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Are Uganda's deadly lightning strikes becoming more common?

Lightning struck a primary school in Uganda killing 20 pupils and injuring almost 100 more on Tuesday, officials say. It's the latest in a spate of lightning strikes that have killed more than 40 nationwide.

By Max DelanyCorrespondent / June 30, 2011

Schoolchildren who survived after lightning struck their classroom received treatment at a local hospital Tuesday. Uganda has one of the highest rates of lightning strike deaths in the world and its capital Kampala has more days of lightning per year than any other city, according to the World Meteorological Organization.

Edward Echwalu/Reuters

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Kampala, Uganda

It was time to go home, when the rain came.

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After another day of lessons, the children at Runyanya primary school in rural western Uganda could only huddle together for shelter in their classroom and watch and wait as the tropical downpour turned the red earth outside into rivers of mud.

That was when the lightning struck the school, Ugandan officials say, killing 20 of the pupils and injuring almost 100 more.

It would be easy to dismiss Tuesday’s disaster as a sad, yet extremely rare occurrence. But these days in Uganda it is not rare.

The deaths at the provincial primary school were just the latest in a spate of casualties caused by lightning strikes over the past few weeks that Uganda’s state-run daily New Vision says has claimed more than 40 lives nationwide.

Even ahead of the disaster at Runyanya primary school the wave of lightning strikes had caused so much concern that Ugandan lawmakers demanded that the government provide an official explanation for what was going on.

“I don’t know which minister is in charge of the lightning, but let the government come with a statement to inform the country on what is going on and how we can manage it,” Rebecca Kadaga, Uganda’s speaker of parliament, told legislators on Monday.

Unusual uptick in moist air

Technically, Uganda’s chief meteorologist says, unseasonably heavy rainfall in recent weeks is due to an abnormal uptick in the amount of moist air blowing in across the Congo basin from the Atlantic.

“Lightning by its nature and evolution is a very unpredictable event,” Michael Nkalubo, the country’s commissioner for meteorology told local journalists at a briefing. “It can strike in the most unexpected places and do the most unexpected damage.”

Officials admit that Uganda is ill-prepared to deal with such a phenomenon and that a failure to enforce construction legislation means that few buildings have lightning conductors.

“It is now that we have realized that many schools and health centers do not have these conductors,” Musa Ecweru, state minister for disaster preparedness said at the briefing. “There has been negligence on the part of those who certify if buildings are fit for public use.”

Does climate change have a role?

With climate change increasingly altering the region’s weather patterns, meteorologists warned that extreme weather conditions -– from floods and droughts to lightning strikes – could become the norm in Uganda.

“We are seeing now that there is greater climate variability,” says Charles Basalirwa, head of the meteorological unit at Kampala’s Makerere University. “These events have suddenly become more and more pronounced.”

The important thing for Uganda, Mr. Basalirwa says, is to find out if this is a long-term phenomenon.

“That is the one million dollar question,” Basalirwa says. “Are these sort of events going to become more common, or not?”

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