climate change

Resilience: How women in the rural north are grappling with challenges of climate change

(Last Updated On: 30 December 2022)

34 years ago, Santa Adur Omilo, now 62 years old, a widow and a mother of 8 children, enjoyed her village-Te-Anara, Aloi in Alebtong district. She didn’t need to worry about food for her family and water for her animals. 

“I was a young woman in my early 20’s and I had just gotten married to my husband after dropping out of school in primary five but the memories are still fresh and vivid in my mind, we had streams and wells everywhere in our communities, we would equally have bumper harvest season in and out but all is a vanity now,” a worried Santa recalls in an interview with TND News’ Frank Oyugi.

Though Adur’s parents were impoverished and married her off at a tender age to profit from the bride price, her husband’s family was a bit wealthy and her hubby, Peter Omilo (now deceased) had 70 herds of cattle.

A young woman then, Adur recalls that looking after the animals was part of her daily responsibility besides other household chores. This wasn’t a problem because Te-Anara village had a communal grazing ground with nearly evergreen grasses and streams flowing with water and she didn’t need to look far.

But 20 years down the road, weather and climate patterns have changed, unfortunately for the worse though, she now has to walk for a distance of nearly five kilometres to water her animals in the nearest stream.

A blessing in disguise came when she lost some of her animals to the Karamojong rustlers leaving her with just a few. “Sometimes I look back and say it is good I lost some of the animals though it pains me because I can’t imagine how I would manage to look after them and it is worse during the dry season when farmers burn down grasses,” she narrates her ordeal.

But Adur is not the only woman facing this climate change predicament in the Lango sub-region

Jenifer Adongo is her comrade in this struggle and just like any other ordinary housewife, Adongo’s daily rota rotates around taking care of her household, tiling her garden and taking care of her young children. Her firstborn Prisca Hope Awio is in primary 4 and aged 10 years, her second born is 5 years old Jerry Opio and her last born is Miah Akello who will turn two years old in March next year ( 2023).

In March 2021 during the lockdown imposed by the Uganda government as a measure to combat the Covid-19 pandemic, her husband Jasper Awio got entangled in an altercation with the Local Defense Unit commonly known as LDUs, part of the auxiliary forces alongside the Uganda people’s Defense Forces and the Uganda Police Force who were charged with the responsibility of enforcing curfew regulations and he broke his limb as they tried to grab his motorcycle because he was riding beyond 7 pm EAT, against government regulations.

As such Adongo is now the breadwinner of her family since her husband is still unproductive owing to the fracture he sustained, yet she is in between her home and hospital twice a week since her baby is malnourished.

Three months ago, Miah (her youngest daughter) started experiencing health complications, she had Diarrhea and was frequently vomiting, she became pale and thin and this meant her mother couldn’t attend to her garden nor be able to attend to the animals.

It should be recalled that the Lango people are still very conservative, their traditional norms and values are still revered and most often health ailments are linked to sorcery, witchcraft or something of that sort.

Regarding that, Odongo’s in-laws advised her to see a traditional healer because, in their superstitious opinion, her child had been bewitched, although she was sceptical she had to oblige because as a woman she can’t say no to the family of her husband but even after the Local medicinal concoctions were given to her daughter, her condition even worsened.

As fate would have it, a member of a village health team advised her to seek professional medical guidance at the nearest health centre, it was at this point that her baby was diagnosed with Kwashiorkor

What is Kwashiorkor?

According to the National Health Services in the UK, Kwashiorkor is a severe form of malnutrition. It’s most common in some developing regions where babies and children do not get enough protein or other essential nutrients in their diet.

The main sign of kwashiorkor is too much fluid in the body’s tissues, which causes swelling under the skin (oedema). It usually begins in the legs but can involve the whole body, including the face.

At the health facility, Adongo says a pediatric specialist who examined her baby told her she didn’t have enough breast milk to feed her child because she wasn’t feeling well

“I had to come to terms with the Doctor’s diagnosis and I could resonate with the reality because we have been faced with food insecurity due to the drought that hit our village for the last two seasons, we have been feeding on  only one meal a day

According to Adongo, she planted beans and cassava- the commonest staple food in Lango but did not realize any yields because all the crops dried up as a result of drought  something she says is unusual

“I had never experienced a situation like this before and I didn’t believe in climate change effect before but now I think it is real because I feel the seasons have changed,” Adongo tells TND News from the veranda of her grass-thatched house.

Meanwhile in her neighbourhood is 14-year-old Jessica Apio (not her real name). She was a student at Adwari Senior Secondary school before she too dropped out of school a year ago.

Her parents depended largely on farm produce and proceeds from charcoal burning for her school fees, but this time her parents couldn’t afford to pay her tuition because they didn’t realize any money from their farm as a result of the drought, besides she had to help her mother to fetch water from a distance of about 2 kilometres and sometimes trek for another tedious distance to water their three cows.

Alebtong, Otuke and Dokolo districts are leading districts in the Lango Sub-region with the highest poverty index according to the statistics released by the Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBOS)  in their survey done in 2016/2017.

The report also indicates that 59% of children in the Lango sub-region are deprived of three meals per day due to poverty while 37% of children are deprived of having two sets of clothing.

climate change
Poverty levels in selected Lango areas.

The study was done by the Frederick S. Pardee Center for International Futures, Josef Korbel School of International Studies and the University of Denver all from the United States of America.

They were supported by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

Climate paradox

Whereas Otuke went through turbulent times of drought that saw crop plantations dry up in gardens plummeting the local community into the uncertainty of famine and food insecurity, Alebtong district also perennially experiences what is locally known in Lango language as “Aluka”’ meaning flooding

The sub-counties of Adwir and Angeta have been the most susceptible to this flooding usually as a result of unpredicted torrential rains that leaves fields and crop plantations flooded, destroying crops and human shelter.

Christine Alum, a mother of three still remembers how the floods devastated her home in Adwir in 2018. “To our shock, we were woken up that night by the hissing sound of water hovering in the house, everything was wet and I realized we were under attack by water. I didn’t know what to do but we had to scamper for our dear lives.

By daybreak, Alum recalls that their semi-permanent structure came down under the weight of water that had soaked it and they would later have to sleep under a makeshift tent for days as they waited for government interventions which were not even fast coming.

According to Alum, experts explained to them human actions such as the depletion of trees which should act as a catchment regiment for water and then wetland encroachment was responsible for such calamities because over time they have contributed to climate change.

climate change
Children from drawing water from unprotected spring in a Lira suburb.

What do experts say?

According to the UN Women, Climate change has serious ramifications in four dimensions of food security: food availability, food accessibility, food utilization and food systems stability. It says “farmers currently account for 45-80 per cent of all food production in developing countries depending on the region.

About two-thirds of the female labour force in developing countries and more than 90 per cent in many African countries”

Speaking recently at Makerere University during a climate change symposium, Maria Battude, a lecturer at Ndejje University observed that rural women are not empowered and cannot take decisions to combat climate change

We were recently in Apac district and when we wanted to engage the women on issues affecting them as a result of climate change, some did not want to participate because they feared their husbands and we had to talk to them away from the men, she recalls adding that women should be capacitated to have access to economic means of livelihoods if the trajectory is to change.

Civil society speaks 

Moses Agustine Otim is the Executive director of Lango Youth Development Network-LAYDNET, an organization striving for the economic well-being of the youth and women in rural communities but with a special focus on Otuke district.

Otim himself grew up in Amokaluga village, Okere parish, Adwari sub-county in Otuke district and as a young boy growing up in her village he is nostalgic for the conducive environment back then.

“I grew up in an environment which was full and loving with natural trees which covered the surface of the environment and the yields were so lovely, but as the population grew and evolution took place we started experiencing changes,” Otim recalls.

It should also be recalled that Otuke was faced with challenges of the Lakwena, the Lord’s Resistance Army civil war as well the cattle rustling by the Karamojong which made the community vulnerable.

But according to Otim, Women are economically vulnerable because they don’t have access to resources yet they are the majority breadwinners in their families

He equally adds that several trees are being cut yet they contribute oxygen and absolves carbon dioxide, water has also become scarce and women have to trek long distances and some are raped as he explains here.

Access to safe and clean water in Otuke varies from 76 % in Ogwette sub-county to 95 % in Adwari sub-county. Otuke has 510 domestic water points which serve a total of 130,545 people – 122,329 in rural areas. Several water points have been non-functional for over five years and are considered abandoned.

“Men do not mind so much because when they get UGX2000, they go and get drunk, they do not mind whether the children have eaten or bathed but women go through these challenges,” he painfully expresses himself.

Otim is also saddened that trees are being felled for cooking especially the prestigious shear nut trees largely as a source of fuel for cooking, adding that this is leading to climate change. Click here to listen to more from Otim.

In April May and June 2022, Otuke experienced drought and people lost their produce, personally, Otim says he lost crop plantations of close to 15 acres.

According to scientists, drought reduces the availability of water and the quality necessary for production in farms, ranches, and grazing lands, resulting in significant negative direct and indirect economic impacts on the agricultural sector.

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Drought can also contribute to insect outbreaks, increases in wildfire and altered rates of carbon, nutrient, and water cycling—all of which can impact agricultural production, critical ecosystem functions that underpin agricultural systems, and the livelihoods and health of farming communities.

All is not doom and gloom

As the adage goes, to every problem, there is a solution and Otim suggests that government can address the challenges of climate change by creating dams and irrigation projects so that the community desists from only relying on unreliable rainfall patterns.

He adds that mechanization of agriculture is of the essence so that the local community can produce cash crops on a massive scale and earn better income so long as they are linked to better markets.

Moses Ogwal, the Executive Director of Managing Empowerment for Community change also agrees with Agustine Otim as he explains in this video.

But all is not lost, in a bid to save women in the rural communities, Ogwal and his team at MECPA are striving to cause a paradigm shift and mindset change through cultural leaders to ensure that women have access to assets like land and means of economic livelihoods.

They are also promoting the use of energy-saving stoves which requires less firewood and also promoting tree planting among women groups in rural communities.

Government intervention

The ministry of environment says over 1,535 hectares of critical wetlands in Mbarara, Kiruhura, Aleptong, Dokolo, Lira, Pallisa, Kumi, Kampala, Wakiso, Kayunga, Lwengo, Masaka and Sheema were restored to secure their ecological and biodiversity integrity.

In an interview with TND News, the Otuke district Woman representative in Parliament Susan Abeja, says through the communities on water and environment and in close collaboration, they are rallying the local community, especially women to embrace tree planning and their target is to plant over a million trees in Otuke over the next three years.

In a bid to conserve the shear nut trees, local women are also being trained by community-based organizations with set skills to make products such as body creams which enhance their economic income.

This is also being supported by civil society organizations such as Facilitation for peace and Development FAPAD which encourages women to use energy-saving stores to reduce the stress on trees which remain the major source of fuel for cooking as the locals cannot afford gas and the high electricity tariffs.

At Ngetta Zonal Agricultural Research Organizational government research facility in Lira, the first maturing breeds of Vitellaria paradoxa alongside other indigenous trees are being developed to fast-track restoration of the natural environment.

Makerere University’s Department of Forestry, Biodiversity and Tourism has also embarked on a campaign to protect the shea nut tree in Otuke district and other shea parkland areas.

Prof John Bosco Okullo said the target is to ‘Promote, Plant and Protect’ the tree as well as to mobilize all stakeholders in its value chain to get involved in the campaign to protect the tree from extinction.


This story was produced with funding from Aga Khan University Excellence In Climate Change Journalism Program.

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