Reaping from Harm; a slow extinction of Uganda’s wetlands: Locals hit by changing weather patterns as swamps along Lake Kyoga dry up
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By NOAH OMUYA

From above, the area adjacent to Awoja tributary in Uganda’s eastern sub-region of Teso looks like a meandering green astro-turf carpet. It runs for miles-on-end from Lake Kyoga in the south-west to lakes Bisina and Opeta, which sit astride one of Uganda’s most extensive wetland systems, in the north-est.

However, a closer look at the area adjacent to Awojatributary shows the green cover is not natural. Instead, the banks of almost all the 11,000 kilometres of the water body are covered by large strips of rice being grown on previously unblemished swamps.

The tributary, which provides piped water for industrial and domestic use in all the 16districts and towns of Teso sub-region, faces a looming environmental disaster resulting from encroachment by its surrounding communities combined with the effects of climate change.

In the past, the river system had huge flash floods every year, whose waters were drained by the swamps. Those floods restricted locals to cultivating their crops on the uplands, leaving the swamps untouched. But the changes in climate, which are resulting in longer dry spells, have forced locals to encroach on the wetlands.

Chrispus Okello, a farmer who cultivates crops in the swamps near Kagwara landing site in Serere district, said has witnessed drastic changes in the wetlands over time, including the drying up of the major parts in the swamp.

“There used to be water wells here that contained water even during the longest dry seasons ever. But now, if it doesn’t rain heavily, we have to suffer especially with our animals since we have to go long miles to look for water,” he said.

Still, Okello says he will continue to cultivate on the wetlands because he has no control over the elements that have made farming in other parts of his community very difficult.

According to Okello, who declined to be captured on camera for fear that he would suffer punitive action from the authorities if they are able to identify him and his location, rice is the only cash crop that makes sufficient money for him to provide for his household.

“Since I was a young man, I used to hear that cultivating in swamps is bad for the environment. But where else can rice be grown?” he asks.

The LC V Chairperson for Amuria district, John OkitoiErisat, said that his district council has educated the district environment committee that goes out to sensitize the local community on the advantages of protection of wetlands and other environmental conservation measures.

“We are trying to make people understand that they can do things that can make the environment a sustainable place for them to stay,” Okitoi said.

But the Soroti District Local Council Chairperson, George Michael Egunyu, who is also the chairperson for Awoja Catchment Management Zone, says their efforts to educate the people about the importance of the Awoja catchment area have so far fallen mostly on deaf ears.

“The challenge is that, however much we have tried, the sensitization of the local community about the negative factors that are associated with rice growing in the wetlands, they still think we do not wish them well,” Egunyu said.

44 percent of wetlands lost

Uganda is losing wetlands at an alarming rate, according to the Commissioner for the Wetlands Management Department in the Ministry of Water and Environment, Collins Oloya. 

In 1994, when the first wetland inventory and assessment was done, Oloya said 15.6 percent of Uganda’s land surface was covered in permanent and seasonal wetlands. But in the last 25 years, the country has lost 44 percent of its wetlands. 

The State of Environment Report for 2018 indicates that the major catchment areas in the country have lost 70 percent of their wetlands due to human intervention such as industrial development and farming within the swamps.

“We have been losing wetlands at a rate of 2 to 2.5% annually: indicating that 75,000 hectares of wetlands are lost annually, making it a great concern to all Ugandans. It is projected that if no measures are taken, by 2040, the country will only have 1.6% wetlands cover,” Oloya said.

Wetlands are recognized by the United National Framework on Climate Change as a way to reduce climate change because of the huge volumes of carbon dioxide they store. This prevents carbon from being released into the atmosphere, which is the main cause of the planet’s warming.

Wetlands can also help Ugandans deal with the changing climate. They act as natural sponges that absorb and store excess rainwater, which reduces flooding on inhabited land, Okurut said. Later, during the dry season, the wetlands release the stored water, thereby delaying the onset of drought and water shortages.

Currently, Uganda has 2,592.3 square kilometers of intact wetlands and if maintained well, they will take in 1,534.5 metric tons of carbon dioxide.

“If no action is taken, the consequences of wetland degradation are dire,” Oloya said.

Population pressure

The Lake Kyoga basin has an average population density of 134 inhabitants per kilometre, ranging from 50 to 250 inhabitants per square kilometer in several districts. That population has put pressure on the wetlands through agriculture, settlement, fishing and urban development.

“This has resulted into the conversion of the wetland into farmland for rice growing and has led to increased pressure for settlement from the growing population,” states Egunyu.

The lake basin’s population is rapidly increasing, particularly in nearby sprawling urban areas such as Mbale and Soroti, which are clamouring for city status, as well as the Kumi municipality and Katakwi town. According to the 2014 national census report, the existing local population in those urban areas is about 1,438,908 people.

Poverty of the growing population is a major issue that keeps people resorting to wetland farming for survival. 

Ekuyo in his rice farm

This is the case of Geoffrey Ekoyu, a 25-year-old farmer from Tisai village that nears Lake Bisina in Kumi district. Ekoyu said he grew up seeing his parents farming on wetlands. They tried to use the money they earned from their farming activities to send him to school. However, the money was not enough, so once they failed to pay his tuition fees, he returned home and joined them at their farm.

“I was pursuing a diploma of mechanical engineering at UCC Aduku but I dropped out of the course because my parents had no money to continue paying for my studies,” Ekoyu said. “As an educated fellow, I also know that growing rice in the swamp poses a threat to our environment, but we have no other option if we are to be able to raise enough money for me to return to school.”

The Deputy Resident District Commissioner for Bukedea, Charles Ichogor, said in addition to farming, the drying up of the Awoja catchment area was caused by the continued misuse of the wetland by locals for activities such as rice growing and cutting down of trees for wood fuel and charcoal.

“In Teso, we have water bodies of international importance. We are now feeling the pinch of erratic climatic changes because people are still stuck with the idea of growing rice on a large scale in the middle of swamps and have totally avoided embracing growing of upland rice,” he lamented.

Climate change threatening livelihoods

Philip Obaate, the Integrated Water Resources Manager for Amuria district, said while locals are mismanaging environmental resources, the changes in the climate globally is the macro vice.

Climate change, the increasingly warming global temperatures, is proven to be caused by the release of carbon and other gases into the atmosphere majorly by human industrial activity over the past century. As a consequence, Uganda today is experiencing increasing average temperatures, unreliable rainfall patterns, frequency and intensity of droughts. All these are posing significant impacts across the agricultural sector’s production along the catchment.

Agriculture has been – and continues to be – central to Uganda’s economic growth and poverty reduction strategy. At least 80 percent of entire livelihoods of Ugandans depend on agriculture, and it accounts for 24 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which represents the total value of goods and services provided in a country during one year.

In terms of job opportunities, agriculture directly provides employment to 68 percent of the total labour force. Of these, 75 percent are women while 70 percent are youth, all living in rural areas.

The inimical climatic occurrences have had enormous impacts on the livelihoods of the local communities, peasant farmers and fishermen who largely depend on agriculture and natural resources in the Lake Kyoga region. These impacts translate into food shortages and therefore, food insecurity and consequently, hunger and malnutrition, which all exacerbate rural poverty in the region.

In Katakwi district, the prolonged drought denied peasant farmers a good harvest from the food crops they planted. Those affected are now in danger of facing hunger or even famine.

In Kagwara village, where Kagwara landing site [one of the major landing sites of Lake Kyoga] is located, Loyce Apiny, a farmer, can hardly harvest a half of what she used to collect in the previous seasons.

“The prolonged dry season has left everyone suffering in total poverty. There is hardly any harvest and there is no money in the house,” Apiny said.

In villages around Lake Opeta, cases of famine are alarming since most locals were unable to harvest a lot of food or cash crops from the weather-beaten soils.

Michael Okori, a farmer in Kokorio village, Kapujan Sub County in Katakwi district, said the abrupt change in the rainfall pattern took most of the farmers by shock.

“Some of us even gave up cultivating this year. You can see even those who tried have harvested nothing,” lamented Okori.

The LC I Chairman for Anganya village, Awoja parish, Gweri Sub County, Joseph Aropet, said he has witnessed a lot of drastic changes on a water body that had never lost any of its waters or shape before.

“In the year 2000, where we are standing right now was accessible only by a canoe. I think this is all because of what I hear in the news [of] climate change. I am personally traumatised by the prolonged dry spell which I think greatly contributes to this,” he said.

Toward solutions

Executive Director for NEMA- Uganda, Dr. Tom Okurut, says humans can still reverse the degradation of their environment if more Ugandans become wetlands’ conservation ambassadors.

Ichogor, the Bukedea district deputy political head, emphasized that Ugandans need to plant trees to fight the impacts of climate change.

“Climate change is real; climate change is with us. Wetlands are like the kidneys to the land. We all need to mobilize everybody to stop cutting down trees, but plant more trees,” Ichogor said.

The national female youth representative at the Parliament of Uganda, Anna Adeke Ebaju, called for involvement of local communities in environmental protection efforts. She particularly noted that the youth need to get involved and play a frontline role in environment conservation practices, since it is their future at stake.

“The effects of climate change are going to interact with mostly the current generation and in the next years ahead, the world is going to get warmer and yet we shall still need food and water,” Adeke said. 

“Young people ought to strongly take part in shaping the kind of the universe we will want to live in amidst the effects of climate change,” she said.

A working response: Teso Go Green plants trees in schools, churches using local university students

In Teso, some youth groups have taken these motivations to heart and are leading the fight back against degradation of their environment while reversing climate change. For instance, Isaac Olupot, the founder and President for Teso At Heart (TAH), an organization comprised of young people from Teso sub region, in North Eastern Uganda, has launched a tree planting initiative dubbed “Teso Go Green.”

According to Olupot, the project is aimed at fostering communities across the sub region to plant more trees in order to save the future. 

“Initially at Teso At Heart, we used to hold concerts such as cultural music shows among others to promote environment conservation, but I realized that there was a problem that needed a serious intervention,” he said.

Over the last three decades, growth in human population and corresponding increase in demand for forest products for domestic and industrial use, expansion of agricultural land, illegal settlements and weak forest management capacity have adversely affected the status of natural forests in Uganda, particularly the biodiversity. 

The people in the rural areas are among the first hit by the negative environmental effects of deforestation, which include climate change, soil degradation, reduced biodiversity and loss of recreation.

Degradation of watershed areas is leading to deterioration of the quality of life and reduction of development options. Farmers are already struggling to adapt to the rapidly changing and increasingly erratic weather patterns since rain is not falling when it is supposed to and drought has left many farmers struggling to find enough food to feed their families.

In many districts of Uganda including Tororo, Iganga, Nakasongola, Arua, Soroti, Kumi, Palisa, Rakai, and Ajumani, the declining forest cover has resulted in a fuel wood deficit leading to rising costs and increased burdens on women and children who collect firewood.

Therefore, if the situation is not reversed, the knock-on effect will be catastrophic and contribute to exacerbating soil degradation, food insecurity, disease and conflict.

In the late 1980s, Approx. 75,000 km2 (31.7%) out of 236,040 km2 of total land in Uganda consisted of forest and woodland. Today, forest and woodlands cover is about 15.2% of Uganda’s land surface, meaning that Uganda has lost 16.5% of forests and woodland cover.

Olupot revealed that his project idea has caught the attention of not only the young generation of the community, but has also had an impact across all age groups. 

In order to have a smooth implementation and positive welcome from the community, Olupot set three basic measures that are helping him to successfully run the project and to achieve his mission of restoring the environment cover, as a means of fighting climate change.

The approaches include involving higher institutions of learning, churches and schools. 

Olupot said that through his organization, he mobilizes young people from the sub-region who are studying in all universities in the country.

The youth are enrolled for brief capacity building seminars led by environment and forestry specialists on the effects of climate change and the value of planting trees as one of the measures to fight the vice. 

“After such trainings, those teams are sent to different localities where they come from to spread the message. They do this especially during holidays,” Olupot said.

In Ngora High School, in Ngora district, students are managing large portions of fields where they set tree nursery beds are set. The full responsibility to ensure the project’s sustainability is left at the hands of the students.

During reporting for this investigation, the school was closed since it was a holiday period, but there were some student leaders who were present at the field to ensure the safety of the tree seedlings.

“We look after our tree nursery beds in shifts. I personally come here during weekends and holiday times like this,” said James Olupot, a student in senior six, Ngora High School.

Olupot [student] further revealed that when trees are ready for transplanting, they collectively take them to the communities. Recently, they took 400 tree seedlings to Gweri Sub County, in Soroti district. The trees were planted at the sub county land and some distributed to the local farmers in the area.

Moses Opio, a pastor for Pentecostal Assemblies of God Church in Soroti district, said he embraced the Teso Go Green ideology and believes it is yielding results.

“There are people who still believe that problems can be solved by praying to God without putting any efforts. As Church leaders, we encourage them that as much as we pray to God for rain, we should also plant trees,” Opio said.

In his church, he maintains a nursery bed where worshippers can take trees to plant at their respective homes at a small fee.

“For purposes of sustainability of the project, we charge them only 200 UgShs per seedling,” Opio said.

Government response

Wetlands encroachment and degradation is a big challenge for stakeholders involved in their conservation, and this is basically attributed to population increase vis-a-vie available land. Wetlands are targeted for cultivation and settlements. In order to address this problem, the Ministry of Water and Environment formulated the Wetland Inspection Division in 1989, which was upgraded to a Department in 2007.

The Commissioner for Wetlands Management at the MWE, Collins Oloya says his department is mandated to ensure that all wetlands are sustainably managed to maintain their integrity and to provide alternative livelihoods to the surrounding communities.

According to him, this is done through policy formulation, initiation of wetland laws, development of regulations and guidelines.

In the effort to reduce wetland degradation in the country, the ministry has put in place a number of strategies that include marking and opening up the boundaries of wetlands, carrying out wetland inventory and assessment, and conducting research to provide knowledge on the functions of wetlands as well as developing community based wetland management plans.

The central government, through the Ministry of Water and Environment (MWE) and other different stakeholders, has come up with different approaches to avert the impending doom on the major swamps in the country. In this effort, Awoja has not been left out.

In 2017, the government received funding worth Shs29billion (about USD $7.6 million) from the World Bank Adaptation Fund and Sahara Sahel Observatory to implement the Enhancing Resilience of Communities to Climate Change through Catchment Based Integrated Management of Water and Related Resources in Uganda (EURECCCA) project in the catchments of Awoja, Aswa and Maziba, respectively.

According to information available on the MWE website, the overall goal of the project is to increase the resilience of communities to the risk of floods and landslides in Maziba, Aswa and Awoja catchments through promoting catchment-based integrated, equitable and sustainable management of water and related resources. The total duration of the project will be four years (2017-2021).

In 2014, MWE in conjunction with the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) launched a four-year project aimed at managing the Awoja wetland system. The project, dubbed Awoja Wetland System Framework Management Plan, was implemented in the 12 districts surrounding Lake Kyoga and Opeta.

Despite these efforts, the Commissioner says that there is need for funding to districts to restore the wetlands within their jurisdiction. Besides, there is need for joint efforts for wetlands that traverse districts like Awoja and Mpologoma in eastern Uganda, Katonga in Central, Okole in northern and Rwizi in the western part of the country.

In order to achieve this, about UgShs1.1 trillion (USD $290.7 million) is needed to restore the 8,613 square kilometers for the next five to 10 years, according to the commissioner.

“The wetland degradation rate in Uganda stands at 70 times the rate of their restoration. If the government can provide UgShs 167 billion for the next five years to begin with, about 10 percent of the degraded wetlands will be restored as per our NDPIII target,” said Oloya.

The department currently receives about UgShs3.5 billion (USD $925,000) for management of the entire country’s wetlands and an additional 10 billion (USD $2.6 million) annually from the Green Climate Fund for wetland restoration in 22 districts in southwestern and eastern Uganda. Currently, local governments at district level in Uganda receive a total of UgShs1.29 billion (about USD $341,000) for wetlands and forests activities in every financial year. 

According to Obetel, while the government is educating locals on the means of fighting climate change, there is an urgent need to introduce other practical measures such the use of irrigation facilities in the affected local communities.

“The mostly affected villages are at the lake [Opeta] shores. If government could introduce irrigation schemes for the locals, at least some food would be realized,” Obetel suggested.

Positive youth-led initiatives like the ‘Teso Go Green’ project must serve as examples to be developed and expanded to combat the double-edged sword of climate change and wetland encroachment, according to conservation experts.

For local farmers, gaining a sustainable income from subsistence agriculture – as the climate changes and wetlands are lost –is growing harder by the day. 

Emmanuel Ojakol, a farmer in the area, said due to his poor yields, his family has resorted to selling the few animals they had kept to buy other food stuff such as dried cassava from the nearby community markets.

“Sometimes I do not know what my family will eat,” Ojakol said.

This investigative feature was funded by InfoNile and the CIVICUS Goalkeepers Youth Action Accelerator

Originally published story on Aica