Posted inColumns, The Land is Sacred

The Land is Sacred: Water, Water Everywhere

Illustration by Sarah Torina Coulthard, local artist.

“But we cannot have climate justice if the voices of the most affected people and communities are not being listened to. Climate justice will only be justice if all voices are included, if all stories are included, if all experiences are included.” – Skoll world forum 2022, Vanessa Nakate.

It’s Monday. I wake up, wish my partner goodbye and proceed to flick through the notifications coming in on my phone. Low and behold, I see them, article on article talking about the impending “hottest day(s) of the year”, and I am left with a sense of déjà vu. We have, in fact, been here before; I have seen that same article, in slightly different wording, usually accompanied by images of sunny beaches and happy holidaymakers, on what must be several mornings of this year alone. To prove a point, I searched for “hottest day” followed by a month of the year and have compiled this list (which you may feel free to skip, but it is almost comical how similar each article is):

BBC, 2022: “New Year’s Day is warmest on record in the UK, Met Office says”

BBC, 2019: “UK basks in warmest February day on record”

The Guardian, 2021: “UK records warmest March day in 53 years with 24.5C temperatures”

Sky News, 2018: “UK basks in hottest April day for 70 years”

Independent, 2022: “Met office predicts hottest day of year as ‘heatwave’ brings Mediterranean heat”

The Guardian, 2017: “UK heatwave brings hottest June day for 40 years”

BBC, 2019: “Hottest UK July day since records began”

BBC, 2020: “Hottest August day for 17 years as temperatures top 36C”

The Guardian, 2016: “UK’s hottest September day in 105 years sets 2016 record”

BBC, 2020: “UK’s new warmest December confirmed in Highlands”

Now, I fully understand that a big part of British personality is to relish every day that isn’t grey and raining, but having “major heatwave” and “enjoying the sunshine” in the same article feels in poor taste. As much as I would like to leave the pervasive climate scepticism of the pre-COP21 age behind, I find myself questioning the choice of such positive imagery or even the overtly enthusiastic reporting on heat waves. I understand that these short form articles were only meant to inform on the weather, however it certainly feels like the editors are sidestepping the elephant in the room. The list of headlines follows a report from the IPCC, indicating that the UK has been experiencing higher maximum temperatures in recent years. So considering that 75% of British adults are worried about a changing climate, celebrating this “new normal” doesn’t feel all that fun. Climate doomerism is certainly not the way to approach climate-related news, but there needs to be a greater sense of urgency. We have to ask if this is enough?

It goes without saying that the UK’s rising temperature is a symptom of global warming, and whilst worsening weather patterns for us is nigh, this pales in comparison to the severe weather events that have already occurred abroad. For this we look at how global warming has been devastating Uganda, its rural communities, and the intersection between gender and climate change. 

The Ugandan landscape is made up of rolling hills, lush tropical forests, snow-capped mountains, and large bodies of water (in fact it makes up 25% of the country’s surface area). Situated where 7 biogeographic regions converge, Uganda has incredibly high levels of biodiversity, with over 18,000 species of flora and fauna, and ecosystems rich in wildlife. In terms of livelihood, farming makes up a large part of the shared experience of Ugandans, whereby agriculture, the cornerstone of Uganda’s economy, employs approximately 70% of the working population. As you can imagine, the consequences of a rapidly changing climate on an economy largely (although not exclusively) dependent on agriculture, will only worsen with time. 

In fact, it has already begun to take its toll. Save for the northernmost regions, Uganda is mostly a tropical, humid country, with moderate temperatures around 23॰C and two rainy seasons per year. These wet seasons should usher in better air quality, replenish fresh water supplies, and provide the much needed soil hydration following the natural dry seasons; historically, the rains had been enough to sustain crops throughout the year, but with climate change they’re becoming less frequent. This, combined with unusually long periods of drought, means that smallholder farmers are seeing increasingly worse harvests as seeds fail to germinate under these new arid conditions. Uganda’s weather in general is becoming more unpredictable, and worse still, weather events are becoming more severe. Because even though it’s raining less on average, when it does rain, it floods.

In March 2020, villages near Mount Rwenzori had been awoken in the early hours by the distant sounds of rumbling. The torrential showers from the previous evening had burst the banks of 4 rivers in the Kasese district and the water had begun making its way down the mountain, taking with it massive boulders which consequently triggered a landslide. Landslides are caused by changes in the stability of a slope and a common driving force, especially in mountainous regions, are heavy rains that weaken the soil to such a degree where they fail to hold any longer. In the end, some 24,000 homes had been affected, as well as hospitals, roads, and water points being severely damaged. Speaking to The Guardian, Dorothy Masika (34) recalls the fear she felt as she and her family scrambled to safety. 

“I ran back to the house to wake up my husband and children. I knocked and alerted our neighbours. The floods and stones are coming to kill us.”

Upon returning, she had found very little to salvage from the wreckage, “we have been left homeless and very desperate. Where do we start from? We need urgent assistance”. Experiences like Dorothy’s are becoming commonplace as Uganda’s climate shifts to greater instances of serious weather events, forcing thousands of people into extremely vulnerable positions. In 2019, unprecedented rains across Uganda caused floods and landslides so severe it had reportedly displaced over 60,000 people. Even for those who were able to return to their homes, there was still the issue of food security and illness, as crops had been washed away, and without basic facilities, people had resorted to drinking contaminated water (Rwenzori is a vital water catchment area to at least 500,000 people). 

With displacement comes the risk of violence, with women and children at the most risk, whereby their heightened vulnerability in times of crisis forces them to live under the threat of sexual violence and harrasment. It is well-documented that climate change disproportionately affects women more than men as a result of economic marginalisation, disenfranchisement, and disparate labour responsibilities. Women in Uganda not only partake in subsistence/commercial farming, but are also more involved with unpaid care and domestic work (UCDW); with a worsening climate, they must walk longer for food and water, will likely face greater threats to income as the agricultural sector declines (women in agribusiness are already paid less than their male counterparts), and are left with fewer protections as shelters and hospitals get destroyed in floods and landslides. Under the threat of extreme poverty, parents will also become desparate and instances of child marriage may increase. For these reasons and more, 25 year old youth climate activist Vanessa Nakate has made a point to consistently include women in the discussion around climate change solutions and climate resilience.

A staunch female rights advocate, Vanessa began solo striking outside Ugandan parliament in 2019 after being inspired by Greta Thunberg. Her campaign picked up traction amongst the youth population online, and her solo protest soon grew into national climate strikes. Since then, she has delivered passionate speeches at COP25 and the Desmond Tutu International Peace Lecture; wrote a book on the intersection of climate change, feminism, and racism; and has continued to be a champion for climate change and women’s rights in Uganda. She stresses the importance of including women in policy decisions, both to prevent the oversight of women when designing climate policies but to also benefit from the unique insight offered by women in rural communities. 

The lack of gender equality means that women find themselves more constrained than men in accessing information on climate resilience or in securing finances to benefit themselves and their communities (for instance, it may be harder to secure funding for climate resilient saplings). Vanessa’s activism led her to start the Green Schools Project, which not only serves to educate young people in rural communities about climate change, but is also making schools more sustainable by installing solar panels and eco-friendly stoves. By using these programs to engage women in climate protection and utilising her platform to campaign for girls’ education, Vanessa Nakate is helping to provide women with the tools they need to survive in a rapidly changing environment. In this she is not alone. Hilda Flavia Nakabuye, who just recently turned 25, began her own protests at a similar time and now empowers girls and women to take a stand against climate injustice. 

So, now I ask again. Is the UK doing enough to support youth activists like Hilda by enacting effective environmental policy? Well, the government’s Build Back Greener plans certainly look impressive, yet their recent behaviour leaves much to be desired. Between conservative MPs looking to bring back fracking, to a recent report by The Independent suggesting that the government failed to deliver nearly a quarter of a billion pounds in green projects, the move to a low carbon future feels more like we’re trudging through molasses. Vanessa Nakate certainly believes that we can do more; writing for The Economist back in March, she criticised the British government’s continued interest in new fossil fuel projects and emphasised her distrust in Western governments. 

So, whilst I do not believe that lighthearted reporting of British weather is somehow affecting the government’s response to climate change, it does feel indicative of a general lack of urgency in the general public. To the devil’s-advocate complaining that the UK is doing more to tackle climate change than many other countries, I will simply say that we do not get a gold star for a mediocre performance when it should be our civic obligation to do better. To put it plainly, as one of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, it is imperative that we stop thinking about how our contributions will affect us and start thinking about how our inactions will affect climate-vulnerable countries and the people living in the mess they didn’t create. 

“We need every woman on board fighting for their lives. The climate crisis has no borders.” – Hilda Nakabuye.