Preparing communities to cope with disasters and emergencies in Uganda

Evangeline Arethwala

9 February 2024

This is an article from the CSC Development Theme: Strengthening resilience and response to crises

While on scholarship, working at World Vision was the best for me as it enabled me to put into perspective and practice what I learnt in class. I developed skills such as conflict resolution, team building, coordination and collaboration and most importantly managing work-life balance, which I still find useful in my work.

Mary Hellen Akol

According to United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), over 80% of the population in Uganda live in remote communities and depend on rain-fed agriculture for their livelihoods. This is largely due to the moderate tropical climate. However, over the last few years, the country has experienced increased frequency and severity of weather conditions due to climate change, including flash floods and prolonged droughts.  As result, communities are now at risk to climate-induced challenges, such as displacement and loss of livelihoods.

World Vision Uganda (WVU) works to tackle challenges around child rights, gender equality, heath, and livelihood. The impact of climate change adds to the burden of these challenges, making it difficult for Uganda to achieve economic growth and development. To address this and ensure that communities are prepared to be climate resilient, WVU integrates a Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) strategy into ongoing programmes.

Commonwealth Alumnus Mary Hellen Akol leads WVU’s Disaster Risk Reduction work as the Disaster Management Manager. She joined WVU in 2008 as a field staff working in a food assistance project in a humanitarian response programme. Over the years, Mary rose through the ranks and became the Programmes Manager from 2018-2022. Her current responsibilities include providing leadership and technical assistance on DRR programming across WV operations in Uganda mobilising teams and resources to respond to natural disasters, and strengthening climate mitigation and adaptation capacity of remote communities.

Working with household clusters to mitigate climate risks

On taking up the role of Programmes Manager, Mary had commenced a Master’s in Development Management at The Open University through a Commonwealth Distance Learning Scholarship. Towards the end of her studies, she was promoted to her current role as the Disaster Management Manager. Reflecting on this time, Mary shares that studying alongside her new role added a new development perspective to her project management skills which she was able to put into immediate practice in her work in disaster management.

“Earlier, I was implementing projects from a project management perspective to ensure activities were carried out and funds are being spent. However, the course helped me to think about the development impact in the community.”

During her work at World Vison, she was introduced to the household cluster approach. This approach clusters a small number of households and nominates thematic heads, responsible for collecting and reporting important information to support the implementation of appropriate and responsive development programmes.

Mary recognised that this approach is beneficial to existing WVU programmes, as well as gathering new data on climate resilience at the household and community level.

Mary implemented the household cluster approach in four areas – Morungatuny, Gweri, Asamuk, and Kamuda in Amurai and Soroti districts respectively. The household clusters comprise of 10-15 households and four sector heads. The heads are responsible for promoting and gathering data to support WVU’s programmes on child protection, education, resilience and livelihoods, and health and nutrition. Mary further developed these programmes to build in climate education on adaptation and mitigation strategies which could be delivered through the household cluster sector heads.

To ensure the data gathered was relevant to the programmes and that sector heads were empowered with relevant information on the programmes, Mary along side the DRR coordinator conducted a Training of Trainers (ToTs) programme. Alongside data collection and reporting practices, Mary provided information on how households could adopt climate friendly practices, such as installing clean energy cooking stoves to reduce greenhouse gas emissions whilst improving people’s health. As a result. 180 ToTs received training and over 1900 households were reached.

“Communities are better prepared when they have information on climate change. They need education on how to manage climate change and how to implement climate adaptation strategies.”

“When disasters and effects of change attack, it is in the household where the most vulnerable are found and most affected. So, intervening at the household level impacts directly on the most vulnerable and most affected populations to mitigate, and thrive in the face of disasters.”

Adapting to climate smart technologies

With communities no longer able to rely on typical weather patterns to manage their agricultural activities due to unpredictable weather events, meteorological data has become increasingly important.

To further enhance the climate strand of the household clusters, Mary collaborated with the Uganda National Meteorological Authority to receive information on weather conditions. With the support of cluster heads, the Sub-county and Parish Disaster Management Committee members, Mary disseminated information on weather conditions at the community and household level. Doing so, helped in supporting the community in adopting climate smart agriculture practices.

Kitchen garden in Asamuk Area Programme in Amuria district

Backyard gardening in Asamuk Area Programme in Amuria District

As a result, households have been able to save their crops, improve post-harvest handling practices and storage facilities, grow biofortified crops, and start kitchen gardens.

Implementing these practices and adapting to climate change has enabled households to increase their income and improve savings, as well as invest in small businesses. As per the baseline and mid-term survey comparison conducted by WVU, through this programme there was a 7% decline in the proportion of targeted households living below the national poverty line.


Based on this outcome, Mary secured additional funding for climate adaptation and mitigation as part of WVU’s work. This has included funding to install climate-smart technologies in remote communities. Mary credits her Master’s course for helping to develop proposal writing skills. This has led to significant improvement in livelihoods in these communities.

Collaborating with stakeholders

During her Master’s course, Mary was introduced to the importance of building networks and coordinating with like-minded stakeholders, such as NGOs and government, to maximise the impact, success and sustainability of humanitarian efforts. This can be particularly beneficial where organisations lack resources and funding to implement programmes.

Mary shares that the most climate-affected communities are in remote locations with limited access to services due to poor infrastructure. These community challenges also pose difficulties to the reach and delivery of WVU’s programmes. To address this, Mary has proactively sought out collaborations with other NGOs working on complementary programmes to WVU to improve programme reach and allocation of funding and resources.

To improve the delivery of WVU’s Emergency Preparedness and Response project, WVU under Mary’s leadership collaborated with UNICEF to reach one of Uganda’s remote communities in the Serere and Amolatar districts. The districts border lake Kyoga, which also suffers from extreme flooding, impacting the entire region. Understanding and strengthening community capacity to manage extreme flooding due to climate change is critical.

With the support from UNICEF and in collaboration with the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM), Mary was able to engage with community members of Amolatar, Serere, Kagadi and Nakasongola districts to map out disasters and develop district level contingency plans. Along with capacity building on disaster management, the contingency plans have strengthened local government emergency preparedness and response capability. The District Disaster Management Teams are now able to timely and effectively respond to disasters as they occur in their communities.

With the newly designed contingency plans, Mary worked with the disaster management committees at the district and subcounty level, conducted radio talk shows, and promoted awareness on effects of climate change. As a result of the emergency preparedness and response project, over 1700 adults and over 4000 children directly benefited in the four districts of Amolatar, Serere, Kagadi and Nakaongola.

Mary continues to collaborate with development organisations such as UNICEF, UN Women, FOWODE (Forum for Women in Democracy) and district local governments.  She successfully pooled resources to deliver joint events and campaigns to mark international days, such as International Day of the Girl Child and 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence in Amuria and Soroti districts.

Sharing knowledge on disaster risk reduction

Mary’s experience in DRR has made her well-established in the sector. Recently, she was called on to support a UNICEF project to deliver emergency humanitarian response to a cholera outbreak in Mayuge and Kayunga districts. Through her prompt efforts and leadership skills, her team was able to mitigate and manage the outbreak within a month, reaching over 25,000 people with risk communication on hygiene and sanitation in conjunction with the Ministry of Health.

Mary is keen to share her skills and experience with others in the sector and provides training on DRR to colleagues at World Vision, other NGO workers, stakeholders, and government officials to strengthen the country’s emergency response to natural disasters.

She hopes to continue working on disaster management in the humanitarian sector and develop responses to support climate and conflict affected refugee communities in Uganda. She notes that the skills she developed during her Commonwealth Distance Learning Scholarship will continue to play an important role in this work.

“While on scholarship, working at World Vision was the best for me as it enabled me to put into perspective and practice what I learnt in class. I developed skills such as conflict resolution, team building, coordination and collaboration and most importantly managing work-life balance, which I still find useful in my work.”

Mary Hellen Akol is a 2018 Commonwealth Distance Learning Scholar from Uganda. She completed am MSc in Development Management from The Open University.