and maize flour from Shs1,000 to Shs1,200.  Farmers are reported as harvesting only half as many bunches of matooke as five months ago, leading to another price rise.  This month should be the planting season for some crops, and the flowering season for bananas, pineapples and coffee.  The flowers, however, have begun to wither and are now unlikely to bear fruit.   Although there is enough food for most people just now, shortages will start biting in May/June when current stocks have run out.  All this in Uganda, a country which has been called the ‘breadbasket of Africa’! 

Bunches of matooke for sale.
So what is the government doing about it?  Its meteorologists sent out the first warnings of possible drought in November.  Then what?  The Minister for Disaster Preparedness told the Daily Monitor that ‘the population has been taken up by elections so we have not been focused on the welfare of the people’, a statement he may live to regret.  It is all hands on deck now.  TV adverts in English caution people to use food and water carefully as the rains are not likely to arrive until May, two months late.  Most of the rural population do not have electricity let alone TVs, nor do they understand English.   Fortunately, the government is now also sending out SMS messages, although also in English, asking people to store food and water – a tall order for those who live from hand to mouth.  However, at least the messages make a change from the ‘old man in the hat’ thanking us for voting NRM.  Farmers are being warned not to plant all their seeds, although many, unfortunately, already have.    They are being advised to conserve moisture by digging furrows and spreading their planting across the season.  In the longer term the recommendation is to plant drought-resistant strains, including GM varieties.

The drought does not just affect families and farmers.  It affects schools.  In previous droughts, children have stopped attending school as they are sent by their families to search for water or food.  Many children already do without food all day, not because their parents don’t care but because many families only have one meal per day and sending children to school with food means sending them to bed hungry.  School attendance is bound to fall during any protracted dry season.  If you are hungry and thirsty, walking to school may be just too much.  So the authorities are looking at their disaster-preparedness policies and considering the advice they are going to give schools.

How does this affect Stuart and me?  We, of course, being mzungus, will manage. And Stuart will complain to the Minister for Disaster Preparedness if the tees and greens have not been adequately watered!


  1. My recollection is that your sons rather liked playing with sand too. Is this an alternative to water with similar learning outcomes?

  2. It is, indeed, though I think I may have failed you here as all I can remember is letting you play!