Opinion: Fighting climate change and famine with forests in the Horn of Africa

A view of the Semien Mountains in northern Ethiopia. Photo by: Thomas Maluck / CC BY-ND

Right now, 17 million people in the Horn of Africa are at risk of starvation. Massive crop failures, due to lack of rainfall, have led to a problem so dire that senior United Nations officials called this the worst humanitarian crisis they have faced. But they should have seen this coming: the region has experienced dry spells for the past three years, largely influenced by climate change.

News of this famine has brought back memories of my own childhood 25 years ago, in the rural parts of eastern Uganda. I grew up in a region that has remained poor due to the scars of war, the infamous Uganda People’s Army insurgency against president Museveni that lasted for more than eight years. Our crops and livestock suffer from prolonged dry spells.

All of this was exacerbated by the occasional rustling of cattle from Teso by the neighboring Karimojong warriors, stripping my community of the little that the war had left behind. As a young man, I often went to school hungry and lived among children who were malnourished.

Back then, families would scavenge the bushy lands in search of wild vegetables and fruits, and hunt for birds and wild animals as a source of food. This was a dangerous trade, but one that my mother thought was worth risking to keep her children healthy. These wild foods existed because forested lands were still intact; they acted as a lifeline that protected families against food insecurity. Similarly, water marshes provided small fish, a source of protein that kept me and my siblings going.

Now, most of these resources have been degraded, exposing vulnerable communities to the vagaries of climate change.

Today, 25 years later, the famine puts nearly 11 million people across Uganda at risk of starvation if humanitarian assistance is not provided. Most households have to subsist on just one meal a day. And in Somalia, there has been a 75 percent reduction in cereal grain production.

Aid — while important to feed the hungry — is not enough. We must also address the reality that rain-fed agriculture alone is no longer viable across the Horn of Africa due to climate change.

The low agricultural productivity for the past three years that led to the current humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa has been attributed to several factors. One is the drought in 2016 resulting from the El Niño effect that is now being described as one of the worst Africa has experienced — and one influenced by climate change.

Some critics blame local communities who haven't managed their land sustainably. While it is true that some natural resources such as wetlands and forests are being exploited, most climate change is attributed to heavy use of fossil fuels in the developed world. Local communities in the developing world are simply trying hard to survive; actions in developed countries that are driven by lifestyle. Right now we are witnessing what happens when unsustainable use of our lands meets global climate change.

Efforts by some, including the World Food Programme, in Somalia have helped farmers weather the drought. Water catchment rehabilitation and canal irrigation installations along the Dolow River have boosted crop yields. In these projects, farmers work as a group to pump water into their fields and create canals to spread the water around the vegetable and banana gardens. This is a venture that can be replicated across the Horn of Africa where fresh water exists in abundance. But to do so, agricultural investments must shift toward small scale irrigation projects, which has been done in Bangladesh.

Efforts to use water more effectively will not work without complementary initiatives to halt deforestation and replant trees — which will protect the water sources. In Uganda, for example, over 200,000 hectares of trees are cut down annually and only 7,000 hectares are replaced, even though 40 percent of the rainfall the country receives is due to the role of tree cover in rain formation.

Organizations and governments can help reforestation efforts by training smallholder farmers how to grow tree seedlings and manage tree gardens to rebuild the forest cover increases across East Africa. Using these practices, farmers can rely on their own farms for wood for fuel and building materials rather than depleting older stands of forests.

Programs like this must be bolstered by environmental laws to curb deforestation and degradation of wetlands. The next climate summit should establish benchmarks against deforestation, including limitations on acreage of forests cut down annually. Targets for replanting forests across the world should also be set to hold governments accountable on this front.

The current hunger crisis can be an opportunity for self-reflection on our contributions to climate change, but also a call to action to save those facing malnourishment or starvation. Restoring forests and looking to new programs to connect farmers to irrigation can help us restore water supplies and adapt to what climate change will throw at us.

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About the author

  • Ariong Moses

    Ariong Moses is an agriculture and environment expert working with One Acre Fund Uganda as an innovations specialist. He is a 2017 Aspen New Voices fellow and alumni of the Global Health Corps fellowship. Follow him on Twitter at @ariongm.