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John Wamukangu loiters aimlessly around the resettlement camp in Panyadoli village in Mutunda sub-country, Kiryandongo district.

He is restless and bored as he finds himself with nothing better to do but wait for food handouts from government. Wamukangu and some 4,200 other people found themselves homeless when mudslides buried their houses in Bududa district on the slopes of Mt Elgon this year.

In Bududa, Wamukangu was a farmer, whose life depended on the fertile soils of the mountain. He enjoyed the life he had, and ably provided for his wife and seven children. After moving out of his parents’ home and starting a family of his own, Wamukangu moved higher up the mountain slopes and cleared the land where he started to farm. His gardens blossomed because the soils were fertile and the rains came all year round.

But he was not alone. As the families in the lowlands expanded, they were forced to move to the mountain slopes to find more land for cultivation and settlement. Over the years, the mountain slopes were cleared of their forests and vegetation, leaving them exposed to the disasters of climate change that would ensue. That time came much earlier than feared; they were wide awake to witness their lives tumble down the mountain.

When heavy rains came in 2010, rocks the size of a car and unstoppable mud buried about 100 lives.  That time Wamukangu stayed. When the rains returned in June this year and wiped out his brother and 30 lives, Wamukangu realised his life was in danger. Bududa was not a safe place to live anymore; it was safer to leave.

Bududa district has a difficult terrain yet it is densely populated, with over 450 people per square kilometre, compared to the national average of 126. The 2002 Population and Housing Census discovered that Bududa’s population increased by 55.3% between 1991 and 2002.

Rapid population growth usually occurs when women are not able to exercise control on the timing and number of children they have. Many countries in Africa have made progress in reducing the proportion of people living in absolute poverty, but partly because the population has grown too fast compared to economic growth, the actual number of people living in poverty has increased in many countries.

Uganda has one of the youngest and most rapidly growing populations in the world, with about half of the people aged 15 years and below. The UNFPA representative in Uganda, Janet Jackson, says Uganda will not achieve socio-economic transformation and realise its aspirations to become a middle-income country in a shorter period of time if it does not address the current high fertility which is driving the high population growth rate that is outpacing the pace of economic development.

Uncontrolled population growth increases pressure on the land, mountain slopes and, in some parts of the country, farming on previously forested steep terrain in Kabale, Kisoro and Mbale has resulted in massive soil erosion, leading to siltation of water bodies.  In Kampala and other major towns, wetlands are being encroached on, with authorities unable to resist the pressure from the population.

Over the years, the increase in intensity and frequency of heavy rains, because of climate change, has led to floods in lowlands like Soroti, landslides in highland areas and droughts especially in the cattle corridor where pastures and water are scarce. Environmental degradation has reached alarming proportions in various parts of Uganda.

The country’s forests are under tremendous pressure, with wood harvesting for fuel and timber and the clearance of agriculture and human settlement being some of the primary causes. According to a 2010 Population Secretariat report, Uganda: Population Factors and National Development, in 1990, Kibaale had about 114,000 hectares of forest cover.

By 2005, the amount of forest cover had been reduced by nearly half to 58,300 hectares. Should that trend continue, Kibaale will lose nearly all its forests over the next 15 years. Wood fuel consumption, along with clearing of land for new rural households illustrates the pressures rapid population growth places on the forests.

If women continue to have many children, the report states, annual consumption of wood fuel will increase to about 39.5 million tonnes in 2037. But if total fertility rate decreases, the consumption would be 27.8 million tonnes in 2037.

New households, same land

The continued growth of the rural population will mean continued pressures on the resource base as new households need land. Population growth will still be a major determinant of demand for food in the future.  In this case, a projected production of over 21 million tonnes in 2007 would need to increase to 65 million tonnes by 2037, if high fertility continued. By contrast, required production would increase to 46 million tonnes in 2037 with the declining fertility projection.

With high fertility, 8.5 million new rural households will come into existence over the projection period. In contrast, there will be 4.4 million new rural households over the same period of time with declining fertility. Uganda is still predominantly rural; the 2002 census reported only about 12 per cent of the population lived in urban areas.

Based on assumptions used by the United Nations Population division, the urban population would increase nearly six fold over the projection period with high fertility continued, rising from 3.7 million in 2007 to 21.9 million in 2037. Should fertility rate decline, urbanisation will increase to 15.4 million, a different of some 6.5 million people.

This will put pressure on urban infrastructure – water and sanitation, roads and transport, energy, and housing. In addition to current shortfalls and the eventual need to replace current housing stock, Uganda will require 4.3 million new urban housing units between 2007 and 2037 if women continue to have many children compared to 2.8 million new housing units if fewer children are born.

The ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development is working with United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) to strengthen coordination to ensure that population issues are integrated in the ministry’s urban development policies and plans. According to the World Bank, Uganda has a window of opportunity to capture the “demographic dividend” by ensuring a decline in fertility levels, which will reduce the youth dependency ratios and expand the size of the working age population.

“Demographic transition helps to accelerate economic growth, which, in turn, increases resources available to improve the population’s health and education status, and further accelerates the demographic transition,” the World Bank report reads.

Furthermore, the report notes that Uganda needs to address its high fertility rate if its potential oil wealth is to turn into household prosperity. It says that halving Uganda’s total fertility rate during the oil era would help to more than double public expenditures on services, dramatically improving the country’s Millennium Development Goal (MDG) indicators.

“This shows how critical reproductive health and family planning are to the wider development,” said Jackson.

To satisfy the unmet need for family planning, a realistic strategy is to ensure that all Ugandan couples who want to space or limit their births have access to quality reproductive health services, including a full range of contraceptives consistently available at affordable prices. The country must also sustain commitment and support from leaders at national and district levels, improved quality and access to affordable services, ensure contraceptive security and sustained donor support.

Without that, more people will find themselves searching for productive land while others like Wamukangu will be pondering what next in settlement camps as the adverse effects of a high population and climate change continue to become a bitter capsule for Uganda to swallow.

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