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KARAMOJA, 24 March (IRIN) - While much of Uganda continues to enjoy ample rains, Karamoja's arid semi-desert looks all set for a fifth year of drought. The rains have until mid-April. According to the normal cycle for this northeastern border province, if they haven't arrived by then, they won't come at all. And the forecast does not look good.
"Current predictions for weather in the region are not at all positive," says Purnima Kashyad, coordinator for the World Food Programme (WFP) in Karamoja, "so we are on standby for a crop failure."
Should the rains fail to materialise, an already impoverished, hungry population will be looking in worse shape than they have for some time. There are already reports of widespread famine in Karamoja as a result of last year's drought.
Granaries have been empty for months and underfed cattle are not yielding any milk or blood. So people are foraging amongst the sparse vegetation in search of anything to fill their stomachs - including leaves and green tree fruits totally unsuitable for human consumption.
"These are coping mechanisms and they are short-lived," says Peter Achia, head of the Matheniko Development Forum, a local NGO working to improve pastoral livelihoods. "The season for these green fruits is already over anyway."
HARSH CLIMATE WORSENING
Sitting under the shade of her hut to escape the blistering dry heat, 65-year old Sagel Naduwo explains how her village of Maturumurum in Matheniko sub-county is suffering the worst famine she can ever remember.
"You walk around our village, you won't see a grain of food," she says. "We are living off one bowl of boiled tree leaves a day." As a source of food, the tree leaves are far from ideal - they are hard to digest and provide little nourishment. "They taste bitter and are giving us diarrhoea, but they are the only way we have to stop hunger," says Sagel.
The climate in this semi-desert region has always been tough. Rainfall is scant and when it does come it comes for only one season. Yet recent years have been extraordinarily harsh. According to Abusyed Saiffuzzaman, head of WFP for Karamoja's largest district of Moroto, the climate is changing.
"Even now you can see there's no rain when you'd normally expect it. People have prepared the land and there is nothing," he says.
Meanwhile, controversy rages over whether or not anyone has actually died of famine. Reports about people dying have been trickling through since the end of 2002, but it is thought some may be politically motivated. Some say local leaders want to divert resources and aid away from the war-torn north of Uganda so they are hyping the famine to boost Karamoja's disaster profile.
But Achia is emphatic that people are dying. "I've seen with my own eyes people die of hunger, thin and emaciated," he says. "The other day I had a priest confirm to me that 13 people had died of hunger in his parish alone."
Other local leaders are making similar claims. "Sixty-nine people have died of famine just in this village [Lorengedwat]. There are others who won't survive much longer," says Simon Iriama, district councillor for Lorengedwat sub-county.
But reports of deaths from famine are disputed. Moses Apopel, district commissioner for disaster preparedness in Moroto, points out that there are some anomalies in the figures.
"We got reports that people were dying from hunger in Karamoja last November," he told IRIN. "We investigated and got five sub-counties to give us lists of names. The total reported in these lists was 501. But some of them were giving names of people who had died in 2000 or 2001."
In the absence of forensic proof, reports of deaths have largely had to be taken on trust. "We asked for proof, but of course they said 'we are not doctors - we cannot prove these people's deaths were caused by famine'. There's no equipment here to determine these things. Because these people are on the ground, you have to trust them to some degree," says Apopel.
He adds, however, that there is grisly evidence of famine available to the naked eye. "I recently went to a place called Nakapelimen. You can see people emaciated to the bone with hunger, too weak to move. Things are much more serious in Karamoja than they were when the government carried out an assessment last October."
With growing hunger has come a general deterioration in security, as Karamojong warriors are robbing homes and ambushing vehicles in search of food. Karamoja rivals Uganda's war-torn northern districts as one of the country's prime trouble spots. The number of machine guns circulating in this lawless region is estimated to be around 40,000, about one gun for every 10 people (though some estimates put the number at twice as many).
Armed robberies and killings are on the increase and have long since broadened beyond the traditional cattle-rustling. A disarmament programme introduced by the government in 2001 is generally thought to have been a complete flop because it failed to disarm communities in an even-handed way.
In the long run, one thing all parties agree on is that neither Karamoja's gun problem nor its periodic food insecurity will be solved unless income-generating activities are found for the Karamojong.
At a time when much of the rest of Uganda is flourishing, Karamoja is falling behind in every respect. Unemployment is high. Literacy runs at an unbelievably low six percent (compared with a national average of 70 percent), diseases and child mortality are the highest in the country, and only one percent of Karamojong has ever used a telephone.
The insecurity and economic backwardness reinforce each other, with insecurity preventing investment in Karamoja - leading to more unemployment and more insecurity.
"Karamoja is not an encouraging place to do business," WFP's Abusyed Saifuzzaman points out. "The security situation is getting worse by the day. The vehicle ambushes alone are enough to put off any serious trade."
Despite the obstacles, there are a number of development initiatives for the region, ranging from irrigation projects to mineral exploitation to trading livestock. But if the rains fail this year these will probably have to be put on hold. Famine relief will take centre stage.
"If this crop fails, there will be a big disaster," warns Saifuzzaman. "Then you'll see a real famine. The current situation won't even compare."
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