Heavy rains in Uganda’s Kasese district have caused devastating floods, prompting the local government to educate residents on the risks of farming near rivers in a country that is especially vulnerable to climate change.

KASESE, UGANDA – Jovia Kabau walks around her farm inspecting her scanty banana plants. She bends to look at sand and debris that floodwaters swept onto her farmland last spring.

Half a kilometer (0.6 miles) away, water howls through the narrow channel of the River Nyamwamba.

Kabau’s banana plantation in Uganda’s Kasese district, about 367 kilometers (228 miles) from the capital, Kampala, has not always been this way, she says. Ample banana plants once flourished on her 247-acre (100-hectare) farm.

In years past, she always grew enough food for her family. But things changed when the River Nyamwamba burst its banks in May after a heavy downpour, causing floods in the low-lying district. Two smaller rivers, Nyamugasani and Mubukua, also burst their banks, making the floods even worse.

“These plants you see is all I am left with,” she says.

The flooding also destroyed her bean and cassava crops, she says. Kabau estimates she lost produce amounting to 3 million Ugandan shillings ($1,134).

That’s a substantial loss in a country with a per capita annual income of about $500, according to the World Bank.

To get food, Kabau now works on neighboring farms that were not affected by floods. Sometimes the farmers she works for give her food to take home after work, and sometimes they give her money to buy food.

She had a similar experience in 2013.

“It flooded last year in May, and our gardens were destroyed,” she says. “Even this year it happened around the same time.”

A drizzle starts and Kabau wipes water from her forehead with the back of her hand. A cold breeze blows and she looks up at the clouds, ever worried that another downpour might strike, ravaging what remains of her plantation.

Residents of Kasese district in western Uganda are facing food scarcity after floods destroyed their crops and swept away their livestock.

Environmentalists say the floods were caused by climate change. Local leaders say environmental destruction, including poor farming methods, are to blame. A flood wall is under construction, and the government is educating the community on the dangers of settling along riverbanks.

Land in 10 subcounties was submerged in the 2014 floods. Information on the total number of acres submerged in the flood hasn’t yet been released to the public, says Wilson Asaba, the assistant chief administrative officer for the Kasese district.

The amount of damage caused by the 2014 floods has not yet been determined.

All told, the May floods affected 3,618 people in 603 households, according to the Uganda Red Cross Society’s Kasese Floods Rapid Assessment Report, which was compiled immediately after the flood. The society has not yet released its final report.

Over 70 percent of the households in the district are headed by small-scale farmers, according to a 2009 statistical abstract of the district.

The food crops destroyed in this year’s flood included bananas, beans, yams, sugarcane, cassava and maize. Coffee, a cash crop, also was swept away. The crop losses have caused significant increases in area food prices.

The price of green bananas, a staple food here, has doubled since April. A kilogram (2 pounds) of cassava now costs 1,800 Ugandan shillings (70 cents), up from 1,400 shillings (50 cents) in April. The cost of a kilogram of beans has increased from 1,000 shillings (40 cents) to 1,700 shillings (65 cents) in April.

The number of district residents in need of food has not been established because a report on the flood and its aftermath is not yet out, says Augustine Kooli, a senior environment officer working with the Kasese district government.

The devastating flooding and resulting food scarcity come as no surprise to international experts, who for years have said that Uganda is susceptible to severe weather events caused by climate change.

A 2008 report by the U.K. Department for International Development predicted that Uganda would become wetter on average, and that rainfall would be unevenly distributed and would often come in intense waves.

Warmer average temperatures were predicted to increase food insecurity, the report states.

Kasese has two rainy seasons. One begins in March and ends in May while the other starts in mid-August and ends in November. Annual rainfall in the district ranges from 800 mm (31½ inches) to 1,600 mm (63 inches), and is greatly influenced by altitude, according to the 2009 statistical abstract.

But in May 2013 and again in May 2014, the district received about 1,900 mm (75 inches) of rainfall, causing rivers to burst their banks and flood neighboring areas, Kooli says.

The May 2013 flood, affected more than 25,000 people, according to a final report released this year by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Society.

Residents say the reasons for the floods’ widespread devastation are obvious.

In April 2013, a wildfire destroyed vegetation in Rwenzori Mountains National Park, leaving the land bare, says Julius Baluku, the district fisheries officer. Rainwater flowed off the land and into surrounding villages, causing flooding.

Peruth Kabagenyi, a women’s representative on the local council, blames the practice of farming on mountain slopes. She points to another problem caused by human activity. The practice of harvesting sand from river banks has altered the course of rivers.

“Youth normally get sand from the river and sell it, extending river banks in the process,” she says.

Together, environmental degradation and climate change are causing weather disasters such as the floods, Kooli says.

expand image
expand slideshow

Matsika Bwambale, Tom Bwambale’s mother, washes clothes on the bank of the River Nyamwamba. Her family’s food crops were destroyed by floods in May.

Apophia Agiresaasi, GPJ Uganda

The Kasese district is a mountainous area, and snowmelt caused by rising temperatures is filling neighboring lakes to their brims, Kooli says. When heavy rains raise water levels, the lakes spill into the rivers, flooding the region.

Every year, floods and droughts destroy an average of 800,000 hectares (2 million acres) of crops in the country, says Rose Rwakasisi, a climate change expert who works with the National Curriculum Development Center, an autonomous body of the Ministry of Education and Sports.

Downpours are especially damaging after dry spells, when the soil is not able to absorb rainfall, she says.Such extreme weather events are going to be more frequent in the future, according to the Uganda Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment Report published in 2013 by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The country’s annual rainfall has been consistent over the past 60 years, but rainfall totals have increased in December, January and February, which typically were dry in the past, according to the report.

Increased rainfall during this period affects the production of crops such as coffee and interferes with post-harvest activities such as the drying of corn and other grains, according to the report. When corn is not dried properly, it is vulnerable to aflatoxin contamination, which renders it unfit for both human and animal consumption.

Uganda has become significantly warmer over the past half-century, according to the report.

From 1951 to 2010, nighttime low temperatures increased by .5 to 1.2 degrees Celsius (.9 to 2.2 degrees Fahrenheit) while daytime highs rose by .6 to .9 degrees Celsius (1.1 to 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit).

The continuing rise in temperatures increases the risk of disease and pest infestations in coffee, rice and bananas, reducing yields and quality, according to the report.

The change in weather patterns means farmers no longer know when to plant their crops, Rwakasisi says.

“When it rains, farmers plant, and then a dry spell ensues and their crops wither,” she says.

The reduction in crop yields is taking a toll on Uganda’s food security.

Uganda ranks 74th on the 2014 Global Food Security Index, several slots ahead of other East African countries; Kenya ranks 80th and Tanzania ranks 104th on the list of 109 countries. The higher a country is on the index, the more food secure it is.

Those rankings do not fully convey Africa’s profound vulnerability to climate change. Experts predict that by 2020, yields from rain-fed agriculture in some countries could drop by about 50 percent, according to a 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a scientific body under the auspices of the United Nations.

Global studies ranking countries by vulnerability to climate change and food insecurity can be misleading.

Crop yields aren’t expected to decline as sharply in sub-Saharan Africa as in other regions, including Asia, but that’s because farmers in Uganda and other sub-Saharan countries yield less from their fields to begin with, according to a 2011 report by the International Food Policy Research Institute. And most African farmers rely on rain rather than irrigation, making their crops more vulnerable to drought.

Some farmers are lucky that the floods did not sweep away all of their food crops.

“The water ran through our banana plantation and cassava crops but did not destroy all of them,” farmer Tom Bwambale says. “Our sugarcane garden was completely destroyed.”

His family is now surviving on the remaining crops, he says.

Bwambale’s family was growing crops for sale as well as sustenance. The family earned between 500,000 shillings ($190) and 700,000 shillings ($265) a month.

“Now what is remaining in the gardens after the floods is little,” he says. “We can’t sell it. Otherwise, we will starve.”

Livestock farmers also were hit hard by the flooding.

Josephat Musamali, a dairy farmer who has 1,200 head of cattle, says two of his animals were swept away by the floods.

His entire farm was waterlogged for more than a month, and his animals had nothing to eat, he says.

“I had to transfer my cows to another place,” he says.

Musamali estimates he lost property worth more than 8 million shillings ($3,000) to the floods.

In the aftermath of the floods, most people in Kasese district are living on one meal a day, Kabagenyi says. The government provided relief food to residents after the floods, and as many as 2,000 people lived at the displacement camp for a month.

“People here have harvested nothing, including government institutions like Mubuku prison,” she says. Prisons grow food for the inmates.

The flooding of the three rivers in the district caused widespread damage, Baluku says.

In addition to eroding crops, floodwaters deposited sand and boulders on previously fertile land, reducing its potential productivity, he says. They also destroyed bridges, cutting locals off from food markets. The floods silted about 30 fish ponds, causing a fish shortage in the area.

Because Kasese district is one of the major suppliers of bananas in Uganda, the effects of the floods are being felt all over the country, including the capital, Kampala.

Faridah Nakanwagi, a Kampala resident, says the price of her favorite food, matooke – the Luganda word for green bananas – has doubled since April to now 20,000 shillings ($7.60) for a bunch. Luganda is the dominant language in Uganda.

Nakanwagi says she can no longer afford to buy bananas by the bunch. She now buys banana fingers, or individual bananas. She must depend on other foods, such as corn meal, locally known as posho.

“These days we eat more rice and posho because the prices of these two are not as high as matooke,” she says. “But we would prefer to eat matooke more.”

The Basu Bandu Rural Development Association, a nonprofit organization, provided assistance to Kasese district residents affected by the floods, says association coordinator Zakayo Syahungene.

The organization’s team rescued people displaced by flooding and helped them obtain food and clothing from the local government and a church, he says.

Flooding causes especially grave hardships for poor people who live along riverbanks, Kooli says.

“They have no shock absorbers,” he says. “The water sweeps away crops, houses and other infrastructure because of their positioning in the river valleys and banks.”

Most of the farmers affected by the May floods live along riverbanks, Kooli says. Settling and farming on riverbanks is illegal, but about 200 people are still living there nonetheless. The government plans to relocate those residents as soon as possible.

To avert future floods, the local government is constructing a flood wall, he says. It has obtained 25 billion shillings ($9.5 million) from the national government for the project. Twenty meters (65 feet) of the wall have been constructed so far.

The government, in partnership with nonprofit organizations, is also educating residents on the dangers of settling on riverbanks, Kooli says.

Hima Cement and the Worldwide Federation for Nature Conservation have donated 50 million shillings (about $18,900) toward the cause.

As residents come to terms with the losses caused by the floods, they are appealing for government support to help them recover.

Bwambale calls on the government to provide seeds to farmers who lost crops so they can start fresh. He also urges the diversion of River Nyamwamba.

“Let them change the direction of the river so we don’t have floods again,” he says.

Baluku, however, says there are no plans to provide seeds to farmers or to divert the river.


GPJ translated some interviews from Rutooro and Rukonjo.