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Food security: Uncertain times ahead for Ugandans due to climate change, starving neighbours

In February, for instance, prices of maize grain were 7-34 and 11-51 per cent higher than last year and the five-year average in different parts of the country, according to Famine Early Warning Systems Network

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Gardens submerged after floods hit Kiruhura district in western Uganda. Photo by Gilbert Mwijuke.
Gardens submerged after floods hit Kiruhura district in western Uganda. Photo by Gilbert Mwijuke.

Last year, Benson Kanyonyi harvested “almost nothing” from his three-acre Irish potato garden in Rubanda district, southwestern Uganda, due to prolonged drought.

And this year’s first planting season was even worse as repeated heavy rains caused destructive floods that claimed the lives of 16 people and washed away swaths of cropland in this hilly part of the country – Uganda’s breadbasket that boasts fertile volcanic soils.

“Last year, some people who planted early enough managed to harvest enough food, but this year the floods have been so destructive. Many of our gardens were washed away,” Mr Kanyonyi said.

The heavy rains that were experienced between March and May not only affected farms in the hilly landscapes of southwestern Uganda. In the flatlands of Kiruhura district, midwest of the country, the rains left many gardens submerged, and many crops didn’t survive the waterlogging.

But in some moderately elevated areas of Kanungu district, the excessive rains were a blessing as they boosted yields for some crops.

“The rains are good for tea, even though the crop also needs a bit sun for better yields,” said Patson Twinemukama as he and other workers harvested tea at a 4.5-acre tea farm near Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. “We harvest twice a month throughout the year but the biggest harvests are realised during the rainy seasons, during which we harvest at least eight tonnes per month. We harvest no more than four tonnes per month during dry seasons.”

But even though the heavy rains boosted tea yields and no destructive floods were recorded in Kanungu district, Mr Twinemukama said that many crops, especially legumes, didn’t survive the excessive rains.

Farm workers harvesting tea in Kanungu district. Photo by Gilbert Mwijuke
Farm workers harvesting tea in Kanungu district, westwern Uganda. Photo by Gilbert Mwijuke

“Most people around here who planted beans are counting losses because the beans didn’t get enough sun,” he said.

In Kanyonyi’s Rubanda district, as deadly floods continue to wreak havoc on cropland, crop yields can only continue to plummet as the soil is continuously losing its fertility to floodwaters.

“The soil is losing its fertility because the top soils are continuously being washed away by floods,” he said.

Farming becomes more challenging

These extreme weather events – prolonged droughts, excessive rains and floods – are a result of climate change, which is making farming more challenging. East Africa is one of the world’s most climate-vulnerable regions, and, as the region’s populations continue to grow, farming will become even more challenging as the weather becomes more unpredictable.

In the past decade or so, southwestern Uganda has suffered recurring, catastrophic floods almost every year, and climate experts have warned that, as Earth’s temperatures continue to rise, such extreme weather events will only continue to spike in intensity and frequency – meaning that crop yields could plummet faster than expected.

And if crops continue to fail, especially in the country’s major breadbasket regions, millions of Ugandans could starve in the coming years – making hunger emergencies worse.

Rising food prices

This year has already seen a steep increase in the prices of some foodstuffs. In February, for instance, prices of maize grain were 7-34 and 11-51 per cent higher than last year and the five-year average in different parts of the country, according to Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET), a leading provider of early warning and analysis on food insecurity around the world.

Prices of beans short up the highest in the same period, recording between 41-84 and 32-71 per cent increment from last year, FEWS NET data shows.

The spike in prices is attributed to below-average cereal production in 2022, coupled with sustained export demand in markets such as Kenya and South Sudan where prolonged dry spells have left millions hungry.

As demand for Uganda’s food abroad increases whilst climate change diminishes or decimates crops, between 1-2.49 million people in Uganda face acute food insecurity in 2023, with areas like the Karamoja region, northeast of the country, already facing catastrophic famine levels, according to FEWS NET.

The hilly landscapes of southwestern Uganda boast fertile soils. Photo by Gilbert Mwijuke
The hilly landscapes of southwestern Uganda boast fertile soils. Photo by Gilbert Mwijuke

“As the lean season progresses through August in Karamoja, an increasing number of households are expected to face Crisis Phase and households will likely deteriorate to Emergency Phase,” FEWS NET said in its February-August 2023 food insecurity outlook.

“Ultimately, while the total population in need in Uganda in 2023 is expected to be similar to that in 2022, the food insecure population in Karamoja, specifically, is expected to be higher at the peak of the 2023 lean season than the same period of 2022,” FEWS NET concluded.

The World Food Programme’s 2023 Hunger Map shows that 16.4 million Ugandans face insufficient food consumption, an increase of 1.2 million people compared with the last three months of 2022.

In its Crop Prospects and food situation report released in March 2023, the Food and Agriculture Organisation reported that an estimated 1.1 million Ugandans already face acute food insecurity.

“These conditions reflect the adverse impact of weather shocks, civil insecurity and high food prices,” FAO said in the report.

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