Fredrick Mugira, August 17 2020

Ruhangariyo Obedi had planted beans in his garden the size of a football pitch in Nyamuyanja, Isingiro district, one of the areas in Uganda prone to water shortage, when the 2018 mid-year drought struck.

That year, just like a year before, rains failed. His plans of harvesting five bags of 60 kg capacity each did not materialize. He harvested just half a bag. Now he no longer lives in this village, a place where he was born 27 years ago.

“I had no option. I had to migrate to Mbarara town to find what to do to support my mother,” says Obedi, also known as Kachina.

He now washes vehicles in Mbarara town to earn a living. Obedi sends part of the funds he generates from washing vehicles to his mother, a widow to support her.

In his village alone, Obed estimates 20 people, most of them, “in working age,” migrated from his village to Mbarara and Uganda’s capital city in 2018 after rains failed.

Just like Obed, millions of people in the Nile Basin countries, a region of 487.3 million people, are facing similarly hard choices as occurrence of droughts and floods in their area hikes.

Jeconious Musingwire, an environmental scientist and manager for the national environmental watchdog NEMA in southwestern Uganda narrates that during 2018 dry spell, “the situation in most parts of Isingiro district became rough for human survival.”

“We got a dry spell in mid-May which extended up to September,” narrates Jeconious.

More than 60% of Africans are estimated to earn their living from agriculture. These farmers depend on traditional cycles of rainy seasons and dry seasons to grow and harvest their crops.

In the Nile River basin, small declines in rainfall also greatly decrease the flow of rivers that sustain irrigation and agriculture. Unable to make a living from their traditional means, affected people often have no choice but to leave their homelands.

In almost all countries in the Nile basin, rainfall patterns have been changing without warning, making farmers fail to adequately plan for harvests and thus fail to provide food for their families.

That is what Obed and his villagemates did in 2018.  They are part of the 1.8 million people in Africa displaced internally by drought between 2009 to 2018. This is according to the 2019 Africa Report on Internal Displacement. During the same period, 18.1 million people were displaced by floods and 1.3 million other by storm.

And the worst affected countries were in the Nile basin.  For countries, such as, “Somalia and Ethiopia, where more data is available, we estimate that drought has triggered 1.1 million and 500,000 new displacements respectively since 2017,” notes the report.

Likewise, in Sudan, another Nile basin country, “floods displace thousands of people every year in the Jebel Marra area of Darfur, where ongoing clashes worsen their plight and make access extremely difficult,” notes the report further indicating that even in other Nile basin countries such as “Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, sudden-onset hazards often strike areas already affected by drought.”

The edging of the Earth’s temperature towards an increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius is spurring widespread alarm over the potential for climate-driven devastation, including the loss of coastal land and life-sustaining habitats, destructive storms, and higher incidence of diseases.  

The effects are expected to hit hardest in Africa, a continent already struggling with widespread poverty and conflict, where most nations lack the political and economic structures to adequately withstand the rising threats.

Worldwide, there could be between 25 million to one billion environmental migrants by 2050, according to the UN International Organization for Migration.

Specifically, the World Bank in its 2018 report titled Groundswell: Preparing for Internal Climate Migration predicted that “by 2050, without concrete climate and development action, just over 143 million people… could be forced to move within their own countries to escape the slow-onset impacts of climate change.”

Again most of these migrants will be in sub-Saharan Africa according to this same report which indicates that, in this region, “Internal climate migrants could number over 85 million, representing up to four percent of the region’s total population.”

Protestors at the UN’s COP24 summit in Katowice, Poland. Photo by Fredrick Mugira

In most of the arid and semi-arid parts of the Nile basin, Climate-impacted water stresses such as haphazard rainfall patterns, droughts and floods are forcing millions to migrate from their homes for survival, either within their own countries or across borders.

In Uganda for example, landslides in the districts of Bududa, Mbale, Manafwa, Sironko, Bulambuli, Kapchorwa, Bukwo and Kween have over the years rendered up to 12,500 households refugees. In a 10-year resettlement plan, these homesteads will be resettled in Kiryandongo district, hundreds of miles away from their mother districts, according to the Mary Okurut Karooro, Uganda’s Minister for General Duties in the Office of the Prime Minister.

Termed ‘climate refugees,’ these groups of mostly poor farmers often flee without any promise of rights or protections in their new homes.

Unlike conflict and violence, a harsh and unpredictable climate is yet to be legally established as an official factor guaranteeing refugee status yet it displaces more people than the former.

For example in 2018, “of the new 28 million internally displaced people in 148 countries, 61 per cent were due to disasters. In comparison, 39 per cent were displaced due to conflict and violence,” according to the CSE and Down To Earth’s State of India’s Environment 2020 report.

Tension over shared water resources is already high in the transboundary Nile River basin; now, unpredictable water flows caused by climate change are exacerbating existing conflicts and fueling new ones.  

Such conflicts as a result of water scarcity, only add to the rising tide of climate migrants.

And this is not about to end. Water researchers: Ethan D. Coffel  a Neukom Institute Postdoctoral Fellow, Dartmouth College and  Justin S. Mankin,  assistant Professor, Department of Geography, Dartmouth College have predicted in their study titled On foes and flows: Water conflict and cooperation in the Nile River Basin in times of climate change that by 2040, “in a year with average temperatures and rain – the number of people facing water scarcity (in the Nile basin) could reach 35% (about 80 million people)”.

Unfortunately, climate refugees add to the politically driven movements, with increasing numbers of migrants competing for limited land, food and water resources and overwhelming receiving countries and providers of humanitarian aid. 

The East Africa sub region Africa already hosts millions of refugees, most fleeing political conflict.

“By the end of 2018, the region hosted 5.15 million refugees mainly from South Sudan (2.28 million), the DRC (619,500), Somalia (553,800), and Burundi (402,300),” according to the UNHCR 2020 global resettlement needs report.  In just a few years, this region, especially Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, and Sudan, has become the new home for hundreds of thousands of these refugees, fleeing ethnic violence and insecurity in their countries.

As Sunita Narain, the Director General of the India based Centre for Science and Environment  puts it, “it is clear that we need strategies to build local economies so that people do not have to leave,” further stressing that “we must not build a divisive agenda on migration. There will be no end once we start to count the outsider.”

Water Journalists Africa, established in 2011 as a not-for-profit media organization, boasts a membership of journalists hailing from 50 African countries, dedicated to reporting on water, climate change,...

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