Lawrence Biyika Songa: The Cost of Climate Change for Ugandan Farmers


Q&A with Lawrence Biyika Songa, COP representative for Uganda

At the COP22 conference on climate change, held in Marrakech in November, the spotlight fell squarely on Africa and the impact of global warming on agriculture. Farming First caught up with Lawrence Biyika Songa, Uganda’s representative at the talks, to delve deeper into the issues facing farmers in the country.

FF: How is climate change affecting farmers in Uganda?

LBS: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) summarises climate change as any change in climate over time, whether due to natural variability or as a result of human activity. This is equally true in Uganda. Unsustainable utilisation of natural resources and poor technological use has increased incidences of greenhouse gas emissions. For instance, 90 per cent of energy consumption in Uganda is met by firewood, amounting to 18 million tonnes of emissions a year.

The impact of such activity has been increased weather variability, with greater frequency and intensity of weather extremes, including high temperatures leading to prolonged drought and erratic rainfall patterns. These incidences are threatening Uganda’s environmental, social and economic development, including agriculture.

Changing weather patterns in Uganda are making it difficult for farmers in the country to plan using the traditional two planting seasons, which used to be much easier to predict. Previously the weather pattern indicated two good planting seasons, March to May and September to November. Now, however, rainfall sometimes continues during the dry seasons, and prolonged dry spells during rainy seasons make it difficult for farmers to plan ahead.

Other challenges related to climate change include tropical storms, wildfire, siltation, soil erosion, pests and diseases which are causing devastating loss to farmer’s yields.

So there are five main ways that climate change is impacting farming in Uganda: (i) the area suitable for agriculture is becoming unpredictable (ii) the length of the growing season is more difficult to forecast (iii) yield potentials are varying and decreasing (iv) the frequency and severity of extreme events (in particular droughts and floods) are extreme (v) the incidence of plant diseases are high. And, in the case of livestock climate change may affect production through: (i) impacts on the quantity and quality of feed (ii) increasing heat stress (iii) changes to and spread of livestock diseases and (iv) changes in water availability.

FF: Is climate change affecting Uganda’s economy?

LBS: Yes. The National Development Plan 2010-2015 on climatic projections indicates that Uganda’s temperatures are likely to increase in the range of 0.70 C to 1.50 C by 2020. As a consequence, it has placed Uganda in a more vulnerable position. The 2nd UN World Water Development Report 2006 shows that 70 per cent of the disasters in the country are linked to climate change. On average these disasters destroy about 800,000 hectares of crops, with an economic loss in excess of Ushs 120 billion (US$ 63.2million) per year.

Climate change and associated extreme weather incidents have also impacted public health. The 1994 El Niño floods resulted in sharp rises in lakes, wide spread flooding, and extensive soil erosion and landslides in Eastern parts of the country. It’s believed that more than 1,000 lives were lost and 11,000 hospitalised due to cholera and related illness, and about 150,000 people were displaced from their homes.

Meanwhile, the 2010-2011 droughts caused an estimated US$470 million losses in food crops, cash crops and livestock as a whole. This equates to about 16 per cent of the total value of these items in GDP for 2011. The current and future increased risks from flooding and droughts are in areas of existing poverty and therefore these events have serious consequences for local economies and food security.

FF: Are there any tools and technologies that are helping Ugandan farmers to adapt to climate change?

LBS: Yes, they are using more efficient water-management technologies such as advanced drip irrigation and solar irrigation. Agricultural research is also developing other new and effective approaches to adapt to climate change. For example, scientists are studying and using beneficial microbes from soil to strengthen plant resilience to increased drought, diseases and pests brought on by climate change.

Farmers are also actively participating in the collection of climate-related data. The information from millions of smallholders farmers monitoring daily weather changes, rainfall levels and patterns and soil health are shedding light on general climate trends and guiding farming practices.

Lastly, farmers are being advised not to plant on farm land with clogged water and for farmers living in mountainous areas, they are advised to practice terracing and lay farrows to reduce run offs from heavy rains

FF: What are the barriers preventing farmers from accessing these tools and technologies?

LBS: The ability of farmers’ to adapt varies enormously depending on the region and its wealth. Uganda’s farmers often lack basic resources and choices such as money as the adoption of these methods is difficult without access to credit and readily available funds. Millions of farmers in Uganda also lack access to information about the scope of climate level changes they are experiencing. Without such information, they are unable to plan and adjust their farming practices to be sustainable for the long term with new tools and technologies. Social networks among rural farmers always help spread the use of new technology, given the prevelant communal sense among Ugandan farmers. Finally, differences in expected returns from a new technology also affect individual’s adaptation decisions.

FF: Have you met many farmers that are struggling with successfully adapting to climate change?

LBS: In many Ugandan villages, smallholder farmers are struggling to use simple technologies to monitor extreme weather and its impacts on their families and community. They are finding it difficult to detect early indications of changing rainfall patterns that would likely effect the growing season. Secondly, farmers are struggling with how to identify and manage the planting of drought-tolerant crop varieties, exotic breeds and using low cost, simple drip irrigation due to illiteracy and cost management practices.

FF: How is the Ugandan government supporting farmers to adapt to climate change?

LBS: The government of Uganda has come up with priorities for adaptation options. In the National Climate Change Costed Implementation Strategy, the government of Uganda has identified eight strategic interventions for adaptation in the agricultural sector, with a proposed budget over the next 15 years of about US$297 million (MWE, 2012). Among these interventions are the promotion of adaptive crop varieties and livestock breeds, sustainable land management and agricultural diversification.

The government’s meteorological agency, UNMA, has provided and disseminated weather information and forecasts. Farmers are therefore advised to rely on expert advice as to when they should plant for the most favourable climate conditions. The government has also embarked on farmer sensitization and awareness campaigns. For example, experts have promoted the planting of grass on the steps of mountains among farmers living on the slopes of Mountain Elgon in Eastern Uganda and those from Mountain Rwenzori to stop run-offs from heavy rains.

Finally, farmers are being advised to grow quick maturing crops such as vegetables when there is a prediction of prolonged dry spells, and they are further advised to grow cereal crops which are tolerant to drought. NGOs are also helping the government through promotion of new agricultural technologies such as agricultural extension services, which provide farmers with information about agricultural practises, including sowing, adoption of improved seeds and chicken breeds.

FF: Do you think COP2 was indeed a ‘’COP of Action’’?

LBS: Yes, thanks to the Marrakech Proclamation of Climate Action and the Partnership for Global Climate Action as the conference’s main outcomes. The political commitment to implementing the Paris Agreement has been revived in the most ardent fashion with the Marrakech Proclamation.

Writing the rule book, or operational manual, of the Paris Agreement calls for a significant boost of transparency of action, including measuring and accounting emissions reductions, the provision of climate finance, and technology development and transfer. It also includes work to design the adaptation communications, which is the primary vehicle under the Paris Agreement to share individual adaptation efforts and support needs.

FF: What action do you think the global community should be taking?

LBS: Governments should initiate powerful coalitions of public and private partners in technology initiatives for weather. About two thirds of Africans now have mobile phones, including many in rural areas, and these could play an integral part in the collection of weather and soil data. Data collected by farmers on their phones could then be aggregated and analysed by designated research institutions and shared with farmers.

Local governments could also adjust disaster response plans to accommodate changes in weather patterns. For example, the city of Philadelphia recently implemented an emergency response plan to limit the health impact of increasingly frequent heat waves on its population. Philadelphia officials estimate that their heat response plan has already reduced heat-related deaths.

For individuals, governments, and businesses, adapting to climate change requires understanding and accepting the risks of regional climate change, assessing the immediate and long-term costs and benefits of adaptation strategies, and implementing adaptations that bring the most benefits relative to the cost and risk.

Featured image courtesy of Kate Holt/Africa Practice