Thursday, 27 June 2013

It’s one meal a day for many Karimojongs

By Mubatsi Asinja Habati

Severe effects of climate change are making life in the already semi-arid Karamoja, in northeastern Uganda, even more difficult. Too much heat has led to crop failure, more stress on cattle as they find no fresh grass, and hunger is taking its toll on human beings. To survive, people are cutting trees burning charcoal to get money to buy food from neighboring regions. But this is not sustainable unless some urgent intervention is made.

From June 17 to 21 this year I was in Moroto district doing some work for a television production programme I am currently engaged with. Moroto is considered the headquarter of Karamoja. Our journey to Karamoja was through Lira via Soroti from where we would connect to Moroto. One rides on a good tarmac road from Kampala to Lira then the recently tarmacked Lira-Soroti road. The agony of the bad roads begins from Soroti-Moroto road; which is dusty, and bumpy.

Sights of beautiful savannah grasslands and patches of potato and maize gardens between Soroti and Katakwi (which is part Teso subregion) are breathtaking. However, as one enters Karamoja a sharp change in vegetation, housing and people’s livelihoods is noticed. The land is largely dry. Rivers have also dried up. Roadside gardens in extremely dry Karamoja areas like Napak district are bloated with withered sorghum and maize plants. If the sun continues to heat this area harder the season’s harvest will be so poor.

While many of us have the privilege of having at least three meals a day and even leave some food for the trash, hundreds of thousands of people in Karamoja commonly known as Karimojongs, are yawning for just a meal per day. They long for not that nutritious meal but anything that can fill their stomachs and stop the hunger pangs for the night. Yet, about 1.3 billion tonnes of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year gets lost or wasted.

One of the few water points in Karamoja Photo by Mubatsi
For decades, Karamoja, which is the least developed part of Uganda, has been relying on food aid rations. The UN’s World Food Program (WFP) has been central in distributing food aid to this semi-arid land. But, a policy shift in WFP’s focus of no more manna for Karamoja which is in line with that of Uganda government has left many people in the area hungry. 

Karamoja's reliance on food aid rations has been going on since 1964 until government and development partners decided to shift policy in 2010. Recently, there are new programmes by Uganda government and its development partners aimed to break Karamoja’s reliance on food handouts and see the traditionally nomadic Karimojong (people of Karamoja) become more self-sufficient through more settled livelihoods. 

For a while, the policy shift seemed to work. Indeed, people in Karamoja’s green belts reported bumper harvests of cereals like corn and sorghum in 2011 and 2012. Mike Kidon Onyang, the Moroto District Information Officer, believes that the good harvest in the past two years was boosted by government’s effort to provide tractors and seeds to the farmers. This time, the farmers have reportedly not received the same support from government.

But, this year the drought has been so severe that Kidon says the whole region risks a famine assault. The sun’s heat has been unbearable for the food crops. The rivers and cultivable land have dried up. Hungry children and the elderly live at the humanitarian’s mercy. Given that Karamoja relies on one annual farming season, it will be tricky for thousands of Karimajong to put food on table this year and perhaps for the next few years.

The persistent drought in this land has made it worse. It seems the climatic changes won’t give Karimojongs a chance. Crops have dried up and in the past few weeks reports of people dying of hunger in Karamoja are abound.

Many people like these ones have resorted to charcoal burning to survive Photo by Mubatsi
One old woman captures the dilemma of erratic weather patterns in this statement: “In the time of preparing farmland, but after planting the rain disappears. The rains come back when the heat has destroyed all crops and it is useless.” Majority of farmers in Uganda depend on rain fed agriculture. This state of affairs has worsened food shortages in Karamoja leaving most people surviving on a meal per day.

Water sources including boreholes dry up in severe droughts. The dry spells have pushed pastoralists into a frenzy search for water. Their cattle and other animals are under more stress as they can’t find grass. People here are also finding it hard to cope with the unusual heat. Those who can’t cope up hop onto the next bus and settle in Kampala streets where they beg for alms. Many of these people sleep on the streets while those who can afford find shelter in Kisenyi shanties.
The Karimajong are known cattle keepers who roam their land for animal pasture. But the climatic changes and erratic weather are making life hard. Kidon says much as the Karimajong are embracing crop farming they need more support from government.

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