Along the dusty, bumpy roads of Dokolo in northern Uganda, women walk past with jerry cans on their heads and children strapped firmly on their backs. Residents-turned-road salesmen barter their goods to the highest bidder, transforming the great North Road to Sudan into a bustling market place.
Further east, away from the madding crowd, rows of sorghum plants and sunflowers wilt in the scorching sun. The heat sticks to your clothes, forming trickles of sweat on your forehead. But this perspiration is not just from the swelter, but anxiety as well. It’s nearly the end of August, and there’s only one week left before crops fail.
“This is the raining season, but there’s no rain. Crops are drying up,” laments Charles Ochero, a farmer with imposing side burns, who’s been farming as long as Elvis Presley was alive.
“We plant during the first rains in July, and harvest between September to December. But if there’s no rain, we can’t harvest. We’re praying it will come,” he says wistfully.
Changing weather patterns have disrupted agricultural calendars. Beanstalks that by this time would be thriving have dried up.
Along the dirt track, withered trees and shrubs frame either side of the car as Charles drives up to Soroti town. His tyres claw the burnt orange beneath and kick up puffs of storm clouds, causing the dust to hang in the air, like the sea of birds flying overhead. They’re not vultures yet, but the whiff of famine is unmistakable.
On the cusp of famine
In Karamoja in the north-east, it’s already become a stench. “The situation is alarming,” decries Joseph Kinei, sub-county chief of Napak district, one of the worst-affected areas.
“People are so hungry, they’re going to the hospital, but their illness is hunger.”
Even in August, people were dying of starvation, but little information filtered into the media.
“It’s election season; the government doesn’t want people to know,” says Geoffrey Ojok, a radio producer, who suggests that it’s bad publicity for the president’s wife, who is also minister of the sub-region.
Janet Museveni has since pledged aid relief to the people in Karamoja, but the delayed response has cost lives, although official figures have not yet been confirmed.
“Karamoja generally for this year has been on the bad side,” explains Titus Epudu George, a programme coordinator for the Big Project, an advocacy group for youth empowerment.
“Normally the sub-region receives two seasonal rainfalls, but we’ve only received a handful.”
Unlike the neighbouring region Teso, where stable rains in the first season allowed locals to compensate the shortfall in the second round, in Karamoja, the drought has been more severe.
“There’s really a clear link between change in the climate and the famine which is happening in the region,” believes Titus.
An arid expanse of savannah and bushes, Karamoja is no stranger to food insecurity. The climate is harsh and prone to famine. Food aid agencies like the World Food Programme operate permanently in the area, and have done since 1980 when a severe food shortage decimated a fifth of the population.
“At least 19 people have died in the last two weeks,” continues Titus. You go to a number of manyatas long-stay settlements and the situation is really devastating,” he says. Locals reportedly eat only once every two days.
Those in arid areas are particularly affected by climate change compared to those in agricultural parts, claim meteorologists. Like a beggar in the desert, the parched earth laps up the slightest drop of rain and swallows hard.
This lack of rainfall leaves little water for plants to grow, or for cattle to feed on. Yet cattle herding is the livelihood of the Karamojong people. If their animals don’t get enough food and water, they die, and the herders lose their main source of living.
New livelihoods, new costs
The dry weather often compounds the Karamojong to one area, putting a strain on land resources. Those that do move in search of greener pastures compete with host communities for land and cattle that is still fit for consumption.
“In Napak district, we’ve seen hundreds of families migrate to neighbouring regions in search of food,” says Joseph, the district’s sub-county chief. But their presence is not always welcome.
“There is clear hostility towards the new arrivals,” explains Maduma Kelly, a psychologist in Kampala. “The host community is very protective of what is theirs.”
The Karamojong are thus learning to survive on new resources, such as firewood. As the famine bites, and pressure to feed communities mounts, more trees are cut down to sell as firewood or charcoal, just to afford a cup of rice.
“Compared to other years, the situation had not reached this level,” says Titus. “At least the small food that others were producing could be shared, but now the small food is not enough.”
Overgrazing and tree cutting has caused deforestation and a loss of soil fertility, creating more barren lands, and poor harvests. Ironically, the victims of climate change are also the cause.
Uganda’s minister of state for disaster relief, Musa Ecweru, recently unblocked 30 billion Ugandan shillings (7.2 million euros) to provide food aid to stricken families, as the death toll went up.
But Joseph Kinei, of Napak district, says the food portions are too little, too late. “We’ve now been getting some kind of relief from the office of the prime minister, but it’s not adequate enough. People have been pouring out in numbers to receive handouts, but many go back empty-handed,” he complains.
Critics lament the failure of previous government attempts to make Karamoja famine-resistant, such as a new irrigation system that never got underway.
“This time, the state thought Karamoja would receive the second rain,” ventures Titus. “They were waiting.”
Like Charles, in Dokolo. As his car eventually pulls into Soroti village, kicking up more red dust, the fading specks leave behind drops, as the long-awaited downpour gives in.