Photo essay: Shifting seasons and the search for water in Karamoja
Karamoja sub-region, located in north eastern Uganda, is characterised by harsh climatic conditions. These range from frequent droughts to high temperatures, with hot and dry winds all year round. In the last few months, the area has been experiencing particularly erratic rains across its nine districts.
This shift in weather seasons is disrupting the traditional lifestyle of cattle keepers, especially the pastoralist majority who, for generations, have relied on livestock as their main source of subsistence. Short scattered torrential rains have also increased soil erosion and land degradation, which has contributed to poor harvests and food insecurity.
This photo essay, conducted in October 2021, explores how Uganda’s last remaining pastoralist communities are searching for water as climate change increasingly disrupts traditional ways of life in the cattle corridor.
In Ariamaoi village, Nabilatuk district, a family of Karamojong elders walk home after escorting herders and advising them on safe grazing routes. Iriama Anthony, 34, leading from the front, is a household head of the Manyatta (Small Karamoja homesteads). He plays a major role in providing information regarding the quantity of water and pasture versus the number of livestock in the area. Moving in a queue is a security mechanism they use especially in this period when cattle raids and conflicts have increased in the region.
At about 10am when the dew has fallen, the herders start to move with their cows, carrying small jerry cans with water for drinking on the long walks. Despite anticipating a dry season, herders in Amudat were shocked by floods due to heavy rains. The districts of Nakapiripirit and Nabilatuk had similarly experienced an early onset of torrential downpour, while other areas saw unpredictable rains.
After a heavy downpour the previous night, pastoralists in Amudat move with their cattle along a muddy road to find greener grass. Some roads that serve as the major grazing routes are impassable due to flooding.
Not all areas of Karamoja experienced the unusual rains. River Omaniman, one of the region’s longest and fast-running rivers, was completely dry in October. During the wet season, or when this area of Kotido receives unseasonal rains in the dry spell, the river floods with dense water flow, which can sometimes claim the lives of people and animals.
In Kotido, cattle cross a dry river bed. Many of the rivers in this district have dried despite the scattered heavy rains. Pastoralists have to travel 30km or more to find sufficient water for their livestock. Despite erratic downpours, the supply of water is insufficient, especially for home use. The nature of the soil in Karamoja doesn’t help – the sub-region has a low soil organic carbon level, which plays an essential role in moisture retention.
In the Amudat district, a community borehole sits in a groundwater flood. Boreholes and small ponds are typically used to provide water for small stocks like goats and sheep as well as for home use. Most pastoralists draw drinking water from these poorly maintained hand pumps. They are often contaminated with waste, leading to risks of waterborne diseases like cholera and typhoid. The stagnant water, which acts as a breeding ground for mosquitoes, has also contributed to an increase in malaria, especially among children.
A Karamojong boy digs a small hole for freshwater at the River Loidiri bank. The boy and his brothers were herding their livestock when they stopped to find water. On reaching the underground supply, they pour out the surface water, leaving fresher water to sprout seconds later. With this method, pastoralists can drink water that is not contaminated.
A woman washes her clothes at river Ajijim in Nabilatuk district. In the dry season, the boreholes run low. People therefore move to find water for many of their domestic needs. Individuals tend to use the the little borehole and rainwater they can collect for drinking and cooking, while using water from rivers for livestock and other intensive domestic tasks.
Owalinga Lawrence, 16, milks one of his family’s cows on return to the kraal in Ariamaoi Village, Nabilatuk district. In the pastoral communities, it is usually the young boys who milk and graze the cattle.
A group of Karamojong engage in night-time conversations while drinking locally brewed alcohol. They have not had a solid meal today, subsisting only on gathered fruits and water. At night, they only had milk.
A July 2021 analysis by IPC indicates that the proportion of highly food insecure people in the region has grown, increasing from 27% in June 2020 to 30% in March 2021. Many households face acute malnutrition, a situation linked to an increase in cattle theft and raids.
To confront the challenges, several water sources and systems have been developed through government, NGOs, and community efforts. At least six sources of water exist in the region: boreholes, windmills, ponds, valley dams, river beds, and rivers.
The Arecek-Nakicumet water dam in Napak district was constructed between 2007 and 2011. Mount Napak behind it channels water into the six-metre deep dam that is used for irrigation and fish farming as well as supporting herders access water for their livestock, especially in dry spells.
In Ariamaoi village, Nabilatuk district, a family of Karamajongs stand by their man-made water pond. Using hoes and other digging tools, they set up the pond in preparation for the long dry spell but have not had to use it yet due to ongoing rainfall. They say this five-feet deep pond, which was filled with water from previous rains, can sustain water for up to two months during the long dry spells.
A crowd of sellers and buyers mingle in the goats and sheep section of Kanawat Livestock Market in Kotido district. More than 200 animals a day are sold at this market. The costs of livestock in Karamoja are dependent on the season. During the wet season, buyers are typically willing to purchase cattle at rates set by the sellers. In the dry season, when livestock health has deteriorated due to poor feeding, prices fall.
Irregular weather patterns have led many pastoralists to give up on their traditional ways. Some have ventured into crop farming or small-scale businesses despite a lack of experience or training. Mathew Lumwinyi, an elder in Kotido district, says the number of Karamojong selling their livestock is growing. This practice was once almost taboo given the community’s sentimental attachment to the animals.