Tackling 2020’s triple tragedy in Karamoja

“We in Karamoja region have in UNICEF an old partner, the oldest and ever dependable one since 1980.”

By Joachim Buwembo
flooding, displacement, floods, Karamoja, diseases, UNICEF emergency response, emrgency supplies, health, water, sanitation, hygiene, education, nutrition, disease prevention, Moroto, Uganda
UNICEF Uganda/2020/Bongyereirwe
04 August 2020

Usually pastoralists keep running away from dry areas in search of wet areas. But now in Karamoja sub-region in north-eastern Uganda, they are running away from wet areas in search of dry areas. This is on account of the unprecedented rains that have pounded this semi-arid part of the country, an occurrence nobody expected except imagining it as a climate change worst-case scenario. But it has happened, and is still happening, threatening a population that is still heavily depended on livestock and is only transitioning to settled agriculture.

The District Chairman of Nakapiripirit, John Nangiro is a veteran of many battles, both political and humanitarian. Explaining the unprecedented floods of 2 May 2020, he says thousands upon thousands of tons of soil on the mountain slopes, which had been loosened by prolonged rains, simply gave way and fell into the river, hence the sudden overflow on a dry afternoon. The water swept all things movable and some immovable as it rushed down the slopes. Hundreds of homes, gardens and animals were simply swept away.
But like fatalists say that misfortunes come in three, the incessant heavy rains and the floods they brought were accompanied by a cholera outbreak, and then the big one – COVID-19 that has affected the world since March 2020.

But Chairman Nangiro is not surprised that the COVID-19 crisis has been effectively tamed, as efforts by the government and a long-term dependable partner delivered the outcome.

“We in Karamoja Region have in UNICEF an old partner, the oldest and ever dependable one since 1980,”

he says with reflective satisfaction.

“I was in high school during Karamoja’s year of disaster. 1980 was undoubtedly the worst and most dangerous year in our history. The military government had fled when a lot of automatic firearms were looted from Moroto barracks. The new successive governments could not venture into Karamoja beyond a small presence in Moroto.  Meanwhile disease was ravaging the population. At this worst of times, it was UNICEF that came in and brought emergency medicines. UNICEF provided boreholes and yes, eradicated the Guinea Worm. UNICEF then started the stabilization of education in Karamoja by creating a water supply point in every school. UNICEF thus not only kept education going but made schools safer and healthier for children to stay. UNICEF has never left us and so was at hand when COVID-19 struck the world.”

So how has the region fared with the COVID-19? The joint efforts of the Ugandan Government and its partners, of whom Chairman Nangiro stresses UNICEF is the most important, have paid off. “In Nakapiripirit alone we have monitored more than 105 suspected cases, but to date we have not had a single positive case of COVID-19,” he says. “Although we border with Amudat District which is at the Kenya border, our population of 120,000 has remained completely free of the virus.”

But supporting the people after the floods is not easy. “Even those of us who have been here for (six) decades had not seen a full year of rainfall, all round from January to December,” Nangiro observes. 

“Roads and bridges have been washed away; houses have been swept away with their contents. These are the worst floods in memorable history and have affected 60,000 people. Even the soil on which to grow food again has in places been washed away.”

Besides cultivators, even artisans and small-scale industrialists were affected. In Namulo township, I encounter 48-year-old Ibrahim Shigenyi, who set up a maize mill last year. He came all the way from Butaleja in the south and brought his family of two children and a wife. The damage by the flood to his milling machine was extensive but two months later, it has been repaired and restored to operating status. He is happy to have received water guard pellets, which keeps his family safe from water-borne diseases. “I am not going anywhere,” says Shigenyi who is of the Banyole community, when asked if he is considering returning to Butaleja or move elsewhere. “The people here are okay and we are here to settle for good.”

The exacerbation of the situation in Karamoja by the COVID-19 outbreak is summed up by Loice Owalinga Odeke, the Nakapiripirit District Environmental Health Officer. Also acting as District Health Officer at the time, she said that when the lockdown due to COVID-19 was announced in late March, it presented an overall setback to the health situation. “The health seeking behaviour that had started taking root in the population, especially the mothers, was adversely affected as people could not move to the health centres due to the restrictions imposed,” she explains.

But there has been a positive side to it. The district COVID-19 task force sensitized the population, using the government guidelines on COVID-19 prevention and response, thanks to the training of health workers and village health teams with UNICEF support. This has been highly beneficial and more people are practicing positive hygiene behaviours as a result. The hand washing facilities are fully utilized, and sanitizers where available readily used. And with or without the UNICEF-supplied facilities, the habit of washing hands with soap frequently has picked up.

“Previously handwashing was at 23.7 per cent. But thanks to the UNICEF-supplied handwashing materials and public education, recently it was found to be at 70 per cent,” she reveals adding that if another survey were done today, she would expect it to be at 100 per cent. “We have fewer diarrhoeal cases as a result of our fighting to prevent the spread of coronavirus. We have cut off most sanitation-related diseases, and the cholera that has been reported in other districts in Karamoja has completely failed to penetrate Nakapiripirit District.”

But while Loice optimistically anticipates a hundred per cent handwashing at the next survey, it will be the continued UNICEF – supported public education to translate the good statistics into permanent behaviour.