Saturday, September 10, 2011

Weather forecast for Uganda

Rainy days are here once more

Yes, the rains are here again. They arrived two or three weeks early, somewhat ironically considering the scanty rainfall and delayed rainy season in late spring.  In Kampala, that means some pretty heavy showers with accompanying violent thunderstorms, and a drainage and sewage system which is quite unable to cope: lots of newspaper pictures of stranded cars and flooded houses. We, however, just look out of our balcony windows in our comfortable suburban flat and watch the show.  As usual, it is the poor people in the slums who suffer most.  Their drains (if they have them) are blocked by rubbish as they have no garbage collections, and they often live illegally on marginal swamp land draining into Lake Victoria. Their ramshackle houses wash away, together with their few pitifully poor possessions.

Unofficial housing along the northern bypass, during dry weather.
In the rest of the country, however, the situation has been far more serious.  In the north of Uganda (Gulu and Lira area), precious rapid-maturing crops planted to take advantage of the earlier more modest early summer rains, have been washed away.  Livestock such as chickens and ducks have been killed. It is predicted that more than 800 households will be vulnerable to food shortage as a result of the flooding.  The rains are predicted to continue until November.

In western Kabarole, communities living on the shores of Lake Albert have petitioned the government to rescue them 'before they starve to death'. Following heavy floods last week, over 20,000 people are reported to be struggling to get just a single meal a day. The Minister for Disaster Preparedness has donated 9,400 kilogrammes of posho (cornflour) and beans for emergency.

In Moyo, West Nile region, northern Uganda, 53 huts and 18 pit latrines were destroyed when the River Nile flooded, threatening cholera and destroying crops and food. Of the homeless, 80 are war victims living on flood areas against advice.  They say they have nowhere else to go. Apa bridge, currently under construction, which links Uganda with DR Congo has been washed away, enabling some strong men to make a living by carrying people across: Shs1000 (25p) for adults and Shs500 for children.

In drought-stricken Karamoja in the north east, rains have washed away many of the few murram roads which exist. An area bigger than the country of Rwanda, with a population of 1 million, Karamoja only has half a kilometre of tarmacked road, arguably a reflection of the commitment of the national government to this remote and neglected region. Normally a semi-arid area, Karamoja is not used to flooding. Hundreds of people are now camping out in churches and schools. The distribution of food aid by the World Food Programme (a long term programme which has been in place for some years) is being hampered by poor communications and destroyed bridges. Crops have been destroyed and perishable goods are rotting as they cannot be taken to market. The Red Cross have said that damage runs into 'billions of shillings and might eat deep into national coffers'.  The ability of the national coffers to cope is, however, questionable, of which more later.

In the east of the country, in Bulambuli, near Mbale on the Mount Elgon escarpment, about 45 people have been killed by mudslides triggered by heavy rain, and about 120,000 people are now homeless. Landslides have also destroyed homes in Kapchorwa near Sipi Falls. The exact casualty figures are uncertain because councils haven't registered the local population. More than 200,000 people living on marginal land on the slopes of the mountain are threatened by widening cracks, some as much as 1.5 metres wide.  50,000 are living in danger zones and seven out of the district's 12 sub-counties have developed fault lines. Against advice, and because they are desperate, local people had moved up the mountainside and cut down the forests to plant food. The soils are bare and water is now running off the hillsides, taking mud and stones with it. The sounds of breaking rocks can clearly be heard. The Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) has warned of impending 'human catastrophe'.  It reports that the water catchment belt on Mount Elgon has been destroyed by encroachment.

As elsewhere, roads and bridges have been destroyed, delaying relief. One priority is to find homes for those children orphaned by the disaster. Newspaper articles are accusing the government of lack of action following the landslides and inadequate preparedness for disasters. No camps are planned for the homeless and the help which they have received has come from international and local NGOs and donors like the World Health Organisation, World Food Programme, World Vision, Save the Children Fund, the Uganda Red Cross Society, the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (Adventists are a major religious group over here) and UNICEF.

About 340 acres of coffee (60,000 trees) in Bulambuli and neighbouring districts were destroyed during the storms. It had been hoped that the forecast bumper harvests of this good quality arabica coffee grown on the fertile volcanic soil of Mount Elgon, would boost Uganda's coffee exports.  Uganda is among the top 10 producers of coffee worldwide (though only 2% is actually drunk by Ugandans!). About 40.8 metric tonnes of freshly picked coffee were destroyed. 'I have been harvesting 2,000 kilogrammes every season,' said Silver Malanga, a coffee farmer. 'This means that my children cannot go to school and I also cannot feed my family.'

Foothills of Mount Elgon, from a distance, photographed during the dry season.
Last weekend matters got worse in the east, with at least 400 people left homeless after a hailstorm lasting for hours which destroyed acres of cassava and other crops. Daily Monitor concludes, 'The country is currently facing severe flooding as rain continues to pound in a rare change of weather season that caught authorities flat-footed. The Disaster Preparedness Ministry is yet to get funds for relief.'

The increasing incidence of landslides and flooding over the years as a result of climate change, and the pressure of increasing population are forcing people to live on marginal land, which exacerbates the underlying problems.  Many families are becoming internal environmental refugees. They flee to the wetlands of Busoga and Buganda (around Kampala) in central Uganda to escape the landslides of the eastern hills and the floods in Kabale to the west.

Flooded road in Kabale: we followed the route taken by the bike on the right
after we saw the people in the middle step unexpectedly up to their oxters in water
So what is the long term weather forecast for Uganda?

Governments may be judged by their ability to support and protect their people.  The political weather here in Uganda appears to be changing in parallel with, or indeed in response to, changes in its climate.

The row over the proposed cutting down of Mabira Forest in order to plant sugar continues. There is confusion about the role of Mr Mehta in the controversy. The same editions of the Daily Monitor which reported Mehta's announcement that he was not interested in Mabira after all, also included a public statement by more than 100 prominent members of the Asian community opposing the project and setting up a pressure group called Uganda Asians for Mabira.  They clearly fear another backlash against the community. Mehta has since stepped back from his statement and reiterated his demand for land within 25 kilometres of his existing factory, ignoring an offer of alternative land by the Kabaka of Buganda, who claims the forest actually belongs to the Kingdom anyway.

An unsubstantiated rumour has been floated that Mehta is simply a front for investment by the First Family, a similar story to one about the other big Asian family, the Madhvanis, in other investment contexts.  Madhvani is behind the proposed golf course in Murchison Falls National Park (shades of Donald Trump in Balmedie, Aberdeenshire).  Who knows what the truth of these matters is? Certainly not us. The Indian Association in Uganda is certainly standing back from the controversy.  Nevertheless, international donors have also come out against the proposed give-away. Environmentalists say that the forest is important as it attracts 3 million dollars from carbon trading, in addition to the potential loss of 312 tree species, 287 species of birds and 199 species of small animals. The other big question is whether the President is allowed to give away an asset which belongs to the Ugandan people. The impression we have is that the country appears pretty united in its opposition to the President's stand on Mabira. However, we may, of course, be wrong. Good news is that the President has now said that he will abide by Parliament's decision, whatever that may be. No doubt MPs will take a balanced view of the issues, as usual.

UWA guided walk through Mabira.
The Mabira issue is also, of course, about climate change, in this case the potential loss of rainfall if the forest is cut down, leading to a reduction in the water flowing into Lake Victoria.  The Lake belongs to Tanzania and Kenya as well as Uganda, so there are international implications.  The River Nile, which flows out of the Lake, also generates most of Uganda's power. A reduction in water flow means a reduction in electricity available for industry and to improve the living conditions of ordinary Ugandan citizens. Only yesterday even more power cuts were announced despite the current heavy rainfall, because of the shortfall in the water levels of Lake Victoria. Load-shedding is a major trial to many Ugandan citizens, mainly those who have access to electricity, of course, including industrial employers as well as private individuals. We ourselves are relatively protected from power cuts compared with friends in other suburban areas.  We ascribe this to the fact that our wealthy neighbours are committed NRM supporters (JOKE).

Certainly there is currently unprecedented criticism of the President from some surprising quarters, not least one of his senior Presidential advisers, the well-respected John Nagenda who writes a weekly column for New Vision, the government-owned newspaper.  Interviewed in the Sunday Monitor, New Vision's rival publication, on September 4th, Nagenda said Museveni is a 'mischievous' and 'autocratic' leader who does not listen to advice and is 'astonished' and 'even outraged when people dare to take him on'.  Nagenda said, '...the President is the kind of person who wants to win all wars.' These views are supported by other columnists, for example Munlini K Mulera, who contrasts the revolutionary Museveni who used to thrive on debate and challenge, with the Museveni of today who is 'guilty of endangering the future of Uganda'. Referring to Mabira and criticising the Asian business community, Nagenda says that while most politicians and army officers are compliant and sycophantic, the opposition is led by Museveni's own wife, Janet. Elsewhere he suggests that Janet would be a worthy successor to her husband when/if he steps down. Unsurprisingly, Nagenda's views were pooh-poohed as those of a frustrated  'has-been' by official spokesmen the next day.

Other recent unpopular Presidential proposals have included the suggested withdrawal of Shs300 billion from the National Social Security Fund (NSSF) to finance the expansion of Parliament, which can no longer accommodate the vastly increased number of MPs: 375 in all after the most recent elections.  The NSSF is designed to provide a livelihood to over 500,000 families when its beneficiaries retire. It is also illegal for the Fund to lend money to anyone.  Perhaps it would be easier to reduce the number of MPs, especially if they show little evidence of contributing to the checks and balances within government (see Nagenda above). Not our call, however.

Perhaps the most intriguing piece of news about the current and future political climate to trickle into the papers is contained in the most recent set of Wiki-leaks about Uganda. A diplomatic cable sent by the US Ambassador in Kampala refers to Museveni's appointment of his wife Janet during a cabinet reshuffle two years ago. The appointment was allegedly to 'broaden her access to resources and perks' while hoping that being given the post of Minister to Karamoja would present the First Lady with an 'intractable problem' which would weaken her growing popularity.  Mrs Museveni is a born-again Christian and despite question marks over the tactics of that religious movement there is little doubt that its principles seem at variance with the tenor of some of her husband's recent policies. The Ambassador says that the First couple's allegedly 'frosty relations are no secret in Kampala'. Janet's recently published autobiography may represent a positioning of herself in the public view.

So not only is the weather proving unpredictable, but the overall climate is changing also.  Who knows what the next year or so will bring?

You may also be interested in the following posts:

Hunger and thirst in Uganda

Living on the margins: it's not just people who complain

Tropical forest, golf and sugar

More on Mabira

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