Now is the time to take climate change seriously

report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)
issued in September 2008 warned that 80 percent of Uganda will become desert within
100 years. This warning should be taken very seriously. Already there are some
parts of the country where desert conditions are evident especially during the
dry season.

is important to remember that the present Sahara desert was once fertile and green where crop cultivation and herding thrived.
Around 5000 BC, animals including cattle were domesticated in the area. And
between about 4000 BC and about 2000 BC the Sahara was full of economic activity and well populated.

the climate changed: wet periods became shorter and eventually the area turned
into a desert forcing the dwellers to move away into other parts of Africa and Asia. Fortunately there were places to go to.  

order to take corrective measures in Uganda, there is an urgent need to
identify the causes of thermal and hydrological changes that are taking place. So
far there are three schools of thought.

are those who think that climate change has been exaggerated by armchair
thinkers. They continue to talk about Uganda as the ‘Pearl of Africa”
with adequate and regular rainfall and moderate weather and fertile soils still
suitable for the production and export of tropical products to earn the badly
needed foreign money. They do not see an immediate threat and want to continue
business as usual, clearing forests for development and export of timber as
well as draining wetlands to continue to produce for domestic and export

 The second school is convinced that the
changes that are taking place are being caused by ‘Acts of God’ or external
forces beyond Uganda’s
control. They therefore think or imply that by and large the solution will have
to come from outside.  

representative of the Uganda government is reported to have said on World Food Day in 2008 that some 9
million (30 percent) Ugandans were starving due to food shortages caused by the
effects of climate change (no mention was reported of massive amounts of food
that are being exported to neighboring countries and beyond). In short, climate
change due to exogenous factors is held accountable for food shortages.

government can do is to strengthen the capacity of the meteorological
department to enhance climate forecasts that would give farmers accurate
information and better guidance. While strengthening the Met Department is
commendable, it would not mitigate climate change.

brings us to the third school to which the author belongs which contends that
the major cause of climate change is human activity. The British administration
enforced measures to stabilize the climate. They included setting aside areas
such as wetlands and hill tops as catchment areas from human activity. Contour
farming was introduced in hilly areas to control water runoff and soil erosion.

measures were drastically altered when President Iddi Amin’s government introduced
the economic war in the 1970s requiring that every land area would be used for
farming (crop cultivation and animal husbandry) to increase economic growth and
distribute the fruits of independence to all Ugandans.

were drained en masse. Hill tops and slopes were cleared of vegetation exposing
them to wind and water erosion. Fertile soils were swept away in brown floods
that followed.  

the National Resistance Movement (NRM) government which has been in power since
1986 understands the adverse effects of climate change and knows what needs to
be done to mitigate it, it has not done much because policy implementation has been

Washington Consensus – now abandoned –
required that Uganda increases and diversifies agricultural exports to earn foreign exchange to be
able to repay external debts. Consequently large swaths of land including
wetlands have been cleared of vegetation with serious repercussions. Forests
have been earmarked for agricultural development, trees felled to increase
timber exports, commercial ranches cleared to graze more livestock and increasingly
goats for export markets.

of subsidies on electricity and kerosene (paraffin) forced many households to
resort to wood fuel and charcoal as the main source of energy and increased
deforestation. The encouragement of commercial agriculture for export and the
increasing use of bricks, sand and stones for construction have resulted in massive
de-vegetation as well.

total consequences have been tragic including dropping water tables, shrinking
lakes, drying rivers, shorter wet seasons and longer and hotter dry seasons
with adverse effects on agriculture as well as introduction of new diseases
such as malaria.

and free enterprise mechanisms do not possess the comparative advantage to address
these challenges. Therefore the state will have to intervene in various ways
including encouraging tree planting, setting aside delicate areas for
biological conservation, introducing intensive agriculture to reduce land
clearance and water management as well as managing livestock to reduce
environmental damage. The rearing of goats on large commercial scale needs to
be rethought as goats have a high propensity for de-vegetation.

state needs to go beyond processes of policy formulation, institution building
and establishment of legal frameworks to actual implementation of programs to
stop degradation and begin massive rehabilitation.

hundred years within which to prevent Uganda’s land from becoming a
desert is a very short time. There is no room for complacency. The time to act
is now.

us conclude with a proverb from a Creek Indian “Only after the last tree has
been cut down; only after the last river has been poisoned; only after the last
fish has been caught; only then will you find that money cannot be eaten”.