Severe drought in northeastern Uganda's Karamoja region is threatening the lives of hundreds of thousands and the government has declared an emergency.
"Government has recognised that Karamoja should for now be treated as an emergency area and food must [quickly] be distributed to this area to avert this problem," said the minister in charge of the region, Aston Kajara.
The operation launched at Acherere, Matheniko County, by the government and the UN World Food Programme (WFP) aims to save 970,000 people from starvation.
Officials warned that the dry conditions and acute food shortages, which have pushed Karamoja to near starvation, are unlikely to improve before October when the next harvest is due.
"There has been an acute food shortage in Karamoja subregion for quite some time now," Aston Kajara said at the launch of the operation.
"We appeal for more support as the situation seems to re-occur every time," the minister said. "Money should be mobilised to purchase sufficient food for Karamoja so that the people should not die."
“On the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe”
According to WFP, Karamoja is "on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe, following a drought that reduced agricultural output to as low as 30 percent in some areas in 2008". Already, Global Acute Malnutrition (GAM) is bordering on emergency levels.
In Moroto District, for example, the average GAM rate was recorded at 12.7 percent in September while the regional average was 9.5 percent. The government and its donor partners have set the emergency threshold at 10 percent.
"The situation has taken us by surprise," Raphael Eritoi, Nadunget subcounty council chairman said. "Last year’s harvest has been the most disappointing."
Karamoja is Uganda’s poorest and most marginalised 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.
Last year, WFP said, the rains - normally expected late June or early July - arrived late. Yet, the region had not had a decent harvest for three years.
"This is an area where people are suffering and their only survival is to burn charcoal and gather firewood to sell to afford a meal," Eritoi said. "But this has had a negative impact on the environment."
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.
Photo: Vincent Mayanja/IRIN
|A child from Karamoja begs on a Kampala street (file photo): An estimated 970,000 people in Karamoja are facing acute food shortage|
The situation is particularly critical for children, according to the NGO World Vision Uganda (WV).
"We are very concerned about the state of children in northeastern Uganda, especially those in the Karamoja region," Rudo Kwaramba, WV national director, said in 28 January statement.
"Mothers have been forced to travel extreme distances to find meagre work in exchange for some kind of food, leaving children behind who, in some cases, are fending for themselves," the director noted. "These children cannot wait for food prices to come down or for rainfall patterns to stabilise. They need support now."
Citing the districts of Kaabong, Kotido and Abim in Karamoja, where WV will distribute food in February, Kwaramba added: "Children are being pulled from school, the sick are not being treated and parents are forced to beg just for something to feed their children with."
Speaking at Acherere village, Stanlake Samkange, WFP country director in Uganda, said: "Our main goal is to ensure that these crises do not occur in the future… WFP is now placing greater emphasis on medium and longer-term solutions to hunger. We want to help people in Karamoja produce large amounts of food, so that we can eventually buy their produce for emergencies elsewhere."
Last year, WFP bought US$53 million worth of food from Uganda, the biggest ever purchased from a developing country.