29/04/2013 – Uganda’s Karamoja region is known for its harsh climate, cyclical cattle raids, the ever high rates of malnutrition, and alcoholism. It is one of the poorest regions of Uganda, and home to about 1.2 million people, most of them living in abject poverty.
North-east Uganda has been dependent on aid hand-outs for decades. Every time a car passes by the manyattas (traditional huts), kids come running hands outstretched. The four-wheel drive branded car represents some form of freebie, and the jeeps roaming these plains are many.
Livelihood options in Karamoja are not the most diverse. A severe drought three years ago wiped out most livestock leaving close to a third of the population totally helpless. The herds have further shrunk due to infectious diseases, pest attacks, reducing grazing land, and sporadic raids.
Moses Loru Okim is a Chief in Acherer Parish, Nadung’et sub-county in the Moroto district. He constantly implores his community to take good care of the livestock, prepare their fields early, and to save some grain after each harvest. “This will ensure you have food during the dry season,” he tells them.
Moses is one of the Parish Chiefs collecting and relaying ‘early warning’ data to the district headquarters for analysis. In turn, he receives synthesised information to disseminate across his Parish.
This network, known as DEWS (Drought Early Warning System), collects, analyses, validates, and disseminates data on vital signs such as livestock diseases, rainfall patterns, pasture condition, nutrition status of children, and availability of water.
“DEWS provides us with practical data every month, with which we as a local government can act or lobby the central government to intervene,” says Francis Okwii, the Assistant District Agricultural Officer in Moroto.
The early warning information reaches aid agencies and government departments as paper bulletins. The same messages are transmitted through radio, and to most people in the rural villages, the local Parish Chief disseminates the information by word of mouth.
“I have learnt many things through the Chief,” says Akol Ruko, in Kaipeter village, Acherer Parish, “but what I value most is ‘to cultivate my garden in time’ and ‘to use the harvest sparingly, so that I don’t lack food during the dry season’”.
Betty Nangiro and Paulina Nause are two of the ten people in Kaipeter village that are interviewed in the data gathering phase every month. And they too have benefited from the feedback provided by the Chief and through radio.
“I have already planted maize and sorghum; and when I harvest, I will store the excess grain,” says Paulina Nause. “If I want to make ebutia (sorghum beer), I will buy sorghum from the market. I won’t touch my stock.”
The early warning messages are slowly causing a positive change in behaviour. Chief Moses says that traditionally, gardening was a woman’s job. “Now men can be seen tilling the land. Similarly, herders no longer drink unboiled milk because they know that this is one way of contracting brucellosis disease”.
Over the last two years, preparedness has remarkably improved. But the region is still a long way from being resilient to shocks such as droughts, flash floods, and disease outbreaks.
Chronic food insecurity and poverty are widespread. At the moment, many districts are said to be in a ‘stress’ phase, with families expected to run out of food in a few months.
Besides rearing animals and small scale farming, brewing sorghum beer, cutting wood, or burning charcoal for sale are the commonly mentioned methods of earning money quickly. These survival methods are counter-productive.
The European Commission Humanitarian Aid first tested DEWS in Nakapiripirit district in 2008; later scaling up to cover the whole region. Since 2011, DEWS has been part of projects supported through a €2.6 million grant to a consortium of partners headed by the DanChurchAid. But with the Commission phasing out humanitarian actions in Uganda, the project must now be handed over to the government and development agencies.
The Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries (MAAIF) has stepped up to the plate. The Ministry is discussing increasing their role in managing the system and would like to expand coverage to other drought-prone districts. But the system requires some fine-tuning before the roll out.
The local agents don’t always gather comprehensive data and sometimes the reports are late. The mobile phone system used in gathering and reporting data is said to have some technical glitches. And perhaps more importantly, MAAIF will have to convince the central government and development partners to offer finances required to take this project forward.
“Early warning is only effective if followed by early action,” says Judith Munyao a DRR specialist at the European Commission. “It is commendable that the government is willing to run this early warning system, but it is equally important that the data collected elicits timely response and action.”
In Kaipeter village, Moses the Parish Chief, is confident that the project will go on. “I will continue gathering data and disseminating information, even after the donor [Commission] pulls out.”
His clients are dependent on him, and besides, they know this as one of the few services ‘offered by the government’, in this remote region.
By Martin Karimi,
Regional Information Assistant in Nairobi, Kenya