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UGANDA: Food prospects improve in Karamoja

MOROTO, 16 August 2011 (IRIN) - The Karamoja region of northeastern Uganda is often associated with chronic food shortages, malnutrition and poverty, but the area is unlikely to suffer a food crisis in the coming months, officials and aid workers said.

"We don't have any indicators that anything extraordinary will happen soon," Hakan Tongul, deputy head of the UN World Food Programme (WFP) in Uganda, said. "The rains were late and the people experienced a lean season in June-July, but there is no evidence that anything is abnormal."

Musa Ecweru, Minister of State for Relief, Disaster Preparedness and Refugees, said only a small percentage of Karamoja's population was potentially at risk, despite some food shortages because the planting season started late.

"Close to 10 percent of the population may require relief food... [but] the current needs seem to be within reach of the existing programme of the government and development partners, with possible urgent gaps in the areas of school feeding, nutrition and animal health," he said in a statement on
5 August.

Projections by the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) for July to December indicate that milk will remain an important source of food for pastoral households until October when the dry season is expected to begin, supplemented with grain and pulses. From August to October, households will cope with their own harvest of maize, sorghum and pulses, supplemented with milk and meat. The harvest contributes 25 percent of annual food needs.

The likelihood of near- to above-normal rainfall in July-September also means that rangeland conditions and livestock productivity are expected to be good, according to FEWS NET. Aid workers in Moroto say the exceptions are isolated areas such as Rupa subcounty in Moroto District where the soil is severely degraded.

"The situation has markedly improved," an NGO worker told IRIN in Moroto. "In 2008, Karamoja experienced a serious crop failure that left over a million people vulnerable; this year only 140,000 are extremely vulnerable."

WFP is providing targeted relief food to those 140,000. It is also working with the government's Karamoja Productive Assets Programme to increase household incomes and create assets like micro-irrigation and livestock watering points, tree farms and improved cooking stoves.

Still, some local leaders disagreed that the food situation had improved. "The crops that local people planted are not doing that well," Adome Lokwii Calisto, district chairman of Kotido said. "Besides, they are still weeding the crops, so there is no food in the granaries. And after harvest, the food will be eaten in three months so we will have nothing again."

He told IRIN that an influx of Turkana pastoralists from drought-stricken areas of neighbouring Kenya had started. "There are already 20,000 in Nakapelimoru village," Calisto said on 16 August. This could not be independently verified.


Photo: Lydia Wamala/WFP
Lucy Ngorok, a resident of Namendera village near Iriri subcounty of Napak District
Poor food use

Locals in the western areas of Karamoja said they expected to fare better this year. Lucy Ngorok, a local resident of Namendera village near Iriri subcounty of Napak District, said while she lost the initial crop planted in March, she replanted beans, sorghum and potatoes after the rains resumed in May.

"I have to depend on money earned from casual work and relief food until the harvest," she told IRIN. The 39-year-old has six children to feed after her husband abandoned her for another woman. "I have to struggle to feed them," she said as her youngest breastfed.

Sarah Achen, another resident, said while the harvest was likely to be good, the fear was that the people would sell most of the food and remain with nothing to eat later in the year. "Many traders come here to buy during the harvest period," Achen told IRIN in Iriri. "Because the people have few alternative sources of income, they easily sell the food."

The rampant sale of food, aid workers in Moroto said, underlies the main problem in Karamoja, which is poor food use. Some mothers attending antenatal clinics, for example, receive improved rations but still fail to contain malnutrition among their children. The situation is aggravated by poor sanitation, poverty and ill health.

Cultural attitudes complicate efforts to improve the health of such mothers. Of those who attend antenatal clinics, for example, the majority deliver at home. At Iriri health centre, 188 expectant mothers attended the antenatal clinic in July, but only 24 delivered at the facility, according to clinic records.

"They believe a child who is born in a public place will die, so prefer to deliver in the privacy of their homes," said a health worker.

High malnutrition

The region, with a population of about 1.2 million, has the lowest levels of human development in Uganda, with only 30 percent having access to safe water and only 11 percent literate, according to WFP. Nearly 80 percent of the population experiences some degree of food insecurity, mainly due to unreliable rainfall.

Karamoja also lies within the greater northern Uganda region where pockets of food insecurity have been detected, according to the government and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. The seven districts, namely Kaabong, Abim, Kotido, Nakapiripirit, Amudat, Napak and Moroto, are all located within a "red" zone, according to a recent government assessment.

But this year, July rains have been average in Moroto, according to the Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development. The crop condition has been generally good, with sorghum gardens showing 60.9 percent of the crop in a good condition, 19.6 percent in a fair state and 19.5 percent in poor condition. The maize was 54 percent good, 19.4 percent fair and 25.8 percent poor, it said in a statement.

Malnutrition rates, however, remain high, according to a May report by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), the government and the NGO Action Against Hunger. It found global acute malnutrition (GAM) prevalence of up to 20.4 percent and severe acute malnutrition (SAM) at 5.6 percent in Nakapiripirit district. Overall, the region had GAM prevalence of 12.8 percent and SAM of 2.8 percent.

Households in Amudat, Kaabong, Kotido, Moroto, Nakapiripirit and Napak, it said, would remain "stressed" through to September. Not everybody agrees, however, and some aid workers describe the report as "controversial".

"For now, people are coping - some, whose harvest is not ready, by selling goats, which fetch enough to feed a household of six for two to three weeks," said an aid worker in Moroto. "We have not [gone into] emergency mode, but remain vigilant. Should a deterioration happen, that could be some time next year."

eo/mw

Theme (s): Food Security, Health & Nutrition, Natural Disasters,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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