By Pauline Akello
As floods worsen, Uganda moves to protect its vanishing wetlands.
Environmental officials are cracking down on wetland filling and doing all they can to prevent flooding and protect wetlands in general.
According to reports from Minstry of Environment, over the last two decades, Uganda has lost about 40 per cent of her wetlands, many of them filled in as the country’s rising population looks for new farmland or to create space for industrial expansion.
A report on the country’s environment and natural resources, presented to Parliament in September 2019, indicated that the area of Uganda covered in wetlands has fallen from 16 per cent in 1994 to 9 per cent in 2016, the last year losses were estimated.
They warned that at the current pace of wetland loss, the country would have no wetlands by 2040.
As rains worsen, the country’s leaders are now pushing back, saying protecting such areas is crucial to controlling flooding, especially in urban areas like Kampala, the capital.
Protecting the disappearing natural areas facilitates the global goal to safeguard 30 per cent of the world’s land and seas by 2030, to stem losses of biodiversity, curb climate change and protect natural systems that provide clean air and water.
Even as we look at the numbers, we have to recognise those who have faced the agonizing effects of the rains.
Jennifer Faida, a resident of Bugolobi, will tell you that navigating through the waters was intimidating.
Worse still, it was watching her children at risk of electrocution that drove the dagger in.
The rains seemed to have a gradual steady stream, but then the collective amount led to the felling of her one-room rental.
“A good chunk of the house fell in and we were exposed to continuous rains for about a week.
“The landlord asked us to leave immediately, yet I had no funds to move,” she says.
One might not fathom this kind of pain; yet many, like Jennifer live through it in the rainy seasons.
For her, it was a fallen house and an exposed electrical wire close to their house, but others lose all their property due to floods.
Floods and pollution
Daniel Padde, an environmentalist and Urban planner at Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA), says worsening runoff from heavy rains is making homes in lowland areas, much more flood-prone.
“For example, in the past, the Nsooba wetlands near Bwaise slowed and purified rainwater runoff before it entered Lake Victoria.
“Currently, with the wetlands reduced in size, more polluted water enters the lakes, affecting marine life and water quality,” he says.
Public data shows that the National Water and Sewerage Corporation, which draws water from Lake Victoria to supply the Kampala metropolitan area, says it spends over shs 13 billion ($3.6 million) each year treating the water to remove pollutants.
The KCCA is urging all encroachers on wetlands to leave, including rice and dairy farmers in rural areas and settlers and brick makers in urban locations.
But removing from wetlands factories built by wealthy Ugandans and some foreign investors may prove difficult.
Under Uganda’s environmental laws, the only legal activities in wetlands are a collection of household water, basket and trap fishing, picking of medicinal plants, and some hunting.
Laws are put in place (the right legal framework) to protect wetlands – but were and are not being enforced in part because of lack of finance.
However, implementation requires financial support and yet the agency is understaffed and underfunded.
The restoration of the country’s wetlands is envisaged in the National Development Plan, which calls for 9.5 per cent of the country’s land in wetlands by 2025.
Many of the country’s powerful elite still see wetlands and other protected areas as free land, and have not so far faced prosecution for seizing it.
As well, too many Ugandans fail to see the value of protecting the environment, particularly if that could cost jobs.
Wetlands are viewed as large, cheap areas of land for factory construction that would be difficult to find elsewhere.
In some cases, public water and electricity services have been extended into filled wetland areas.
Few people understand the value of the ecosystems – or see the point in halting building in them after so many years of it.
Still, there is some progress in reclaiming land. Since 2015, over 500 land titles nationwide have been cancelled by the Lands Ministry after consultation with the National Forest Authority and National Environment Management Authority.