Is Uganda well prepared for Disasters?

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Or do we create unnecessary panic for personal gain?

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Dr. John W Bahana, PhD

Uganda has an aptly named a ministry department, with apparent high visibility at the apex of Government, in the Prime Minister's Office.

A whole minister of state oversees the department. Its title is no less than; Disaster Preparedness and Refugees.

The creation of such a ministry presumed that the country was prone to disasters and should be prepared to mitigate such unforeseen calamities. Other countries have similar arrangements but are named differently.

For example in Sri Lanka and Fiji, there is a respective ministry of Disaster management.  The just ebbed floods, the landslides in mountain areas of Elgon and Rwenzori have brought to our doorsteps what disasters really mean.

It has been proved over the years how ill-prepared we are when it comes to disasters despite the creation of the ministry. 

When I was growing up, I witnessed what disaster preparedness meant. Every household, throughout Kigezi district and neighbouring Belgian colonial territory of Rwanda, was required to have storage for beans, peas, and millet. 

The stores were sealed small woven structures that would keep away pests. The storage capacity was a minimum of about 100 kg. To break the seal required a colonial officer to certify that hunger had set in as a result of poor crop yields.

The stored produce would be in such quantity to take a household to the next harvest.  To prevent massive scale landslides, Kigezi hillsides were planted with Acacia trees which characteristically have deep roots that ably hold soils compact.

Farming on hillsides was also strictly regulated with such measures as:"hinga, laza" whereby strips of cultivated gardens were measuredly interspersed with rested pieces of land left with weeds.

The measures were to stop massive soil erosion and possible landslides. These disaster preparedness measures appear to have waned with the departure of colonialists.

One wonders why. Recent reports from Zambia and Zimbabwe are talking of near catastrophe. Southern Zambia has not received sufficient rains a year now. More than two million citizens plus their livestock is threatened with death. In Zimbabwe, almost half the total population is also threatened with hunger. 

The World Food Programme is planning to give cash to affected people. The question that is still bothering me is what the cash will fetch if there is no food to buy.

While I was discussing the looming locust invasion with a colleague, he asserted that the Ministry of Finance would not find money to confront the swarms well in time before total crop destruction takes place.

The locust swarms covered much of northern Kenya counties and the latest this week is Samburu, only a few hundred kilometers from Karamoja, Uganda.  In locust terms or locust distance, this can be covered under one day. In the early years of locust invasions of Uganda, I have indicated in these pages, there were three major locust species.

The African Migratory Locust flew in from West Africa from breeding centres in Mali, Nigeria and much of West Africa. The second major one was the Desert Locust, now threatening mayhem in its path from breeding areas in unstable Somalia, Ethiopia and the greater Red Sea Coast.

The third one was the Red Locust from breeding areas in Tanzania, some as near as Tabora Region. Scientists studied the phenomenon of locust swarm formation and migration and concluded on the need for long term strategies to manage these formidable pests.

Hence, intergovernmental organisations were formed and equipped with the capability to prevent massive swarm formation that would result in extensive and far-reaching invasions.

Hence, the earliest created was the International Red Locust Control Organisation for Central and Southern Africa (IRLCO-CSA) allocated its head operational offices at Mbala, northern Zambia.

This organisation, whom yours faithfully worked with for 17 years, was highly successful and no large swarms invaded countries far and wide. During plague, defined as the time when locusts massively escape from their breeding areas and simultaneously invade extensive areas and cause massive crop destruction.

Plagues can last many years of up to ten or more. Based on this success and experience of IRLCO-CSA, two more organisations were created. These were the Desert Locust Control Organisation for Eastern Africa (DLCO-CSA) with headquarters at Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

This would primarily deal with the desert locust. The other last one was "Organisation Internationale Controlle Migratoria Africaine (OICMA)", based at Bamako, Mali. Uganda became a member of IRLCO-CSA as well as DLCO-EA.

These organisations were registered by the United Nations for ease of movement of personnel and equipment as well as fundraising in emergencies. At IRLCO-CSA, there were 11 member countries including South Africa until the country was expelled 1965 for its apartheid policies of race discrimination. DLCO-EA which was inaugurated 1962 had nine member countries. Uganda alongside Kenya and Tanzania were members of both organisations.

Unfortunately, and inadequately advised, Uganda pulled out of IRLCO-CSA in 2005 but remains indebted with unpaid dues. A common financing strategy was for member countries to make an annual contribution to the organisation.

The proportions were determined based on key factors including current agricultural productivity and the size of the economy. It did not matter that a country may have the breeding sources of the locusts. Based on these factors, Uganda always found itself in the top four of annual contributions. 

The principle mandate of these organisations remains plague prevention. They are equipped with spray and survey aircraft, pilots and engineers, scientists and ground motor vehicles as key elements. So, when locust swarms escape from the breeding areas on their way to plague initiation, the mandates are challenged.

It basically means that the Organizations have failed. Controlling swarms outside breeding areas in very expensive in manpower, equipment as well as the environment because of the large amounts of insecticides that have to be sprayed over large areas.

The possible invasion of Uganda by locust swarms is an indictment of the organisation she belongs to as well as herself in disaster preparedness.  Do we learn?