Drought and aid organizations in Karamoja

Posted: September 5, 2007 in Blog
Two stories published recently from the recent trip to Karamoja:

Gun Culture Bites As Aid Groups Flock to Karamoja.

Christopher Mason

ONLY 24 hours earlier, Mr Akure Loyang had, like any other day, been working on his farm. But on this day, a recent Friday morning, he lay on a gurney in a hospital hallway with casts on both legs, talking in a voice that was barely above a whisper.

Mr Loyang, like hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Karimojong each year, had fallen victim to cattle raiders who stormed his land, shot him in both legs and left him bleeding on the ground as he watched them take his livestock.

Despite the ongoing disarmament efforts in Karamoja and a general return of peace to much of the north, this part of the country remains largely unstable. This, mainly due to a culture of cattle raiding and violence that continues to perplex government and international aid officials trying to battle a proliferation of cheap guns, near-constant drought and crushing poverty.

Mr Loyang is not alone in the St. Kizito Hospital in Matany Trading Centre, Moroto District. Once he gets the X-ray he has been waiting for, Mr Loyang will join the 53 other patients currently residing in the hospital’s gunshot ward.

“We usually have more,” one nurse at the hospital said. On the day Mr Loyang was admitted, he was one of eight gunshot victims to come into the hospital. It is not uncommon for 20 to come in on a single day.

“On days when there is a gun battle, it is really a crisis in here,” said Dr James Lemukol, the hospital’s medical superintendent.

Despite the debilitating violence and the fact that it is the most food insecure region in Uganda, Karamoja has been mostly devoid of international aid organisations largely due to the long history of violence and its remoteness.

But of late there has been an influx of international organisations opening, or reopening, offices in Karamoja, bringing renewed hope that their combined efforts can bring to a grinding halt the downward slide residents here face because of unrelenting droughts and violence.

Unicef and the UN Office of High Commission for Human Rights both opened offices in Karamoja in October. Fao was there by January, while the World Health Organisation opened an office soon afterwards.

The UN Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN-Ocha) opened an office in Karamoja just this week.

These groups join a handful of smaller organisations and missions that have been doing work in the region for decades.

The increased international presence is encouraging to an organisation like the World Food Programme (WFP), which has been working in Karamoja since the 1960s.

“We’ve been here 40 years [and] wondering where everyone else was,” said Mr James Feeney, the head of WFP’s Karamoja operations.

International donors flocked to northern Uganda when the region fell into a crisis in 2002. The influx of money and workers had little impact on Karamoja at the time, but now that the region is calm, some of those resources have been reallocated to Karamoja.

Mr Jeremy England, the Unicef eastern region manager said, “Karamoja is very unique. But it was difficult to get attention for the region until we had attention to the rest of the north.”

He added that after 2002, when the rest of the north improved, Unicef looked at Karamoja and felt it was still a part of the north but its indicators were far worse than anywhere else in the region.

Despite an assessment earlier in the dry season by the WFP that said Karamoja is expected to have a better November harvest than last year, the same report said insecurity in the region could increase if poor rains in August and September damage crops.

Local officials said recently that August was far drier than normal. Whether or not the increased international presence can limit the risk of civil unrest, and maybe in turn reduce the number of patients in St. Kizito Hospital’s gunshot ward, all may depend as much on a change in attitude towards the region.

“It used to be that people wondered how long it would be until the Karimojong developed,” Mr England said. “Instead, people are beginning to look at it as a question of how long it will be until the rest of the country engages the Karimojong.”

Dry riverbeds, failed crops welcome you to Karamoja

MOROTODRIVING west from Moroto towards the Kidepo Health Centre, the road crosses one dry riverbed after another. At one point, a dried-up riverbed even becomes part of the road.

“How are these roads passable when the rivers are running?” the driver of the Land Rover is asked as he drives over the parched banks of the Natumukasiko River.

“We don’t have that problem very often,” he answers, laughing.

It is unfortunately not a joke. Drought in Karamoja is no longer something to be talked about every few years as part of the climactic ebb and flow that destabilises the impoverished Karimojong in this part of Uganda.

NO TRACE OF WATER: A dry river bed in Moroto (ABOVE) while children bathe in a shallow crevice filled with dirty water. Photos by Christopher Mason

Rather, it is a constant part of life here, preventing families from stocking up on food and instead forcing thousands of people to rely entirely on international aid organisations, namely the World Food Program (WFP), for food to keep alive. “It has been 10 years since we had a good crop,” said Moses Kapolon, acting CAO for Moroto District. “The further we get from that good crop, the worse it gets.”

Karamoja returned to the spotlight earlier this year when the WFP announced it was halting food distribution in the region due to a shortage in funding.

Also earlier this year, a WFP driver was killed, leading to increased concerns about road ambushes.

Security scares, food shortages and intense droughts periodically remind outsiders of the plight facing the Karimojong, but locals say the fact that severe food shortages here are no longer intermittent, but instead constant, leaves many lucky to get something worth a meal a day.

“Very little food is imported into our region because the security protection they need make it far too expensive,” Mr Kapolon said on August 29. “And people here cannot afford what little food does come into the region, so we are left to rely on failed crops and the WFP.”

The WFP’s head of Karamoja operations, Mr James Feeney, said, drought-wise, this year has been moderate. The fact that a “moderate” season still results in dried-up rivers and failed crops speaks to the constant instability facing those who try to grow their own food.

“A drought used to come every five years. That was the rule of thumb,” Mr Feeney said during an interview near Moroto. “Now we get a really major drought every second year. No one is able to prepare for droughts.”

During a recent drive through Moroto District, not one river was running. Dried riverbeds were now being used as thoroughfares for people walking, much the same way rail lines are used in urban areas.

One otherwise dry riverbed had a shallow crevice where a small pool of dark brown water had collected. The pool attracted nearly a dozen people, who were bathing naked in the dirty water.

In January, the WFP issued emergency food rations in Karamoja to help off-set the third drought in six years. The goal of these rations is to provide half the minimum daily energy requirements of 2,100 calories and build on what little, local people can find to eat.

Mr Feeney said the WFP will carry out another assessment this month to determine whether the emergency rations would be needed for a second year in a row.

The importance of food rations was evident earlier this year, when between March and July, the WFP cut its food assistance to more than 100 primary schools and 18 health centres.

Immediately, school attendance fell drastically, as many parents only send their children to school so they can get food rations. Nineteen schools closed entirely because attendance was so poor during the stoppage in ration distribution.


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