By Watsemba Miriam
Sinking Land explores the bittersweet relationship between man and water for the people living at Ripon landing site, which is the closest site to the actual source of the Nile River within Lake Victoria, Uganda.
It is a 5-10 minute boat ride from the site to the spot in Lake Victoria where former Riponi Falls, River Nile, and Lake Victoria interlock. This spot is known to be the point where River Nile starts to flow in Uganda, eventually continuing its flow up to Egypt.
With a current population of 574 as per the voting register of 2021, Ripon landing site continues to experience a reduction in both land area and population due to rising water levels in Lake Victoria. Before the water rose, the landing site was 100 meters from the lakeshore. The water has since covered more than 50 meters of that land, according to Abdu Nantabya, the area Local Council 5 chairman who has lived at the site for 34 years.
The current rise in Lake Victoria water levels started in October 2019 and rose steadily to a peak of 13.32 meters on 30th April 2020, according to a statement issued by the Uganda Ministry of Water and Environment.
This rise of 1.32 meters was attained in only 6 months, and the level was only 0.08 meters away from the highest level ever recorded at 13.42 metres in 1964. Lakeside communities were flooded and hundreds of thousands of people were displaced.
‘Sinking Land’ explores how people living, working, and visiting the site interact with the changing levels of water and how that affects their living conditions.
Agnes Naigaga, 53, stands on Lake Victoria in a boat, at the spot where her clinic once stood in August 2020. Naigaga has been the only nurse and medical person at the site for the past over 20 years. She moved here in 1997 and since then, the water has covered her clinic and forced her to migrate thrice.
This is the new location of Naigaga’s clinic, donated to her by the local authorities of the landing site after the water submerged her initial structure. The locals at the landing site would not accept losing their only medical officer, so they offered her this structure. It remains less than 200 metres from the lakeshore, a perilous spot in case of future floods.
Nurse Agnes Naigaga pours tea at her home on Riponi landing site. Naigaga moved here eight months ago after the floods displaced her clinic and home. The structure is small and temporary, built using wood and iron sheets for walls. In her words, “I save some money from my work here, so I can finish building my house back in the village. Anytime, the water will reach here too.”
“The water is rising faster now than in all the past years I have lived here,” Naigaga says. “I am not sure how long it will take before it gets to this new place. If this clinic gets submerged too, I will go back to my home village in Butalejja. I have lived here for many years.”
According to the local council member Abdu Nantabya, the population of people on Ripon Landing Site reduced in 8 months from more than 700 to less than 500 as of March 2021.
The causes for the rise in water levels include climate change, which has affected the season rotations and rain cycles, as well as poor or no environmental conservation practices in the daily lives of people living along the banks of the lake.
Runoff has risen due to heavy rainfall combined with urbanization and agriculture, as humans convert land that naturally absorbs water, such as forests and wetlands, to cities or farms.
Data from the UN-run Flood and Drought Portal shows that runoff in all four sub-regions bordering Lake Victoria increased 575 percent in the last four months of 2019 compared to the same period in 2018.
It is predicted that the water is likely to keep rising all through 2021 due to increased rainfall and a spike in runoff into rivers and streams that feed the lake.
Lake Victoria is a transboundary water body shared by Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania, with some of the rivers feeding it originating from as far as Rwanda and Burundi and yet with only one outlet through River Nile in Jinja, Uganda. When waters surge in upstream countries, they affect the lake, too.
‘Everything happened too fast’
Daku Musa, 43, a salesman and the chairperson of Ripon Landing Site, on a boat outside his former house. The rising levels of water in Lake Victoria forced him to move his family off the site in August 2020, to a new nearby location.
The remains of Daku’s former house and home after the water from the lake invaded the dry land area in August 2020. Daku had to move his family to a nearby place, away from the landing site where he now has to pay a monthly rent. At the site, he only had to pay a small daily tax of UGX 300 (USD $0.09) to Jinja Municipal Council.
“Everything happened too fast. My family and I had a very short time to move,” says Daku Musa.
He says that at first, it seemed like a minor change in water waves that would calm in a few days, so his family simply locked the door of the house that faced the lakeside and placed their valuable items on higher grounds within the house. However, in less than a week, the water was now covering the beds – so they had to move as fast as possible, saving only household items such as utensils, food, beddings, clothes, and the children’s books.
“We had no time to raise money for a truck, so we shifted in trips, carrying and saving what we could before nightfall,” he says.
Daku Musa at his former home, which is now a part of the lake where boats dock at the landing site.
‘I cannot just give up and leave’
“Our restaurant location has been shifted multiple times because the water keeps coming for us,” says 20-year-old Kitonto Hussein, a restaurant operator at Ripon Landing Site.
Kitonto Hussein’s restaurant provides affordable feeding for the local and visiting populations at the landing site. The back of her restaurant borders the lake so closely that there is barely any land area. Any increase in the water levels would mean displacement for her business.
However, Kitonto hangs on because this place is the source of her livelihood. “I cannot just give up and leave,” she says.
Kitonto’s restaurant is famous for rolex (chapati and eggs) which is a major delicacy in Uganda and is believed to have originated from Jinja, where Kitonto works. She also sells local food and quick-fried snacks like cassava, samosas, pancakes, and mandazi to people living, working, and visiting the landing site.
Those who stayed
Men work around some of the transport business boats at Ripon Landing site. Before the waters rose, transporting people and goods on the water was a big hit here, including tourists visiting the source of the Nile and traders who live and work on the various islands of Lake Victoria. Before the water displaced some of the people, there were 50 boats at the site run by 15 boat owners.
More than half were forced to move after the flooding occurred. Today, there are only 23 boats with 6 boat owners.
The biggest challenge that came with the flooding has been a lack of parking space, according to Abdu Nantabya, a local leader who is also a boat owner. Before, there was enough space to park the boats far from people’s homes. Now, the boats compete for space with shops and homes.
The Covid-19 lockdown with its limitations on movement has also made the situation worse for the water transport business, Nantabya says.
Despite the challenges, boat owner Abdu says he cannot leave Ripon, no matter what happens.
“I have educated my children from the money tourists give me here when I take them across the lake on my boat,” Abdu says.“It is less than 15 minutes to the source of the Nile from here.”
The transport boats are locally made at Ripon Landing site. “Women are our biggest clients because they are usually the business owners at the site,” says Engineer Muganga Hussein, owner of the biggest boat-making business at the landing site.
Fishermen sort fish from the nets after a 6 am morning catch in Lake Victoria, at Ripon landing site. According to the fishermen, the rising levels of water in the lake attract all sorts of crawling aquatic animals like crabs which end up in the nets, together with the fish. These have to be sorted out as the market in Uganda does not consume crabs. Fish are taken to be sold in the markets of Jinja town, about a 20-minute walk away.
Of the 574 people at the site, about 80-100 are fishermen. With the fishmongers, the number who depend on the fishing industry goes to about 130.
But before the floods, the fishermen and mongers came to about 250. When the water increased, the fish that can be caught from the lake reduced, according to the local council chairman Abdu Nantabya. With normal levels of water, the fish are closer to the shores. With higher levels, fish are taken further away to deeper areas, where they are more difficult to catch.
Fishermen displayed a bucket filled with the Nile perch fish, also called “Empuuta” in the local language.
Other types of fish caught from the lake include helicopter fish (bukolongo), mudfish (emamba), silverfish (mukene) among others.
One of the crabs crawled into a fisherman’s net. Because of the increasing water levels, more crabs are causing net tears and bad catches.
A man unloads bags of charcoal at the sinking landing site at Old Boma village in Jinja district, Uganda. The charcoal business at the site is big, given the proximal location of the landing site to several islands on Lake Victoria. The charcoal is mainly ferried from Buvuma island by boat, to the landing site, from which it is transported to villages and towns on the mainland using trucks or on boda bodas (public transport motorcycles) which are the most common means of transport in the area.
Smiles, for now
“Mata ga baana,” a local mobile band from Masaka, entertains the locals at the site on a regular basis for small money change. The landing site is one of a series of stops the band normally makes along the lakeside villages.
As the band performs, the people of Ripon landing site temporarily forget the threat of the rising lake sinking the land, the threat of the waters washing away their work spaces and homes.
No matter what tomorrow brings, for a moment at least, there is only music, dancing, and smiles for all.