Shifting Seasons: Unpredictable rains disrupt pastoralist communities in Karamoja, Uganda

Shifting Seasons: Unpredictable rains disrupt pastoralist communities in Karamoja, Uganda

In Ariamaoi village, Nabilatuk district, a family of Karamojong elders walk back home after escorting herders and advising them on the grazing routes that are safe to use. Iriama Anthony, 34, leading them at the front, is a household head of the Manyatta (Small Karamoja homesteads) in the village. 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.

By Stuart Tibaweswa

Karamoja sub-region, located in northeastern Uganda, is characterized by harsh climatic conditions ranging from frequent droughts to high temperatures with hot and dry winds all year round. Since October 2021, the area has been experiencing a shift in weather seasons with erratic rains recorded across its nine districts; Abim, Amudat, Kaabong, Karenga, Kotido, Moroto, Nabilatuk, Nakapiripirit, and Napak. 

These climatic changes are 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 heavily contributed to an increase in soil erosion and land degradation, which has contributed to poor harvests and food insecurity in Karamoja.

“Shifting Seasons” 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 October 2021, I made the journey of eight hours to Moroto town, to spend eight days moving with a group of herders as they went about their days. 

It was an eye-opening experience being in the region for my first time. The daily life of Karamojong is quite different from what I or many of us are used to.

They live in ‘kraals,’ or small homesteads, with thorny fences and blocks of wood encircled for protection against raids and wild animals that might attack their cattle.

As early as 5 a.m., I was forced to wake up by the loud mooing sounds of cattle. Young boys between the ages of 6 and 10 are in charge of milking the cows, and it is amazing how fast they do it. 

Peter Lemukul, 5, milking one of his fathers’s cows in Ariamaoi Village, Nabilatuk district. He does this every morning and evening with his brother and cousins. 

At 7 a.m. in Ariamaoi Village, Nabilatuk district, Angelle Peter and his colleagues sit together sunbathing while brushing their teeth with sticks and having conversations. In one situation, they were speaking about which grazing routes to use after receiving an alert about an expected raid by a group of rustlers within their area. It was pretty scary when my interpreter mentioned this to me, knowing the insecurity situation at the time. 

At about 10 a.m. when the dew has fallen, the herders start the move with their cows, carrying small jerry cans that store water for drinking on the long walks. Shockingly, since it was the dry season, herders in Amudat were facing floods due to heavy rains in the past few days. These made some grazing routes impassable.

Dry season rains

In October 2021, anticipating a dry season, Amudat, Nakapiripirit and Nabilatuk realized an early onset of torrential rains, whereas Kotido and Kaabong districts experienced unpredictable rains. The patchy vegetation that sprouts in the wake of these flash floods are seen especially in Kotido, Amudat, and Nabilatuk districts.

After a heavy downpour the previous night, pastoralists in Amudat move with their cattle along a muddy road to find greener grass. Because of the heavy rains, some roads that serve as the major grazing routes had been flooded. Heavy rains and floods also destroyed crops. 

Due to the unpredictable rains, various rivers, especially in Amudat district, were seen with water flowing on one side of the river bed with the other dry.

Many of the rivers in Amudat district were also saturated with water.

A Karamojong pastoralist cools himself from the hot sun with the surface water from the heavy downpour the previous night in Amudat district. During the dry season, temperatures can reach as high as 40°C, but average around 29°C in the afternoon. 

Not all areas of Karamoja benefited from the unusual rains. River Omaniman, one of Karamoja’s longest and fast-running rivers through Kotido district, was left completely waterless over the dry season in October. During the wet season or when this area of Kotido is receiving heavy rains, the river floods with dense water flow, which can sometimes claim the lives of people and animals.

Pastoralist ‘dropouts’

In 2014, Karamoja accounted for about 20 percent of Uganda’s total livestock. Irregular weather patterns coupled with the inconsistent rainfall supply have however influenced a great number of pastoralist dropouts, according to Mathew Lumwinyi, an elder in Moroto district. Former herders have ventured into crop farming or small-scale businesses, but face challenges in crop agriculture due to lack of skills. 

Expecting a dry spell, many also decided not to cultivate in October 2021, increasing the food insecurity in the region. In Kotido district alone, Mathew Lumwinyi, an elder, said that the number of Karamojongs selling their livestock as a result of food shortage is growing, something that was very unusual before, given their sentimental attachment to the animals that made selling a near taboo.

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. Pastoralists use the money to buy food during the long dry spells.

“At the moment, I could sell a cow between 600,000 UGX ($171) and 1,200,000 UGX ($341). During the wet season, it could even go double for a fully grown one,” said James Okono, a pastoralist from Kotido district.

Pastoralists assess the state of their goats before they are sold at Kanawat Livestock Market in Kotido. It is noted that livestock sales in Karamoja are dependent on the season. During the wet season with adequate rains, buyers are willing to purchase cattle at the rates set by the sellers, unlike the dry season where they buy cheaply since the cows’ body condition has deteriorated as a result of not feeding properly. 

More scattered rains, but less water?

Pastoralists in the Karamoja sub-region rely heavily on water. It is one of the most important resources they need to sustain their livestock; however, they still have insufficient supply especially in Kotido, Amudat, and Kaabong districts.

The nature of the soil has contributed to water scarcity. The sub-region holds a low soil organic carbon, which plays an essential role in soil binding and moisture retention.   

Despite the erratic heavy rains, there is still a lack of enough water resources especially for home use. Livestock can drink the surface water, unlike the pastoralists, since it can cause diseases.

In Kotido district, cattle have crossed through a dried river bed. Many of the rivers in Kotido have dried despite the scattered heavy rains. These days, pastoralists have to move 30 kilometers longer to find sufficient water for their livestock, especially in Kotido. 

In Kotido district, a Karamojong herds boy watches over his cattle. This river was the herders’ first water encounter of the day after walking for about four hours. It is very common in the Karamoja region today to see young boys between the ages of 6 and 15 moving with their cattle, especially in safer grazing grounds around Moroto and Amudat. 

In Amudat district, a community borehole sits in a groundwater flood. Boreholes and small ponds are highly utilized to water small stocks like goats and sheep as well as provide water for home use. Most pastoralists draw drinking water from such hand pumps that are poorly kept with rainwater contaminated with waste, causing waterborne diseases like cholera and typhoid. The stagnant water, which acts as a breeding ground for mosquitoes, has also contributed to an increased incidence of 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 by a river to take water. On reaching the water underneath, they pour out the surface water, leaving fresher water to bubble up seconds later. With this method, the pastoralists can drink water that is not contaminated.  

A woman washes her clothes at river Ajijim in Nabilatuk district. Being a dry season, the basic sources of water in this area like some of the boreholes were dry with no water at all. People, therefore, move further to where they can access more water to carry on heavy domestic needs. In Nabilatuk for example, individuals would rather store the little collected borehole and rainwater for drinking and cooking, and use water from rivers for livestock and other intensive domestic needs.

A looming hunger crisis 

After a long day of walking, we finally set up camp for the night in Ariamaoi Village, Nabilatuk district. A group of Karamojong engage in night time conversations while drinking their locally brewed alcohol. Spending the day walking with them and their cattle, I observed they never ate any solid meal apart from the gathered fruits and water – their granaries had barely any food. At night, they only took milk while chewing sunflower seeds.

Ruth Nakwang, a resident of Kakwakou village, Kaabong district, displays dried seeds used to make soup to be eaten with maize. Ruth and her family chew them separately now that their maize stock ran out, she said. 

According to a 2014 study by Dr. Antony Egeru, a human ecologist and researcher on dry areas, there is a 70 percent likelihood that a crop planted in the Karamoja sub-region will fail because of the unpredictable rainfall.

This essentially means that the community is operating in a difficult time as their fallback plan is no longer available, leaving the population at the risk of famine and drought. 

A July 2021 report analysis by IPC also indicates that overall, the highly food insecure population in the region has progressively worsened, increasing from 27 percent in June 2020 to 30 percent in March 2021. This leaves children in households under acute malnutrition due to inadequate food access and contributes to the increase in cattle theft and raids

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 that milk and graze the cattle. 

Toward solutions, in an uncertain time

Amidst the challenges, several water sources and systems have been developed through government, NGO, and community efforts to help manage the crisis and climate variability. 

At least six sources of water exist in the region, providing water for both human and livestock use: boreholes, windmills, ponds, valley dams, river beds, and rivers.

During the desperate dry periods, people dig out sand in the river beds to reach the water. 

Over the years, a series of valley dams have been constructed by the Ugandan government to provide continuous water for livestock and basic home use. These large-scale dams including Arecek-Nakicumet in Napak, Kobebe in Moroto, and Lomogol in Kotido, have also proved to be very useful in the region, especially in Moroto and Napak where the major dams have hardly dried since construction.

The Arecek-Nakicumet water dam in Napak district, which was constructed between 2007 and 2011. In the background is Mount Napak, which channels water into the 6-meter deep dam that is currently serving multiple benefits including irrigation purposes, fish farming and supporting herders in accessing water for their livestock especially in dry spells.

In Nakicumet, Napak district, a group of farmers work on an onion garden. They also grow green pepper and tomatoes, which heavily rely on the irrigation system that uses water from Arecek-Nakicumet dam. According to the farmers, the small garden has supported some neighbouring communities when they are totally out of food.

“When it’s dry, the drip irrigation system cannot support the watermelon. The unstable rain has disturbed our watermelon from growing,” said Sire Micheal, keys keeper of the garden.

The Arecek water dam caretaker, who also acts as an underground tank operator, climbs back to the surface after opening pipes that allow water to flow into the common stream accessed by the community. During a heavy downpour, the level of water is monitored to not exceed 7 meters. Water is channeled out to small ponds from the underground tanks to maintain the water level.

Still, a 2021 assessment of 26 dams in Karamoja found that other than Kobebe and Nakicumet-Arecheke dams, most dams were drying up: The water in all the other dams was too little to cover the next dry period, and water quality was poor, with a high amount of silt. This was attributed to people watering their livestock directly in the dam instead of using the nearby water facilities designated for livestock, which are mainly in disrepair, the study concluded. 

In Ariamaoi village, Nabilatuk district, a Karamajong family 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 since not used it as the area is receiving some rain. According to them, this 5-foot pond that was filled with water from previous rains can sustain water for up to two months during the long dry spells.

“All the men in this area come together so we can dig the pond. We strictly use the water during the dry seasons,” said Ariama Anthony (right), head of the household.


This story was supported by InfoNile with funding from IHE-Delft Water and Development Partnership Programme. Editing and data visualizations by Annika McGinnis.

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