East Africa has been suffering from recurrent periods of drought. Experts warn droughts in the region are becoming increasingly frequent and more devastating as a result of climate change.
Across eastern Uganda, many communities experienced no rainfall between August 2016 and March 2017. Harvests failed and boreholes dried, leading to both high levels of water scarcity and food insecurity. As an educational charity working in Tororo, we work and correspond with a large number of primary schools within the district. This article aims, albeit briefly, to explain what drought means for them.
The majority of rural primary schools in Tororo district have no access to water on site, and so send small parties of pupils daily to collect water from communal boreholes - which are often large distances from the school compounds. Pupils burdened with water duties routinely miss hours of lessons, adding to the already high rate of absenteeism among children in primary education.
Drought has the effect of amplifying the already serious challenges faced by schools in terms of accessing safe drinking water. Boreholes dry as groundwater levels deepen in the extreme absence of rain, forcing daily water collectors to travel further in search of water, sometimes to dirty wells and often to collect only a fraction of the needed supply.
Speaking at Namwaya Primary School near Nagongera Town, programme coordinator Annie Beatrice Okumu said ‘...children here have been travelling over 3km from the school to the borehole at Busitema University, which was taking them almost 1.5 hours to and from during the rainy reason. But during drought, pupils can stay at the borehole for over 5 hours lining up for water.’
Water shortages in schools have a predictably serious impact on pupil and teacher well being. The supply of safe drinking water often becomes critically low, and general hygiene is badly affected as there is no water for hand washing or cleaning latrines.
Water collectors at Namwaya Primary School in Nagongera Sub-County, Tororo. Credit: Photo/Ondege John.
More serious still are the impacts of drought on agriculture in rural school communities. During late 2016 we received several reports from local officers in Tororo stating crops had failed under drought conditions and that food insecurity was becoming increasingly severe. Many people in the district had become dangerously malnourished, eating one meal a day or less.
'Very many people lost their lives ...even me I lost about three of my relatives.'
Local primary school teacher from Mulanda Sub County, Tororo - August 2017
Speaking with local teachers in July 2017, we heard many speak of high levels of exhaustion and fatigue among school children, given the majority were learning on empty stomachs and without access to safe drinking water. Absenteeism and drop out among primary school pupils grew as a result of increasing domestic pressures, forcing many home to support their families by searching for water or helping with farm work.
Rural communities rely on water to process staple food crops before consumption - particularly cassava, which can be lethally poisonous if consumed before proper preparation. Cassava – the most important staple food in the local diet – contains bioactive cyanogenic glycosides, which breakdown to release toxic hydrogen cyanide gas when they enter the digestive system.
Just as in countless other communities across the world, Ugandan producers use a variety of traditional processing methods to extract cyanogens from cassava - such as soaking and fermenting. However, during drought increased water scarcity prohibits local processing means, which can lead unprocessed cassava products to proliferate in markets and subsistence agriculture.
Speaking with local teachers and parents, accounts of severe health problems and death as a result of eating ‘bad cassava’ were widespread. Locals describe symptoms such as severe fatigue, vomiting and diarrhoea within hours of consuming unprocessed cassava products. Those with means of transport were able to take victims to Tororo General Hospital, where they received treatment. In other cases people have died, including school children – how many remains largely unknown. One local teacher from Mulanda sub-county commented ‘...Very many people lost their lives ...even me I lost about three of my relatives.'
‘Orphanage leads to educational drop-out. They would wish to go, but there is no one to support them.’
Local primary teacher from Rubongi Sub-County, Tororo - August 2017
School children have been affected on all fronts. Teachers and pupils alike have struggled to perform given high levels of fatigue induced by malnutrition and dehydration. Some school children have experienced death of parents and of peers. Orphans must struggle to support their siblings and elders, which often implies sacrificing education. A primary teacher from Rubongi sub-county commented ‘...Orphanage leads to educational drop-out. They would wish to go, but there is no one to support them.’
Whilst rains have returned to Tororo, locals expect episodes of serious drought to reoccur in the near future. UNOCHA suggests repeat experiences of drought across East Africa have seriously limited communities’ ability to cope with further shocks. Many households have been forced to divert human and material assets away from productive investments that may have otherwise provided some defence in the event of another drought. The precarity of education will, for most young Ugandans, continue.