UGANDA: "Survival of the fittest" as food crisis bites Karamoja region

Monday, March 24, 2008

The food crisis in northeastern Uganda's Karamoja region has reached such a dire level that more than one million people are in need of emergency food aid, a government minister in charge of relief has said.

"The entire Karamoja population of one million is food insecure as we talk now, while another 500,000 in Lango [northern region] in the areas of Otuke and the flood-affected areas of Teso [eastern] need emergency food," Musa Ecweru, Uganda's minister for disaster preparedness, told IRIN.

During a recent visit to the region, the minister said, he found old women had been isolated from younger ones. "The Karamojong [inhabitants of Karamoja region] said old people were useless and therefore, food should not be wasted on them.

"The situation is bad; the population in the affected areas have adopted the theory of ‘survival of the fittest’ as the able-bodied take advantage of their physical strength to deprive others of access to food," he added.

According to Ecweru, the situation in Teso region was just as bad. In one area where the government recently delivered food, the leaders refused to distribute it in time, giving numerous excuses, "but instead they were coming back at night and stealing the food for themselves. Able-bodied and the young have taken advantage at the expense of the elderly."

Food security agencies had in December warned of an impeding food shortage in some areas of the country, especially where flash floods submerged villages last year.

Eastern and northern Uganda experienced heavy rains in July, August and September 2007, which resulted in severe floods in many areas. At the height of the floods, many rivers burst their banks while some bridges and roads were washed away.

"Some of the roads are still bad," Ecweru said. "But the effects of the floods are still reverberating as the floods compromised food security in these areas."

The Ugandan government, he added, was providing some farm implements and seeds to farmers, but the population still needed food relief to bridge supplies up to the next harvest.

According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), the 2006 harvest in Karamoja region was affected by drought, a severe attack of honeydew disease that crippled the staple sorghum crop, and falling livestock prices. The region has for decades also been affected by cattle-rustling between rival communities.

"Where they occurred, the floods only aggravated an already precarious food security situation," FAO said in a report on the impact of the 2007 floods.

Ecweru said his government was developing a comprehensive national policy to eradicate hunger and famine. "We shall be in a position to predict ahead of time the effects of drought," he told IRIN. "That means through proper planning, it can be controlled, mitigated [against] or even prevented."