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Uganda's government failed to heed warnings from scientists about the devastating landslides in the mountainous eastern part of the country last month and was not prepared for the disaster, an expert has said.

"The government had been warned of the impending disaster in Bududa — which lies on the slopes of Mount Elgon — by the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) and the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA)," Arthur Makara, executive director of Uganda's Science Foundation for Livelihoods and Development, told SciDev.Net.

Makara said the UWA had advised the government on several occasions to relocate people from mountainsides left exposed from over-population to give the slopes a chance to "re-vegetate".

"But the government never took any action and the consequence has been the loss of lives," he said.

So far there have been no further landslides. But the heavy rain currently pounding the region is expected to continue until the end of May, according to Laz Ocira, an official from the Ministry of Relief and Disaster Preparedness.

Ocira said a much bigger disaster may be looming in Bududa's neighbouring district of Manafwa — another mountainous area in the Mount Elgon region.

"I've seen cracks [in the land] myself and in some points they are 1.5 metres deep. They could cause a slip at anytime."

Satellite images reveal that more heavily-cultivated land in the uppermost parts of the mountain is on the verge of sliding at any moment, said Festus Bagoora, a natural resources management specialist at NEMA.

"In all these districts, farming communities have encroached deeply into what were once pristine environments that had been national parks and forest reserves," he said.

"Encroachment on steep mountain slopes means a calamity. Once heavy rains pound such a place, then debris flow is inevitable and anything on the land will certainly be swept away," said Bagoora.

Makara called for education and awareness-raising for people who inhabit mountainous regions about avoiding cultivation along land contours and instead growing crops across them to cut the amount of water run-off.

"They should also be educated on the use of terracing and construction of bunds that would trap run-off, helping water retention in their fields and reducing soil erosion significantly," he said.

Ugandan researchers will carry out a series of field trials on some of the major food crops that have been genetically modified (GM), following several recent approvals by the Uganda National Biosafety Committee, despite a lack of clear legislation on commercialising any such products within the country.

They will seek to develop both transgenic and conventional maize varieties tolerant to climate change-induced drought; GM cassava resistant to virulent cassava brown streak virus ravaging the starchy root crop across eastern and central Africa; GM bananas with engineered resistance to Xanthomonas bacterial infections; and cotton plants containing both Bt and 'roundup-ready' genes.

According to Yona Baguma, vice-chairman of the committee, the approvals — given in July and followed by planting that started last month (September) and will go on until November — are "historic". They are clear signals that Uganda's scientific community has built capacity in molecular biology and convinced the committee it can adhere to national and international guidelines on GM organisms, he said.

"It is also significant that the committee has matured with functional and competent systems to assess and evaluate applications, with rejections and approvals," said Baguma.       

Godfrey Asea, principal investigator for the maize trials and national project coordinator for Water Efficient Maize for Africa said: "Our confined field trial site is ready to plant the first transgenic maize in November 2010.

"This shall be a trial on efficacy for drought-tolerance by GM and conventionally-bred maize. When it succeeds, we expect to carry out more trials on starch content, taste, production outputs and to commercialise by 2017," Asea told SciDev.Net.

Uganda has previously approved and carried out a field trial on banana to test black sigatoka disease resistance (2007 - 2009)two trials to evaluate Bt and roundup ready cotton (2009 - 2010), one trial to test cassava mosaic virus resistance (2009 - 2010), and one ongoing trial to test banana bio-fortified for vitamin A and iron.

But the country still lacks a national biotechnology legal framework for releasing such crops on the market. The 2008 National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill has still not been approved by Parliament and, with elections expected in February next year, the date of its passage is still unsure.

But Godber Tumushabe, chief executive officer of the Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment — a policy think-tank — said Uganda is unnecessarily rushing to develop GM crops before it builds the critical scientific and infrastructural capacity to ensure the products are safe.

Only three African countries are currently growing GM crops commercially: Burkina Faso, Egypt and South Africa. Several others are conducting research and field trials, including Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Tanzania and Zimbabwe, mainly focusing on staple local crops such as cowpea.

Scientists in Uganda have developed GM bananas that show promising resistance to the deadly banana Xanthomonas wilt (BXW) disease.

Bananas are Uganda's leading non-cereal crop with some 70 per cent of the population depending on it as staple food. More than US$200 million has been lost to BXW infestation since 2001. The disease has also been reported in Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania.

Now, the banana plants modified with two genes derived from sweet peppers (Capsicum annuum) show resistance to the disease caused by the bacterium Xanthomonas campestris pv. musacearum.

Principal investigator Leena Tripathi, a Ugandan-based biotechnologist from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, Nigeria, said inserting the genes — plant ferredoxin-like amphipathic protein (PFLP) and hypersensitive response-assisting protein (HRAP) — separately in four local banana varieties is giving encouraging results (see GM bananas to fight wilt in Africa).

"In over five years of research, we've been able to insert genes into the East African highland banana varieties used for cooking (mpologoma andnakitembe)desserts (sukari ndizi) and brewing (kayinja). From these we've managed to develop resistant lines, which have proved effective in laboratory and screenhouse tests after deliberate exposure to BXW," Tripathi, who works on the project together with the Nairobi-based African Agricultural Technology Foundation and the National Agricultural Research Organization told SciDev.Net.

But, she added, they still need to confirm this effectiveness in a field trial.

Patrick Rubaihayo, a crop scientist at the Uganda-based Makerere University lauded the progress but warned of possible overdose with the molecule that these genes code for.

"My worry is that when a consumer eats large quantities of the modified varieties ... it is likely to be harmful," he said, adding that safety should be established before recommending these bananas for human consumption.

But Feng Teng-Yung, a plant pathologist at the Academia Sinica, a Taiwan-based research institute that provided the genes, said that they were safe. "Ferredoxin is a naturally-occurring protein in all living organisms," he said. "When we modify any plant with ferredoxin, we're only boosting amounts for greater protection against serious infections as bacterial pathogens."     

Even if BXW-resistant bananas prove successful in field trials, the absence of a GM law in Uganda will hamper farmers' access to the technology (see Uganda 'needs biotech law' to save banana sector). The 2008 National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill is yet to be presented to the cabinet for approval before it goes to parliament for enactment according to Michael Olupot-Tukei, assistant commissioner for planning and research in the Ministry of Finance, Planning and Economic Development.

eet genes arm banana crops

Some of Uganda's most lucrative tea plantations could be "wiped off the map" under the 2.3 degree Celsius temperature rise predicted for 2050, a study has said.

Even with the expected one degree Celsius rise by 2020, the 60,000 small farmers who grow Uganda's high-quality tea could face a 30 to 48 per cent decline in output, scientists at the Colombia-based International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) have said.

Yields are expected to shrink and optimum tea-producing zones will shift uphill to cooler areas according to Peter Laderach, a CIAT climate scientist and an author of the Future Climate Scenarios for Uganda's Tea Growing Areas study, published last month (2 August).

Patrick Wetala, lead tea researcher at Uganda's Coffee Research Centre, told SciDev.Net that temperature rises will expose tea varieties to new conditions.

"In practice the rise in temperature is likely to lead to some parts of the plant, or all the plant, wilting or utterly drying as often happens during drought," Wetala said.

"The plucked leaf of the surviving plants will give poor quality tea as the leaves will be brittle," he added.

"Another, possibly more serious, impact of the rise in temperature is the coming into prominence of previously minor pests and diseases and the emergence of more virulent ones," he said.

The report, whose results were "a shock" according to Laderach, combined the results of 18 climate and two crop-prediction models, concluding that Uganda was set to suffer more than neighbouring Kenya, for a which a report CIAT published earlier this year (26 May) predicted "serious challenges" .

George Sekitoleko, executive secretary of the Ugandan Tea Association (UTA), said: " What scientists are predicting is right because whenever we have prolonged droughts, tea bushes dry extensively. Therefore, when temperatures rise by 2.3 degrees Celsius, impacts shall be extremely serious.

"Worse still, our tea is 100 per cent rain-fed. And the tea trade earns Uganda US$90m in foreign exchange."

"Concerted efforts towards adaptation now will be crucial to help minimise the risk," said Laderach.

Uganda grows about 20,000 hectares (ha) of tea, compared with about 132,000 ha for Kenya, and supports the livelihoods of up to half a million people, according to the UTA.

Some of Uganda's most lucrative tea plantations could be "wiped off the map" under the 2.3 degree Celsius temperature rise predicted for 2050, a study has said.

Even with the expected one degree Celsius rise by 2020, the 60,000 small farmers who grow Uganda's high-quality tea could face a 30 to 48 per cent decline in output, scientists at the Colombia-based International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) have said.

Yields are expected to shrink and optimum tea-producing zones will shift uphill to cooler areas according to Peter Laderach, a CIAT climate scientist and an author of the Future Climate Scenarios for Uganda's Tea Growing Areas study, published last month (2 August).

Patrick Wetala, lead tea researcher at Uganda's Coffee Research Centre, told SciDev.Net that temperature rises will expose tea varieties to new conditions.

"In practice the rise in temperature is likely to lead to some parts of the plant, or all the plant, wilting or utterly drying as often happens during drought," Wetala said.

"The plucked leaf of the surviving plants will give poor quality tea as the leaves will be brittle," he added.

"Another, possibly more serious, impact of the rise in temperature is the coming into prominence of previously minor pests and diseases and the emergence of more virulent ones," he said.

The report, whose results were "a shock" according to Laderach, combined the results of 18 climate and two crop-prediction models, concluding that Uganda was set to suffer more than neighbouring Kenya, for a which a report CIAT published earlier this year (26 May) predicted "serious challenges" .

George Sekitoleko, executive secretary of the Ugandan Tea Association (UTA), said: " What scientists are predicting is right because whenever we have prolonged droughts, tea bushes dry extensively. Therefore, when temperatures rise by 2.3 degrees Celsius, impacts shall be extremely serious.

"Worse still, our tea is 100 per cent rain-fed. And the tea trade earns Uganda US$90m in foreign exchange."
 

"Concerted efforts towards adaptation now will be crucial to help minimise the risk," said Laderach.

Uganda grows about 20,000 hectares (ha) of tea, compared with about 132,000 ha for Kenya, and supports the livelihoods of up to half a million people, according to the UTA.

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