Most families in the expansive region are struggling and looking for another way of getting food; some have ventured into small businesses such as selling firewood to get money and buy food
For most people who have grown up and lived in Karamoja, it has been mostly a pastoralist’s life.
Drought, erratic rains
However, last year’s drought killed many animals, especially goats and calves. Now residents are living on minimum food with hardly a meal a day. Most families are struggling and looking for another way of getting food; some have ventured into small businesses such as selling firewood to get money and buy food.
When the rain comes, the residents plant some crops such as sorghum, but the rains have become erratic — it either does not come or comes with a lot of force causing flooding. The sun dries up the crops and when rains come, they destroy the crops. Either way, there is little or no harvest at all.
“The challenge here is drought. We have to go and graze our animals far away in unsafe areas. It is also becoming more difficult to find water,” said an elder.
“Climate change has two aspects: Prolonged drought and erratic rains. During the dry spells, pastures are lost and when it rains it’s just for a short time but too heavy, causing floods and destroying crops,” says Onesmus Mugyenyi, executive director of Agency for Co-operation and Research in Development (Acord) Uganda.
The soil in Karamoja has become so degraded and dry that it cannot hold the water when it rains. The water creates big gullies that leave the land useless.
When the rivers and the ponds dry out, the people have to go to the river beds to get water. Virtually all the districts — Kaabong, Abim, Kotido, Moroto, Napak, Nakapiripirit and Amudat — that make up Karamoja have been hit.
Climate change is a real threat to the already harsh living conditions in Karamoja. It is also worsening food insecurity in the region.
A report released on August 9 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change – warned that heat extremes caused by global warming are likely to reach critical tolerance thresholds for agriculture and health.
Experts say climate change has resulted in poor harvest hence the shortage of food that’s currently ravaging the region, which heavily depends on agriculture.
Food insecurity in Karamoja has largely been driven by a delayed and significantly below-average main season harvest, Covid-19 restrictions, and livestock loss through raids, which have together reduced local food availability and household purchasing power, the IPC study says.
Also, it’s not only drought that is increasing food insecurity. In high altitude areas neighbouring Karamoja, such as those near Mount Elgon, for example, climate change is intensifying the natural production of water, causing more intense rainfall that leads to flooding and ultimate destruction of crops.
For years, landslides have been destroying food crops and people’s homes in the areas near Mount Elgon.
This has subsequently worsened the poverty rate in Karamoja, which currently stands at 61 per cent – in sharp contrast to Uganda’s national poverty rate of 21.4 per cent.
According to the World Food Programme (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO, 30 per cent of the people in Karamoja are facing food insecurity due to poor harvests during the period between March and July 2021. Most families are struggling to even get 50 per cent of the food they need daily.
The WFP and FAO study, dubbed Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), analysed acute food insecurity and acute malnutrition in Karamoja and 14 refugee settlements in Uganda.
The study found that about 24,581 children in the areas analysed are “affected by acute malnutrition and in need of treatment. Furthermore, nearly 3,000 pregnant or lactating women are affected by acute malnutrition, also in need of treatment.”
Covid-19 worsens situation
And the Covid-19 pandemic has just thrown petrol on that fire, according to Abdirahman Meygag, WFP Uganda’s country director.
“The latest United Nations Annual Food Security and Nutrition report shows that Covid-19 has triggered an 18 per cent increase in hunger worldwide, the biggest in decades,” Mr Meygag said last week in a detailed reaction to the IPC study.
“In already vulnerable areas such as Karamoja, the pandemic has made a bad situation worse.”
Unlike other regions of the country, Karamoja is also prone to cattle raids.
“The main source of income for the people of Karamoja is livestock, which has been heavily affected by cattle raiding from neighbouring communities,” says Mugyenyi.
The rampant cattle rustling that characterised Karamoja more than a decade ago resumed in 2019.
Last year, about 500 armed men from Moroto, Kotido and Napak districts were intercepted by the Uganda People’s Defence Forces after raiding neighbouring Kaabong district and stealing an estimated 800 cows. The rustling has continued throughout the pandemic, perhaps driven by the increasing lack of food and poverty levels among these communities.
The desperately poor and hungry people have joined gangs for cattle raids.
Reacting to the study, Uganda’s Relief, Disaster Preparedness and Refugees State Minister Esther Anyakun urged development partners to double efforts in supplementing the government’s efforts to address the negative impacts of climate change and improve food security in Karamoja.
“Karamoja is one of the regions in Uganda that is most prone to various disasters and shocks. From diseases that affect cattle and people to insecurity caused by persistent raids and a harsh climate that affects food security, we must do everything within our means to change the situation for the better. We must not leave anyone behind in our pursuit for development. It is time to do more for Karamoja,” she said.
Small window of hope
However, there is currently a small window of hope for Karamoja.
According to the Uganda National Meteorological Authority’s weather outlook for August 2021 and a review of the previous month, Karamoja and other areas of eastern, mid-western and northern Uganda are likely to receive rainfall.
However, analysts say this may not change much since harvests are not expected to be significant, given that many of the people have been displaced by cattle raids and the ongoing disarmament process.