On October 31, President Yoweri Museveni was photographed in Luweero district carrying a jerrycan of water on a bicycle. He was promoting irrigation. To many people, the act of the President pushing water on a bicycle appeared hilarious, if not ridiculous. Comments on social media and in bars went about how Museveni was demonstrating backwardness.
Many, however, missed the point. What Museveni is doing is to try to change people’s mindsets to face challenging situations with local solutions.
When it shines, and then it rains, we talk about a change in the weather. But as we have seen in recent years, these changes have gone beyond the ‘normal’ weather changes.
They have become more frequent and more severe. When it rains, it falls in buckets over a limited period of time and washes away top fertile soils, let alone destroying vital infrastructure such as roads and hospitals as we witnessed in Kirembe mines a few years ago.
And as we have also seen, rains or prolonged dry spells, have come when we least expect them. A combination of these changes is what scientists have termed as climate change.
They have attributed it to the rise in global temperatures arising from an accumulation of greenhouse house gasses such as carbon dioxide from factories and cars, in the atmosphere. Although other natural phenomena such as El-nino or La-nina are associated with increased rainfall or drought, experts have warned of a link between these conditions and climate change.
These changes are real and have already had serious impacts. Lack of rainfall, which most of us rely on to produce food, means that we cannot plant. The crops we already have in the gardens are going to prematurely dry. We shall have no harvest and since most of us are substance farmers we are going to starve. Should we sit and do nothing about it? No.
President Museveni has had his environmental cock-ups. For example he allowed BIDCO to destroy natural forests in Kalangala Islands to plant oil palm. BIDCO is now in Buvuma buying chunks of land and that will be another palm “forest” on Lake Victoria very soon. Had it not been for popular protests, Museveni was giving away Mabira forest to a sugar company. The forest may have been grossly degraded already but it can regenerate if allowed to.
His government has also emphasised “economic development” over “environmentally conscious development, also known as “sustainable development.” It is such blunders by our leaders and ourselves that are exposing us to environmental risks of less rainfall, water shortages, hotter cities, floods. But Museveni seems to have woken up to the reality that changes in climate have serious impacts, and people must find ways to adapt to the situations they are confronted with.
In August this year, I received a story from one of the journalists we had just trained in climate reporting and science journalism about Museveni promoting “bottle irrigation” in Omoro district. This is actually low-cost drip irrigation. The reality is that farmers can no longer rely on rainfall alone to produce enough food.
The government cannot, for the moment afford to extend big irrigation projects to us. Not many of us can afford drip lines, and yet we have many plastic bottles littered around us. In our local way, we can adapt to the situation by being more proactive; by being more creative; by taking advantage of practices, techniques and low-cost technologies.
The farmer who adds a little water to their tomato plant will certainly have a higher chance of harvesting the tomato than the one who doesn’t. It is not just about what we do; it is also the way we do it. It is not the big projects that necessarily make the difference; it is the big ideas that come to us as a result of attitude change.
During 2014 and 2015 I had the opportunity to work with a project that followed a concept known as “water smart agriculture.” This was under the Global Water Initiative East Africa, managed by CARE. The project studied how smallholder farmers could produce more food with less water.
This project was in three semi arid districts of Dera (Ethiopia), Same (Tanzania) and Otuke (Uganda). In Otuke, for example, the farmers who adopted simple techniques such as water harvesting, supplementary irrigation (which Museveni is demonstrating) and mulching received far much higher yields than their counterparts.
Climate change has increased the risk of droughts, the risk of floods, the risk of crop, animal and human diseases. Regardless of the cause of this climate change, the way we respond to the effects, at personal level, or family level, is paramount.
The sun is heating us. The dry spell is longer. Our crops are drying. Millions of Ugandans are at the risk of famine. There is no better way than telling a farmer that “in your small way, there is something you can do to help yourself adapt to the situation; there is something you can do to survive, and even prosper.” Museveni is doing just that. Other leaders, regardless of their political inclination should emulate him.
By William Odinga Balikuddembe