State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

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The Pearl of Africa

My cell phone rang in the middle of the night. “Are you in Kampala?” On the other line was my husband informing me that two bombs went off in Uganda’s capital city just several hours before, killing scores of people gathered at public spots to watch the final game of the World Cup. I was safe in a rural town a good 300 kilometer trek from Kampala and a world away from the violence that had erupted in the capital. But the next morning would bring sad news: the brother-in-law of a colleague was killed in one of the blasts.

As a graduate student in the Climate and Society Masters program at Columbia University, I was entering my sixth week in Uganda at the time of the bombings, completing an internship for the Uganda Red Cross, the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre and Columbia’s International Research Institute. The goal of the internship: to produce short videos about the Uganda Red Cross Society’s work in proactively reducing the impact of environmental hazards on the country’s rural communities. Increasingly, such hazards include events associated with climate change (erratic rainfall patterns, floods and droughts), which in turn interact with other types of environmental degradation–primarily deforestation and wetlands encroachment–to increase the vulnerability of Ugandan communities reliant on natural resources for their livelihoods.

Uganda, often referred to as the “pearl of Africa,” is a lushly verdant country, with dramatically convective skies, temperate climate, abundant water (in most regions) and fertile land. For the first two weeks, I was based in Katakwi, a sleepy town with no electricity in the central eastern region of the country. Residents have motorbikes, small businesses, cell phones, email addresses in some cases and at times dress as smartly as New Yorkers – but no power. Firewood and charcoal are the chief fuels used for cooking and paraffin and kerosene are used for lighting.

Upon arrival in Katakwi, we went to work right away: I joined former Climate and Society alumna Julie Arrighi and a team of Red Cross volunteers in the field as they conducted vulnerability and capacity assessments of various parishes in the area. My task was to film the process and capture one method by which the Red Cross works with communities to assess environmental risk. One portion of the assessment is something called the transect walk, whereby a handful of villagers walk with one or two volunteers through their parishes and describe the different areas (fields, tree plantings, wetlands, etc.) and the hazards they’re experiencing. This year, floods pose the biggest threat and water logging has already caused many of their cassava plants to rot: one woman pointed to her crops and appealed to me for help with a hint of desperation. The transect walks, while challenging under the intense equatorial sky, are a unique opportunity to see how farming families live. On two occasions, I was invited into their homes: mud-packed cylindrical huts covered by grass roofs. Every family has several huts that encircle a cleared plaza where millet, sorghum, groundnuts and other staple crops are often laid in the sun to dry.

After our stay in Katakwi, we visited the region near the town of Pallisa where I interviewed local leaders about steps they have taken to protect their water sources (natural springs) and reduce the risk of malaria by using tools provided by the Red Cross to clear grass around their homesteads. Downstream from Mount Elgon, this region is prone to flooding; additionally, residents report that more erratic rainfall patterns are complicating their planting schedules. Farmers are beginning to adapt by planting at the first sign of rains, harvesting as early as possible and then storing crops in granaries elevated above ground.

Almost everyone I interviewed talked of changes in the seasons and the increased unpredictability of the rains. Uganda has a limited and broken historical climate record, so it is difficult to say with certainty that these shifts are due to climate change. Nevertheless, reports around the country were similar: farmers could no longer count on seasonal patterns to plan their planting schedules. Furthermore, people of all societal levels seem to demonstrate an awareness of seasonal shifts but may have differed in attribution: some were aware of global warming, others may attribute the changes to divine intervention.

Looking through hours of footage back in the States, I feel so grateful for the remarkable experience I had in Uganda. Ultimately, it was the friendships I formed that made the trip so rewarding; in putting together the Red Cross videos, I hope I accurately portray the struggles they face.

Disclaimer: the opinions I express in this post are my own and not of the Uganda Red Cross, the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre, the IFRC and the IRI.

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Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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