Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Uganda: Deforestation exacerbates flooding

AllAfrica.com, via New Vision: Seventeen countries in Africa have been hit by excessive rainfall and floods, which have destroyed food crops and are increasing the risk of epidemics. In Uganda, 420,000 people have been directly affected by the floods. Six million in 22 districts are at risk of contracting water-borne diseases like dysentery and cholera, as water sources have been contaminated and latrines are overflowing.

While experts point at El Nino and La Nina to explain the unusually heavy rainfall, deforestation and climate change have exacerbated the problem. Trees absorb the water and protect the soil from erosion. The mudslides in the Elgon region, which have already killed people and blocked roads, are a direct result of the careless felling of trees - for charcoal, wood, or to clear land for agriculture.

Trees also absorb carbon dioxide emissions, released from industrial activities, vehicles and burning of bushes. The more deforestation, the more carbon dioxide accumulates in the atmosphere, causing global warming and erratic weather patterns. But there is more. Greenhouse gases also contribute to flooding, a study published by the journal Nature has found.

Higher atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide reduce the ability of plants to suck water out of the ground and "breathe" out the excess. As a result, less water passes through the plant and into the air in the form of evaporation. And more water stays in the land, eventually running off into rivers when the soil becomes saturated, and causing flooding.

While the Government can hardly be blamed for the carbon dioxide released mainly by the big industrial powers, it can do something about deforestation.

Providing electricity or gas as alternative ways of cooking is one way of stopping the relentless cutting down of forests. But it may not be enough. As the population grows, more land will be needed to feed more mouths. And more trees will have to give way.

The Government needs to realise that it does not necessarily have to multiply its population to get a bigger market and develop, as small European countries like Denmark, Norway the Netherlands and Belgium have shown. Speeding up economic integration within the East-African Community and the African Union is another way of creating a bigger market without having to compromise the forests.

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