Failed rains bode ill for Karamoja food security

//UPDATED//Crop production in Karamoja Region in northeastern Uganda is unlikely to benefit from the anticipated El-Nino rains because of the failure of those that should have fallen during the planting season in March, local officials said.

"Our projection is that from November to April, we shall have no food," Nahaman Ojwe, the Moroto resident district commissioner, told IRIN. "Looking at the harvest, it is pretty clear that what we got is not what we expected. When it rained, people planted, but the crops withered, meaning we lost an entire season."

"Our forecast suggests that the El Niño rains that are expected in the country are less likely to reach this region and even if they did, the first rain is what matters in this region," John Lodungakol, Moroto District agricultural officer said.

"The second rains are always associated with diseases and migratory pests," he told IRIN in Moroto, the regional capital. "Historically, the second rains are not conducive for agriculture." 

 El Niño rains are expected to hit Uganda from mid-September until November, according to meteorological experts.

"We shall wait for March [rains] but before then, the population can only survive on relief aid," Lodungakol added. "The crop for this year withered at knee level, that is why we expect no food until maybe May next year."

Karamoja Region, which is made up of Abim, Kaabong, Kotido, Moroto, and Nakapiripirit Districts, has suffered intermittent droughts in the past decade reducing agricultural output to 30 percent of normal levels and posting worrying rates of malnutrition, according to surveys.

Photo: Vincent Mayanja/IRIN
Men sharing a calabash of blood gotten from a slaughtered bull. There is acute food shortage in Karamoja (file photo)


An April 2009 survey by the Ugandan Health Ministry found Global Acute Malnutrition (GAM) rates exceeding the emergency threshold in the districts of Kaabong and Nakapiripirit (12.1 and 11.6 percent respectively). The emergency threshhold set by the Ugandan government is 10 percent.

"Malnutrition has been going from bad to worse for the last three years," Martin Ngiro, a health educator of Bokora sub-district, recently told a visiting team from the UN World Food Programme (WFP) and the UK development agency, DFID.

"In 2006, we admitted at the hospital 407 cases of malnutrition and we recorded a fatality rate of 8 percent," he added.

The harsh climate has also compromised the health of cattle herds, the mainstay of the pastoralist Karamojong, reducing milk output which was the main source of nutrients for women and children.

Since the beginning of the year, the weather station in Moroto has recorded only 122mm of rainfall.

"This is an area where you cannot find a mango tree or a tuber like cassava," said Peterken Lochap, the Moroto District council chairman. "It is unbearable now."

Uganda’s most marginalized region

Karamoja is Uganda’s poorest and most marginalized region and experiences cycles of natural disasters and inter-communal conflicts mainly over pasture, water and livestock. It has also received very limited investment, perpetuating underdevelopment and hunger. 

In February, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) said the region had had no decent harvest for three years and was "on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe". That time, the government decided to treat it as an "emergency area" and WFP launched an operation to feed 970,000 people.

Since then, the situation has not improved. Across the region, scorched vegetation can be seen struggling on the plains. The pastures where the nomadic inhabitants of Karamoja normally graze their livestock, have turned into dust bowls. The hope is that the coming rains will lead to much needed fresh pasture growth.

Karamoja, unlike the rest of Uganda, does not enjoy two annual harvests but one. As a result, a poor harvest is felt more deeply in the region than elsewhere, with the resulting “food gap” lasting twice as long.

According to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (Fews Net), over 95 percent of the region’s population (about 1.15 million people) remains food insecure or dependent on food aid.

''The crop for this year withered at knee level, that is why we expect no food until maybe May next year''

In an update published in August, Fews Net said some harvest was expected in the western wet agriculture zone in September, but the agropastoral and pastoral areas (which are the largest) would have minimal or no harvests at all due to poor rains.

Low harvests in neighbouring districts like Lira, Soroti, and Mbale, which are key supply areas for Karamoja, and insecurity along the roads, had also limited supplies to the region.

"Prices will remain high into the foreseeable future, limiting households’ access to alternative food sources," Fews Net said.