Hundreds of people have died of famine in Uganda’s Karamoja region, and local leaders say that some people are now eating wild fruits and grasses to survive. The Famine Early Warning Systems Network (Fewsnet) estimated that about 518,000 people from Karamoja’s poorest families face critical food insecurity resulting from two seasons of crop failure.
Of the 518,000 people with high levels of food insecurity, 428,000 are experiencing phase three (crisis levels of food insecurity), and 90,000 are at phase four (emergency levels of food insecurity).
For the first time in three years, all the nine districts of Karamoja — Kaabong, Moroto, Kotido, Napak, Nabilatuk, Amudat, Karenga, Abim and Nakapiripit — are at crisis level or worse according to IPC classification.
The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) uses a scale of one to five to measure food insecurity. The situation in Karamoja has reached a crisis level close to catastrophe level.
Nakut Faith Loru, MP for Kabong district, told IPC that the number of those dying was rising despite efforts by the government to deliver food relief.
“The hunger situation in Kaabong district is getting worse, especially for the elderly people. They are dying in large numbers due to starvation,” she said.
By the end of July, all the districts were facing acute malnutrition at critical levels. High food prices have left many families unable to afford nutritious foods – forcing them to find other ways to cope.
“The situation in Karamoja is an example of how a perfect storm of climate change, conflict, rising food costs, the impact of Covid-19 and limited resources is increasing the number of hungry people,” said Abdirahman Meygag, WFP Uganda Representative.
The Speaker of Uganda’s Parliament, Anita Among has expressed concern about the deplorable situation in the Karamoja region. “The government needs to come out clearly on how to address this issue. In the short, medium, and long term,” said Ms Among.
The opposition leader in Parliament, Mathias Mpuuga agreed that providing relief aid was not sustainable. “We have a general drought and widespread crop failure in the country. Many people are already reaching out for food,” said Mr Mpuuga.
Farmers from regions other than Karamoja have complained of poor or no harvests. Kaleb Ejioninga from the West Nile region along the border between Uganda and DRC is among those whose crops have withered before harvest.
“We planted maize and sorghum. They all wilted. The government should come to our rescue. If possible, they should find us quick-maturing seed varieties. Because even when the rain comes, if we plant the same seeds, they may not grow,” Mr Ejioninga said.
Another farmer, Joseph Indiya, told IPC that many farmers were surprised by the rate of crop failure.
“Actually, the soil here is very fertile. We have rivers around. Production has been so high, but this has surprised us this time. There used to be some rain in June and then rain throughout July. But now, there is not even a single drop of rain,” said Mr Indiya.
The irony is that while most of Karamoja is dry, catastrophic flooding in the Eastern Region’s Mbale district killed 29 people and left hundreds homeless after heavy rain, which caused rivers to overflow.
Uganda’s Minister for Agriculture, Frank Tumwebaze, said the situation in Karamoja and elsewhere in Uganda is not different from that in the Horn of Africa where countries like Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, South Sudan, and Sudan are faced with food insecurity due to failed rains across four rain seasons.
“The problem is known. Climate change is real. We are going to work with the Ministry of Finance to see how to make irrigation equipment more accessible. Farming must continue while aware that we cannot continue depending on chances of nature,” Mr Tumwebaze told journalists in Kampala.
Unicef representative to Uganda, Munir Safieldin says the situation could have been averted. “We must not wait for thousands of children to die. We have said ‘never again’ too many times. We need long-term and predictable funding to help these children and their families,” said Mr Safieldin.
A number of experts such as Ugandan plant biologist Ambrose Agona, the director general of the National Agricultural Organisation, say the situation was highly predicted.
“I would like to say that Uganda doesn’t suffer much from climate change but suffers from climate variability,” said Dr Agona.