SIRONKO – Climate change and outbreak of new diseases are some of the major threats to Mt Elgon’s sustainable development and efforts to end poverty
Mt Elgon sub-region has experienced increased adverse weather patterns such as prolonged drought, landslides/Mudslides, and devasting floods
When you stand at a distance and look at Mt Elgon now, you will notice clouds of smoke hanging over the slopes of this national resource.
Farmers across Bugisu and Sebei sub-regions at this time of the year set fire to burn bushes around Mt Elgon to clear part of this resource to make way for agriculture/farming activities.
From December through January to February and part of March every year, farmers usually do this and nobody points a finger at them for destroying the environment.
The fires exacerbated by the dry weather across the area, smother in a haze, leaving resident bats, rodents, snails, and other animals whose habitat is a forest with no other option than to run elsewhere for shelter and in search of food, carrying with them deadly diseases.
And not so long after the bats settle in Caves where cattle, sheep, and goats are kept, human beings around them start to fall sick—presumably after eating the bats, goats, cattle, and taking the milk.
Reports across the country indicate that by October 2017, two people in the Kween district at the slopes of Mt Elgon had developed a fever, chills, headache, gum bleeding, and vomiting blood.
This was a first known emergence of a strange disease which government epidemiologists confirmed was an outbreak of Marburg hemorrhagic fever case in the eastern district of Kween, which then caused a string of recurrent threats across Mt Elgon.
And across the Mt Elgon ridges, agricultural activities have also affected forest ecosystems in diverse ways and removal of trees to enhance agricultural production has changed canopy structure, light regimes and the structure of populations and communities.
A paper titled; A funny place to store carbon”: UWA-FACE Foundation’s tree planting project in Mount Elgon National Park, Uganda by Mr Chris Yang and Mr Timothy Byakola, 2006 says clearing areas for agricultural purposes is the main cause of habitat destruction and that other principle causes include settlement, mining and logging.
According to Mr Bob Natifu, the acting Commissioner, Minister of Water and Environment agrees that deforestation displaces wildlife species, putting them in closer proximity with each other and to humans which increases human exposure to new infectious diseases and makes humans more vulnerable to pandemics like the deadly COVID-19, Ebola, Marburg etc.
He explained that the ministry is working on restoring the environment integrity that is deteriorating at a significant rate therefore causing diseases for human beings, adding that a 2017 science paper also linked the recent forest loss to 25 Ebola outbreaks that occurred in 1976.
A report published in Frontiers in Veterinary Science March 24, 2021 says that outbreaks of both vector-borne and Zoonotic diseases are linked to deforestation and that they increased between 1990 and 2016, the study noted, proving right past theories.
“Any disease caused by a virus, bacteria, parasite or fungi turns Zoonotic if the infection jumps from animals to humans, like was the case with the novel Coronavirus disease (COVID-19),” reads the report by Frontiers in part.
Environmentalists agree that deforestation and burning of bushes is a major cause of biodiversity loss and climate change with a negative impact on human health.
A 2015 study accessed by this reporter reveals that researchers at Eco-health Alliance, a New York-based non-profit that track infectious diseases globally and others found that “nearly one in three outbreaks of new and emerging disease[s] are linked to land-use change like deforestation, sttlement and burning bushes.
The study reveals further that many viruses exist harmlessly with their host animals in forests, because the animals have co-evolved with them and that humans can become unwitting hosts for pathogens when they venture into or change forest habitat.
Dr Muhammad Mulongo says besides the deadly COVID-19, Ebola and Marburg, there are other diseases caused by deforestation and burning of bushes.
He explained that clearing patches of forest or burning them appears to create ideal habitat along forest edges for the mosquito Anopheles darling—the most important transmitter of malaria in the sub-region now—to breed.
He revealed that on top of known diseases, scientists fear that a number of yet-unknown deadly diseases are lurking in forests that could be exposed as people encroach and deforest Mt Elgon further.
“There is also Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacterium that causes Lyme disease—is transmitted by ticks that rely on forest-dwelling deer to breed and obtain enough blood to survive,” Dr Mulongo said adding that mouse which happens to thrive in forests fragmented by human settlements could also cause diseases.
This comes at the time a growing body of scientific evidence shows that the felling of Mt Elgon forests creates optimal conditions for the spread of mosquito-borne scourges, including malaria and dengue and that Primate and other animals are also spreading disease from cleared forests to people.
Another paper titled; Ecology of Increasing Diseases: Population Growth and Environmental Degradation 2007 by Mr D Pimentel and others says currently an estimated 40% of world deaths are due to environmental degradation and climate change.
“The ecology of increasing diseases has complex factors of environmental degradation, population growth, and the current malnutrition of about 3.7 billion people in the world,” reads the paper in part.
Dr Jonathan Wangisi who doubles as District Health Officer for Mbale says that forests play a vital role in human health and well-being while offering a wide array of ecosystem services, however, biological diversity and ecosystem goods and services provided by Mt Elgon forests are on the decline due to extensive deforestation and degradation.
“And many Virus-carrying rodents will soon be spotted in deforested areas of Mt Elgon unless we change out attitude towards conserving our environment and stop cutting down trees plus burning bushes,” said Dr Wangisi.
“And this is also resulting in change of Climate, we need to rethink, stop burning bushes to leave the animals whose habitat is in the forest safe,” added Dr Wangisi.
A recent paper by the US national Library of Medicine [Public health Emergency Covid 19 initiative published October 2020 also says the loss of biodiversity in the ecosystems has created the general conditions that have favored and, in fact, made possible, the insurgence of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It is clear that scientific studies published before the current pandemic had already showed a connection between deforestation, the proliferation of bats in the damaged areas and the family of Coronaviruses, which includes the current lethal strain.
Prof. Mark Jacobson, a Stanford associate professor of civil and environmental engineering explains by far the most carbon is tied up in trees, so burning forests has a much larger effect on climate change than does burning grasses or crops.
“Forest burning is a net contributor to global warming, scientist,” says Prof Jacobson in an article titled; Burning Fuel Particles Do More Damage to Climate than Thought by The New York Times Jan. 15, 2013
He says the tiny black particles released into the atmosphere by burning are far more powerful agents of global warming than had previously been estimated.
He adds that when forests are permanently burnt and replaced by other plant types – shrubs, grasses, crops, all of which contain less carbon than trees – the carbon difference accumulates in the atmosphere.”
While it can be convenient to think of human health and the environment as Silos that are unrelated and operating independently, they are in fact closely related.
According to the Notre Dame Global Adaptation Initiative Index 2021 report, Uganda is the 12th most vulnerable country in the world to climate change, and the 49th least prepared country to combat its effects.
And this has been so because of human activities that includes burning of bushes/grass, deforestation and poor land management across the country.
Reports Uganda National Meteorological Authority https://www.unma.go.ug/ indicate that Bugisu, Sebei and lower parts of Mt Elgon, climate change and increased weather variability has been observed and is manifested in the increase in frequency and intensity of weather extremes, including high temperatures leading to prolonged drought and erratic rainfall patterns
The reports indicate that the area is now facing rising heavy rainfall patterns that are scattered across, flooding, mudslides, storms, droughts and frequent and intense heat due to climate change.
Mr Frank Muramuzi, the executive director of National Association of Professional Environmentalists (NAPE) says while we still can, let’s do our share to stop degrading our ecosystems adding that “Our lives depend on all of us interacting in a sustainable environment,”
Mt Elgon encroachment:
Ms Sarah Bisikwa, the Manafwa district senior environment officer [natural resources officer] says that encroachment for cultivation into the national park is a major threat to the Mt Elgon eco-system due to the amount of degradation caused.
Ms Bisikwa says that encroachment has resulted into the deterioration of approximately one fifth of Mt Elgon’s forest within the past generation.
According to Ms Bisikwa, in the 1970s through the 1980s, Mt Elgon remained grassy, with various trees that lay unperturbed by activities of man – the trees stood out and the forest cover remained green as organisms lived symbiotically [having an interdependence relationship].
“But sadly today; we can only have nostalgic images of this past where trees stood out in the gardens and organisms interrelated freely without man’s interference,” Ms Bisikwa said.
Mr Fred Kizza, the Mt Elgon conservation area manager says that the increasing incidents of mudslides in the upper encroached hills of Mt Elgon, high incidences of malaria, Marburg, recurring incidents of incessant rainfall and threats of biodiversity indicate that human life living around the mountain is in danger if government does not develop guidelines for sustaining the ecological diversity at Mt Elgon.
Mr Kizza argues that the continued depletion of Mt Elgon natural forest by burning is a major threat to the livelihoods of citizens due to climate change and that it also endangers the tourism sector, which is currently one of the biggest sources of foreign exchange for the country.
He said government must keep alive the goal of limiting global temperature increases and protect the people living around Mt Elgon from the impending worst impacts of climate change.
“If we do not act now, we will continue to see the worst effects of climate change, such as catastrophic flooding, fires and drought.” Mr Kizza said.
Dr Pauline Byakika, a senior researcher on Malaria at the School of Medicine Makerere University College of Health Sciences says as climate change rises, the higher parts of the mountains which were previously unsuitable for the breeding of mosquitoes are becoming favourable for mosquitoes and other diseases hitherto unknown.
“Although prevalence of malaria used to be low in most hilly areas of the country, the disease is re-emerging in the highland areas due to a combination of climate and non-climate factors especially vast deforestation on the hills and burning of forests,” said Dr Byakika.
She said a combination of unusually high temperatures, low rainfall and humidity encourages malaria epidemics and several other diseases.
The minister of Water and Environment Mr Sam Cheptoris says for a host of ecological reasons, the loss of forest can act as an incubator for insect-borne and other infectious diseases that afflict humans including climate change.
“Once their habitat are destroyed by burning, Bats, primates, and even snails relocate carrying disease, and transmission dynamics change for all of these species following forest clearing and burning often creating a much greater threat to people,” said Mr Cheptoris.
Environmentalists agree that Uganda’s forest cover has been depleted to 8 per cent up from 24 per cent in 1990s and the loss is attributed to human encroachment for different activities, including agriculture and tree-cutting for timber and charcoal and other stakeholders.
In the late 1980s, Approx. 75,000 km2 (31.7%) out of 236,040 km2 of total land in Uganda consisted of forest and woodland. Today, forests and woodlands cover is about 15.2% of Uganda’s land surface meaning that Uganda has lost 16.5% of forests and woodland cover.
According to Mr Charles Wakube, the, the Mbale district environment officer, although it is true that the causes of deforestation and forest degradation exist across Mt Elgon, effective solutions need to be developed with a site-specific approach.
Mr Wakube said implementation strategies should be developed for Mt Elgon following in-depth consultation with various stakeholders.
He explained that identification of key causes directly linked to deforestation and forest degradation, successful integration of forest stakeholders and policy makers in a common forum, enthusiastic stakeholder participation in various discussions, establishment of common strategies for field implementation and collaborative development, among stakeholders, of realistic solutions to forest degradation problems.
“I believe that once we initiate these, put an end to burning of bushes, put in place the development of concrete forest rehabilitation strategies and raise awareness about matters related to land degradation while encouraging active stakeholder participation in discussions and planning initiatives, Mt Elgon will be saved,” said Mr Wakube.