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Face to face with Climatic Changes

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The sustainable economic and social development in Uganda largely depends on exploitation of its environment and natural resources including climate change. However, the increasing degradation of these resources coupled with increasing climate change is already having serious negative impact on Uganda’s social and economic development and livelihoods of millions of its people.

Atim Marisa, a 47-year-old woman who is a peasant farmer who has been a resident of Gweri Sub County in Soroti district for all her life. She is one of the women who are experiencing the effects of climate change. Although Atim was widowed seven years ago, she is toiling to keep a family of seven. Recently on a market day at Kapir, I chatted with Atim, she had brought fresh sweet potatoes from her garden to sell so as to meet some basic family needs. I told her she must be blessed to sell some of her produce for an income. Atim chuckled, “Ohhhhhhhh my fellow lady, this year’s crop harvest has been the worst I have experienced in the last 20 years. The whole sub county has suffered serious crop failures too”.

“For me I think the world is coming to an end. Sole dependence on the weather for a livelihood has not been easy. The rains have been very unpredictable, erratic and destructive. The rainfall calendar can no longer be relied upon; it is a matter of guess work. So, how can I be sure of my survival to tomorrow?” she exclaimed with a shrug . Uganda experiences a tropical climate with two rain seasons annually i.e. March- May and November to December. The dry seasons are December to February and June to August. For the most of the year, Uganda is sunny with temperatures rarely rising above 29 degrees. The average temperature is about 26 degrees C, with a maximum of 18-31 degrees and minimum of 15-23 degrees depending on the part of the country. Rainfall ranges between 500mm to 2500 mm and the relative humidity is 70 -100 percent. The rainfall regime allows two planting and harvesting seasons a year in most parts of the country, without the use of irrigation. Last year Teso sub region experienced floods, including parts of Gweri Sub County that destroyed crops and homesteads. Atim and her children were not spared either. They had to flee to some of her relatives in Arapai Sub County.

Agriculture is still the core sector in Uganda’s economy and contributes to 23 percent of GDP and provides employment to 88 percent of Uganda’s population. Agriculture remains the largest employer where majority are women (83 percent) and are primary producers who contribute 70-75 percent of agricultural production. National statistics show that per capita food production has declined over time with the real growth rate in agricultural output declining from 7.9 percent in 2000/1 to 2.6 percent in 2008/9.

Atim also told me that a local agricultural farmer in Gweri once opened jungle land in her village for commercial agriculture but the project failed miserably due to uncertain weather conditions. “We were excited about the coming of this modern farm project hoping that it would benefit the local community and positively change our lives by bringing development (labour and skills), little did we know that this modernity and civilization would not make our lives any better” she narrates. Atim was fast to attribute the poor crop yields to the modified seeds that have been introduced to communities by agricultural projects because they are not resistant to the weather changes. And as a result the source of fuel wood (the jungle) was also tampered with and is no more. The women in the village now walk for over two kilometers to search for firewood. Atim vividly recalls her childhood and as a girl, they used to collect firewood from within the vicinity; this is no more as the forest have since disappeared and the nearest forest where the women collect firewood now is over three kilometers away. Her experience is that the trees and land are the property of men “This is our culture” she say. This is evidenced by the statistics that reveals that only seven percent of women own land in Uganda.

At this point I was inclined to ask Atim if she had heard of a new technology of cooking stoves that save energy and use little firewood. “Yes, about three years ago some people came to teach women here but those stoves are slow in cooking” she responds with misgiving. I am a very busy woman and can not spend a long time cooking; I have other tasks to do, so the technology is not yet popular even among the women here”. There have been a number of initiatives coming up on energy saving technology such as brickettes, energy serving stoves, and biogas etc that are not yet popular and integrated in community lives.

Our-Bright–Green-Future once noted that "Human progress is a threat to the planet. Our modern, technology-driven lives are alienating us from who we really are. We need to slow down the advance of civilization in order to protect our precious resources for future generations".

Between 1990 and 2005, a total of 1,329,550 hectares (27 percent of original forest cover) was lost in Uganda, with some districts such as Mayuge losing all of its forest cover. Government estimates that every year 1.8 percent forest cover is lost and this is largely attributed to increasing demand for agricultural land fuel wood by the rapidly growing population. The habitat loss has affected the ecosystems such as forests, wetlands, rangelands and catchments and has resulted into loss of biodiversity.

Atim and her children live in three mud and wattle grass thatched huts. Straw grass is used for thatching the houses. She replaces the thatch every two to three years and yet the grass has become scarce over the years. Sometimes they have to go to the next sub county in search for thatching grass. In this part of Uganda (Teso) women are responsible of finding grass for thatching the roofs of the huts. These houses are cool but the thatching is not sustainable. “I would wish to live in a house roofed with iron sheets but I can not afford to buy iron sheets” Atim further explained that unlike in the past where straw grass was plentiful in the region, it had disappeared, prompting prices for each bundle to soar. In the past, you could cut thatching grass from anywhere as long as you had a sickle. Then people became strict with their land and prices got to sh500 per bundle. Now, they range between sh1000 to sh1500 (1 US$) for a very small bundle yet you need over 200 bundles to thatch a hut” Atim said. Otelu Benson, one of the residents of Tubur in Soroti district has attributed the scarcity of grass to resettlement of formerly displaced persons and the rapid increase of the population. Some women are making an income from cutting and selling grass in Katakwi district since it is the area in Teso that still has thatching grass.

The expression on Atim’s face showed the attachment she had with this forest that was no more. “Modernity has come with its own problems” she exclaimed. “Charcoal burning and brick making taking place in the swamps has accelerated the disappearance of wood thickets and forests”. Atim suggests that God is unleashing its wrath on mankind for the way people have mishandled the environment. Although Atim worries that the people today only mind about making money from the environment and forget about maintaining it for tomorrow and the future; environmental activists agree with her. The famous slogan that - It is the only Earth we got so we all must do our part is a powerful one and says it all. Atim has a point!.

Research also shows that trees control climate by moderating the effects of the sun, rain and wind. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, one acre of forest absorbs six tons of carbon dioxide and puts out four tons of oxygen and this is enough to meet the annual needs of eighteen people. Trees, shrubs and grass also filter air by removing dust and absorbing other pollutants like carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide.

There is basically no part of Atim’s livelihood and that of her community that has not been affected by climatic changes. The water spring-well that was protected by a Community Based Organisation five years ago is their main source of water. Aluka from the same sub county is one of the women facing the effects of the fluctuating weather patterns. Last year, Aluka had a very poor crop harvest and she stored no food. Most of the families in Gweri have resorted to basket fishing at a swamp that is over four kilometers away. “One can spend the whole day in the swamp fishing but end up with only one mud fish catch” she said. This is difficult because even the water levels of the swamp have over the years decreased tremendously. The mushrooming and lucrative brick making activities in swamps by the youth and men have tampered with the water flow in the spring wells and wood fuel. Considerable huge amounts of heavy wood logs are required for brick burning.

In 2007, the President of Uganda proposed to lease part of the Mabira forest to a Sugar Corporation of Uganda Limited. He argues that the best way to protect the environment is by getting people out of poverty through industrialization. This was boldly protested by environmental activists who argued that the forest giveaway would affect the unique biological diversity including endangered animal and bird species in the forest. They also say the forest is located in the catchment of Lake Kyoga, Victoria and Ssezibwa and the Nile which is an important trans-boundary resource. The question posed to all today is, “Why should the future generation suffer the actions of today’s generation?”.

In Uganda, awareness is being created on environmental issues and its effects and various initiatives are being done by various actors although not well coordinated. A holistic approach that integrates policy on population, environment and development, a strategy promoting sustainable development of population, resources and environment should serve as a model for integrating population programs into the framework of climate change adaptation. Most importantly putting the women at the centre of environment policies and programmes will enhance acceptability and adaptation. Nonetheless, sustained awareness creation to change attitudes of the population, creative and innovative thinking and practices that will enable adaptation to the climatic changes focusing on women are now urgently called for. Otherwise, to many people like Atim, the future does not hold much if they cannot adapt and make a living from their environment.

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In partnership with the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO), World Pulse is collecting personal stories outlining women’s experiences and recommendations on sustainable and equitable development for presentation at the Rio +20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development.

All stories submitted on our community platform between now and June 3, 2012 will be presented at the Rio+20 Conference. Additionally, selected entries will be published in World Pulse’s digital magazine and distributed widely to international media partners. Learn how YOUR voice can be included!

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