Mr. Selevest Kule Walyuba is a resident of Nganji village, Kilembe sub-county in the western district of Kasese in Uganda. Walyuba’s sub-county is the foothills of Mount Rwenzori. Walyuba, 56 years old, is an environmental conservationist.
With his passion for the environment, Walyuba developed a hot spring locally known as Kiwa Heritage Site, which is situated about 3 kilometers away from Kasese town off Kilembe road. Currently, the site is a tourism destination that is attracting revelers for medicinal purposes, relaxation, and learning about different cultures.
Walking through the trail covered with a canopy of reeds from the tarmac road to the hot spring, this reporter observed different types of people flocking to the site. To appreciate nature, Walyuba says that the hot spring is found just a few meters from Nyamwamba river, which streams from the snow-capped Rwenzori Mountains.
In the 1980s, Walyuba tells me, glaciers could cover 100 percent of the mountain peaks and could be seen every morning, after rains and whenever the sky was clear.
Walyuba says that peaks including Margherita, Stanley, Speke and other small peaks were always covered with glaciers, and that by then rains were regular, longer and predictable.
But to his dismay, Walyuba says today, one must stand on one of very few sites in order to see glaciers on top of the mountain.
“Peaks are often seen bare. It’s now by chance that they can be seen maybe twice a year. Some people have spent six years in the region and have never got the chance of seeing the glaciers. Others see them only when they climb up in the mountains at about 4,500 meters above sea level,” Walyuba says.
Among the renowned mountain ranges is Mt. Stanley with its highest peak, and Margherita, standing at 5,109 meters above sea level and ranking as Africa’s third highest point.
The other mountain ranges, which are in the 4,000 meters, include Mt. Speke, Mt. Baker, Mt. Emin, Mt. Gessi, and Mt. Luigi di Savoia.
Glaciers are massive bodies of slowly moving ice. Glaciers form on land, made up of fallen snow that gets compressed into ice over many centuries.
Glaciers play important roles in supplying a permanent source of water for people and animals, supporting ecosystems and biodiversity, helping to generate hydroelectric power, and providing cultural and tourism significance.
The climate crisis is touching nearly every country of the world, and one of the most visible indicators of its impact in East Africa is its effects on the glaciers on the Mountains of the Moon, a major source of freshwater in Uganda.
The snows are receding, glaciers are melting and crevasses are appearing on the ancient mountains. Climate change – causing the glacier melt along with the changing rain cycles – is contributing to destructive floods and impacting agriculture, biodiversity and cultural heritage in western Uganda, where the glaciers have for centuries symbolized fertility of the land and a symbiotic relationship between humans and nature.
A 90 percent loss
The Rwenzori Mountains form part of the Albertine graben, which is the western portion of the East African Rift Valley.
The mountains are the only range in Africa made up of glacial equatorial basement rock. But over the last decade, temperatures on the mountains have increased by 1.5 degrees centigrade, causing a 90 percent decrease in the glaciers from 15 square kilometers in 1900 to 1.5 square kilometers in 2021, according to the National Forestry Authority.
According to Africa Adventure Vacations, the temperatures on Rwenzori Mountains, at an altitude of 3,000-4,000 meters, are around 10-15°C during the day while at night they are around 2-6°C.
During the day, on the highest peak, it can drop to -2°C and sometimes it may reach 8-10°C.
According to the Uganda Wildlife Authority, the receding snow has resulted in the creation of up to 20 glacial lakes on the mountains, which supply and sustain several rivers running down the mountains.
In 2013, 2015 and 2020, the increased water flow in these rivers due mainly to changes in rainfall and land degradation caused disastrous flooding, affecting the surrounding communities as the waters carried away huge boulders that razed almost the entire Kilembe town, destroyed schools, swept away homes and farms, cut off bridges and killed many people.
According to the Kasese District Senior Planner, Joseph Singoma, who also works as the secretary on the district disaster management committee, since 2013, at least 38 people have died due to floods, mudslides and landslides, of whom 18 are male and 20 are female. Singoma says that 8 people died in 2013, 11 in 2020, three in 2021 and 16 in 2022.
He said that since then, 16,063 people have been rendered homeless, and out of them 7,871 are male and 8,192 are female.
Isaac Sinamakosa, an environmentalist and team leader at nonprofit organization IDEAS For Us Uganda, says globally, glaciers occupy about 10 percent of the Earth’s surface area.
Sinamakosa also confirms that the glaciers melting on the Rwenzori Mountains is alarming.
He attributes the receding of ice and melting of glaciers to global climate change that has been caused mainly by deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions from highly industrialized countries.
Sinamakosa says increased human activity in the mountain region due to the growing population is also worsening the problem, with people grazing cattle along the mountains and forested areas.
“As the population increases, people are competing for the little space they have, cutting down trees for construction and doing other farm activities.
“A poor person can never conserve the environment because he/she has no alternative; this person has to survive because they need money to go and buy something to eat and those with trees are cutting them away,” Sinamakosa says.
Edwin Mumbere, an environmental biologist at the Center for Citizens Conserving Environment and Management in Kasese district, says the melting glaciers pose a big threat to the survival of the mountains’ natural flora and fauna.
“On the Rwenzori Mountains, we have a lot of living organisms that rely mainly on the cold weather for their continued existence. Some animals require the cool temperatures for their day-to-day activities, like the Rwenzori three-horned chameleon,” Mumbere adds.
Mumbere says that the receding glaciers have had a direct impact on the weather conditions on the mountain, and unique species such as the three-horned chameleon risk extinction should temperatures in the Rwenzori keep rising.
The Rwenzori Mountains are also home to some of the world’s rarest botanical communities like the sphagnum moss and usnea beard lichens, which pervade the ground and are stabbed with coral pink orchids, and wet valley bogs populated by large tussock grasses. These are visible once you enter the heather zone at 4,000 meters above sea level.
According to tour company Brilliant Uganda, at above 4,000 meters, the alpine zone on the Rwenzori also hosts giant groundsel (senecio adnivalis) and the palm-like shrub, lobelia wollastonii. All these, Mumbere says, are rare and threatened species.
The Kasese District Senior Environment Officer, Augustin Koli, warns that over time, the receding snow and melting glaciers will lead to fewer water resources for communities living around the mountains, especially on the Kasese side.
He says that streams and rivers originating from the mountain will either dry up or contain low volumes of water.
Koli mentioned river Lhubiriha in Kitholhu sub-county of Bukonzo County West, which he said was on the verge of drying up.
“River volumes have reduced most of the year to a level that a child of 6 years can cross them, and some wells have dried,” Walyuba of Kiwa Heritage added.
Since Kasese gets most of its freshwater from the rivers that flow from Mount Rwenzori, because of the decrease in glaciers, the area is now facing water shortage whereby the communities in Kasese town are only receiving water on some days.
Peter Ebwati, the National Water and Sewerage Corporation Manager in Kasese district, says that the water supply has reduced by nearly half in the last three months, from 3,700 cubic meters per day to less than 2,400 cubic meters per day, which has been compounded by the persistent dry spell that has seen many rivers dry up.
Ms Fazila Kabugho, 30, a mother of four, said for some good time, they have been trekking for several kilometres to fetch water from River Nyamwamba, since most taps have dried up.
“Some people who can’t brace walking for kilometres to River Nyamwamba resort to getting water from unsafe sources of water like drainage channels,” Kabugho says.
Access to safe water in Kasese district is about 60 percent, varying from 18 percent in Kyondo Sub-County to 95 percent in Ihandiro Sub-County, according to the Ministry of Water and Environment’s Water Supply Atlas. The district has 3,345 domestic water points, which serve almost 500,000 people.
Rural water functionality is at about 80 percent, and 578 water points have been non-functional for more than 5 years, the government reported. About half of the non-functioning water points were not operating due to low yield.
Kabugho says that mothers often have to choose between either losing their night sleep as they wait for taps to provide some water or walking several kilometres to the nearest major river.
Kasese district is blessed with 8 power dams constructed on different rivers across the district.
“Most of the [hydro]power dams on the slopes of Rwenzori get the waters from the rivers that flow from Rwenzori Mountains and this water is got from the melting glaciers, so if the glaciers are reducing, it means the dams are likely have less water that is being used for the production of electricity, and as a result leading to load shedding because of limited amount of water that can be used for the generation of power,” Mumbere adds.
Zephania Bwambale Kameli, team leader at Kasese Youth in Tourism Association, says the loss of the glaciers also affects the local tourism industry, which is highly dependent on mountaineers who travel from far and wide to climb the majestic Mountains of the Moon.
“The snow and ice you are seeing are a tourist attraction,” said Kameli. “Tourists come to see the snow, and we get employment opportunities.”
If there is a reduction in the glaciers, it means these people are going to lose their jobs and subsequently, Uganda as a whole would experience a reduction in revenue that comes from the tourism sector, says Mumbere from the Center for Citizens Conserving the Environment and Management.
“Tourists come to Mount Rwenzori to see many things, from the vegetation, animals, plants and snows, so if the glaciers [are lost], we are likely to lose over 1,000 jobs, because starting from the tour companies that book the tourists into Uganda, the hotels, the employees in the hotels, tour company drivers, porters and guides that take them to the mountain, the items they carry with them when they go to mountain, all these jobs will be lost because the demand will decrease,” Mumbere explains.
Bwambale, a guide attached to Rwenzori Trekking Services for the last 13 years, narrates that the day he made his first climb up the mountain in 2009, he found the snow at around 3,400 meters above sea level. Now, one has to go up to around 4,000 or 4,600 meters to see the white caps.
“Reaching at around 3,000 meters, the mountain was always covered with the snow; even getting water for drinking was not easy because of the big layer on the ground. But because we used to go through the bush with some people who did poaching before, they taught us a trick that if you want drinking water, get a saucepan, light fire, get the snow into the saucepan, and that heat of the fire would melt the snow to give you drinking water. That was a real experience I had on the mountain my first time to climb,” Bwambale narrated.
Rwenzori Mountaineering Services is a tour company that employs about 100 able-bodied youth who work as tour guides, porters and officers. The company, located in Nyakalengijo cell in Ibanda-Kyanya Town Council, the foothills of the Rwenzori mountains, has been in this sector for more than 40 years. It organizes treks ranging from three to nine days where brave travelers ascend the various peaks of the Rwenzoris.
Rwenzori Trekking Services in Kilembe is another company dealing in the same sector. There are also various learning institutions including Celak Vocational Institute, Liberty College of Management and Journalism, and Rwenzori Royal Institute, among others. At these institutions, Mr. Daniel Ngangasi II, the proprietor for Liberty College of Management and Journalism, says there are people who also earn from tourism because the demand for tourism courses is high within the Rwenzori region.
While science has an explanation for the recession of the snow on the Rwenzori Mountains, some of the local Bakonzo people believe that the disappearance of the snow and the glaciers is a sign of anger by an ancestral spirit named Kithasamba.
Stanley Baluku, commonly known as Kanzenze, describes himself as a Mountain Man from Ibanda II A cell, Ibanda Ward, in Ibanda Kyanya town council. He believes that there is a close cosmological link between the Bakonzo, Banande, and Bayira people who live around the mountains and the existence of the snow.
He says traditionally, the snow was assumed to fertilize the land around the mountain, and so the fertility of the land is interlinked with the existence of the snow, and the snow signifies the presence of the creator of the Bayira people.
This, he says, potentially explains why the cultural institution of the Bakonzo people was named Rwenzururu Kingdom, deriving her name Rwenzururu from Nzururu (snow). Rwenzururu in the local dialect precisely means “of snow.”
Now, Baluku says as Bakonzo, they are worried because of the receding of the snow. He explains that there has been an overwhelming abandonment by the Bakonzo of the way they used to live sustainably on the land.
“The respect the Bakonzo have for the creator also meant the respect for the snow, so, cultural norms and values that had been constructed by our ancestors were very instrumental in the protection of the mountain ecosystem,” he explains.
“But now we have engaged in activities that tend to subvert those cultural norms, and therefore we think at a traditional level that that is the proper explanation. Human beings were never allowed to trample on the snow, but today people are simply polluting the snow field.”
Ronah Masika, a resident of Kasese Municipality, says as women they are the most affected by the melting of the ice caps.
She was raised by her grandmother, and as she grew up, her grandmother used to tell her stories about the beauty of the glaciers. This would cultivate discipline within her, Masika narrates.
Young girls who used to move in the evening alone would be warned that there was a spirit that would trap and take them to the snow where they would never come back, she says.
Such examples would help them keep safe. But now, Masika says parents are no longer able to use these kinds of examples, because the snow they used to refer to is no more.
Masika adds women would also share proverbs related to the snow that young girls would affirm.
She says women could tell their young girls that they are beautiful like snow, which could prepare and nurture the young girls in a positive way.
But since the white stuff has disappeared and they are no longer seeing it on top of the mountains, the proverbs have also gone, along with the snow.
“And now we know what is happening in parenting. The peers are taking advantage because there is nothing to compare the beauty of our girls with. They use this as a strategy to lure and win over the girls into sex talks that are unsupervised. Now it will be between the girl and the boy, so as mothers we are losing out on a strategy that was helping us to bring up girls with esteem and values,” Masika adds.
Masika also says the flooding of major rivers around the region has negatively affected many women and young children. Since 2013, about 20,000 people have been displaced from their homes.
The biggest number are currently housed in camps. For example, at least 2,000 people, majority women and children, are currently staying in the Muhokya transit camp in Muhokya Town Council, about 40 kilometers away from Kasese town, according to Rehema Aryema, the camp chairperson. However, Aryema states that because of lack of necessities within the camp, many have decided to escape and have gone to seek refuge with their relatives.
Masika says all this suffering is a result of climate change, which triggers flooding and its associated effects.
Worldwide, glaciers melting contributes to flooding, according to John Sekajugo, a climate change and disaster management specialist and lecturer at the Mountains of the Moon University, who is also a PhD Research fellow (Geo-hydrological hazards) at Free University of Brussels.
“Yes, glacier melting causes floods. Although the influence of glacial melts on glacial lake outburst floods or river flash floods can be difficult to understand, several studies across the world have attributed several lake outburst floods to melting of glaciers,” Sekajugo says.
A 2009 study published in Focus reported that the melting of several glaciers in the Himalaya, and the resulting glacial lakes dammed by rocks deposited by the glaciers, result in outbursts that release huge amounts of water and debris.
According to a testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives by the Alaska Division of Geological & Geophysical Surveys and University of Alaska Fairbanks, the sustained melting of the glaciers in Alaska will continue to cause several impacts including lowland flooding.
Dr. Sekajugo adds that although several claims have been made on whether the periodic flash floods along the major rivers in the Rwenzori mountains (Nyamwamba, Mubuku, Nyamugasane and Lamia) are due to glacier melts, there is no conclusive evidence to confirm the claims.
A 2009 study by the Journal of African Earth Sciences reported that glacial meltwater discharges in the Rwenzori Mountains contribute less than 2 percent of the alpine river flows.
The study attributed the biggest volumes of the river discharges to high rates of precipitation exceeding 2,000 mm per year above the alpine zones of the mountain.
He stresses that the poor farming practices lead to frequent slope failures (landslides) and riverbank collapses during peak seasons. “These create blockages in the river flows that later burst open causing largest volumes that carry large stone boulders and debris,” he adds.
Kasese Municipal Senior Environment Officer, Evelyn Mugume also says the riverbanks and the hillsides have been degraded, and agriculture is destroying the land’s natural water conservation ability, where now any drop of water that lands on the ground runs down straight rather than seeping into the ground.
Over the years, seasons in the Rwenzori region have shifted.
Kule Walyuba of Kiwa Heritage site says that when he was still a young boy, the Rwenzori region was very cold, covered with fog and dew. He says that by then, they needed heavy blankets and jumpers to keep warm especially during the night. However, today the area is much warmer. An increase in extreme weather patterns has resulted in extended dry spells, water shortage, and disease, along with more destructive floods.
He adds that before the 1980s, no one in their community would suffer from malaria because they stayed in very cold places that do not support the breeding of female anopheles’ mosquitoes.
However, these days, the region registers the highest cases of malaria.
Dr Yusuf Baseke, the district health officer, says climate change is among the factors why his team is still battling with increasing cases of malaria.
“The places that were once cold have changed their temperatures and these are conditions that support mosquitoes to breed,” Dr. Baseke adds.
The Ugandan government is on the course of fighting malaria by donating free treated mosquito nets and encouraging the populace to live under the nets. The changing weather patterns and water availability has also affected farming, the main economic activity in the region.
Fausta Ngabirano, 55, a farmer in the Nyamwamba valley, recalls how she used to farm to feed her two children in the 1980s.
Ngabirano, who was in the valley ploughing her garden in February, reports that they used to have two planting seasons, where the first season would come in March-April and the second was in July-August, but she says planting their crops as they used to earlier is no more.
She says that she started noticing changes in the environment as early as 1990. Now, they have to just plant crops and go on their knees asking God to give them rain, she says.
The people of Kasese are predominantly subsistence farmers, growing food to feed their families. The major crops grown in the district include cassava, maize, cotton on the lower lands, banana plantations, sweet potatoes and groundnuts.
According to the Kasese District Senior Planner, Joseph Isingoma, the population of the district is estimated to be about 1,001,000 people.
Joseline Mbambu, aged 56, is a victim of these harsh conditions. In 2022, Mbambu lost five acres of soya bean in the Butsumba-Muro farming zone in Kasese Municipality. All the acres of soya bean were scorched and she did not yield anything.
Agnes Katsirombyo, another farmer hailing from Karusandara sub-county, lost her four cows which were killed by floods. Also, her six acres of banana plantations were also washed away and she is now planning to relocate to a safer and flood-free area. But she doesn’t know where she will get money to buy another piece of land.
Ngabirano adds that she has also been forced to adapt to cope with the changing weather patterns.
Ngabirano says that she was told long dry spells have been caused because people have cut down the trees. She advocated for reforestation.
While asked how it is possible that the district is experiencing more rains which is causing floods and at the same time dry spells, Environment Officer Evelyn Mugume said that Kasese is on the lee side of the Rwenzori Mountains, which receives the dry wind instead of the relief rainfall that falls on the side of Kabarole District saying that these winds carry the rain, drop it over the mountain in Kabarole and then proceed to Kasese.
She says Kasese receives convectional rainfall, when the heated air from the Lake George basin provides moisture that is able to rise and condense into rain.
Mugume stresses that Kasese also has a challenge, where even when they have been given a forecast of near-normal or below-normal, the district still experiences a high intensity rain that causes floods. “This is in relation to some of the winds that sometimes flow into the region.” Mugume adds.
Some of these winds also blow away moisture and therefore cause dry spells even within the rainy season, but this happens for a specific time.
Mugume recommended replanting vegetation on the hills of Kasese and on the riverbanks to harvest much rainwater as possible.
“Even when you have the winds blowing and there is that period of dry weather for a number of weeks, you will still have some level of moisture in the ground to be able to take care of the crops until the next rain episode of the season. Let us be mindful; covering the ground is very important and it is the starting point,” Mugume suggests.
Trees help to cool the environment and prevent the melting of the glaciers. But Walyuba reports that indigenous forests in the region have all been cut down, except the few in the park which the government protects.
He mentions trees like “back trees” which is locally known among the Bakonzo who are predominantly living on the foothills of the mountain as “omuthoma,” estimating that today the tree covers just 1 percent of the area.
In the late 1980s, about 75,000 square kilometers (31.7 percent) out of 236,040 square kilometers of total land in the country consisted of forest and woodland. But in 2018, forests and woodlands covered only about 15.2 percent of Uganda’s land surface.
According to research conducted in 2017 by the African Natural Resources Institute, forest cover loss has now increased to an estimated 200,000 hectares annually. And on average, Uganda has been losing 122,000 hectares (301,469 acres) of forests per year since 1990, according to a 2016 report by the Ministry of Water and Environment.
Walyuba adds that forests used to cover about 80 percent of the area, and all ridges and river lines were forested. Forests were dominated by indigenous trees, and exotic species of trees were not common, he said.
Trees can also help reduce the effects of climate change because they trap and remove carbon dioxide and release oxygen into the atmosphere. In turn, carbon is stored in the trees and surrounding soil.
Greenhouse gasses such as carbon contribute to the greenhouse effect, in which heat from the sun becomes trapped in Earth’s atmosphere. As more greenhouse gasses are emitted into the atmosphere, the planet becomes warmer.
The environmentalist Sinamakosa says it is now time for the government to encourage locals to start embracing urbanization because it is easy to set laws and control people in urban communities. Much of the deforestation is happening in villages, because people are increasing in population and they want to farm and construct more houses.
When asked about who is to blame for the receding glaciers, the senior environment officer Augustin Koli said that it is not necessary to blame anyone, but the international community, international companies, the government and the people of Rwenzori should jointly think of what should be done to address the problem.
According to John Justice Tibesigwa, the Rwenzori Mountains National Park Senior Warden, there is a lot that Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) is doing to reduce the receding of snow and melting of glaciers around the mountains.
The senior warden says that as a country, there is little that can be done in order to recover the glacier that has been lost, but there is a lot that can be done in order to slow down the rate of recession of the glacier so that it does not completely disappear in a very short time. This has been evidenced by the interventions of both government and non-governmental organizations, which are intensively engaged in tree planting.
“Given that sometimes the communities around Rwenzori Mountains want to access certain resources from the park, so, if we can have a provision of these resources outside the park, then that will be a very big relief and reduction on the pressure from these resources inside the park,” Tibesigwa suggests.
According to the information obtained from Uganda Wildlife Authority’s website, the agency is attempting to conserve the Rwenzori mountains area by facilitating the neighboring community to reforest and create a buffer zone around the mountains, with financial support from the World Wildlife Fund.
In an effort to reforest the degraded area around the park, UWA, in 2020 marked up to 54 square kilometers and in 2021 distributed 100,000 tree seedlings to the locals to increase the tree coverage and reduce their dependence on the trees around the national park, according to a report by The Cooperator.
According to them, UWA intends to plant more than 2 million trees near the park as most of the trees have been cut.
“Besides, UWA is supporting the locals with income-generating activities such as beekeeping, goat rearing, rabbit keeping, fish farming to minimize their reliance on the park,” the report reads.
Tibesigwa says they are ensuring that they protect the forest cover of the park by minimizing any illegal activity contributing to degradation of the park and encouraging the communities neighboring the park to increase the forest cover through tree planting – both the indigenous and exotic trees.
He also said that they continue to work with all the partners in conservation and development in the five districts where the mountains are located.
He appealed to all stakeholders who use park resources, including water, to make a contribution to the protection of the park in order to maintain and keep its integrity.
“To combat these changes, we need to put a stop to all the cutting of trees along with the mountain and the forest surrounding it, and every effort should be done to educate the locals to use local methods of preserving those areas,” he said.
“Planting all bare hills with trees and shifting away from using wood products to gas for firewood, or metal items could help save our forests,” Sinamakosa suggests.
He also suggests that the international community should come up with good programs to help the poor nations manage resources from the local to international level without overexploitation.
Technologies should be introduced that will match the gap between the developed and developing countries. For example, motor vehicle industries should make vehicles which are not environment polluters, he said.
“Industries should have mechanisms to stop those smokes from getting into our atmosphere,” he said.
Countries like Uganda which have the least responsibility for the climate catastrophe, have long requested that polluters pay for the loss and damage caused by climate-related disasters in African and certain Asian countries.At the conference, a Ugandan climate activist, Vanessa Nakate, noted that the amount of money contributed was insufficient, stressing that just a few countries had promised to give their contribution.
Jerome Bitswande, the Coordinator at Conservation and Demand Agency-CODEA, an indigenous NGO that works on nature conservation in the region, says unique sites like the Rwenzori should be prioritized to benefit from the COP27 fund to address the severe effects of global warming that the Africa’s third highest mountain is grappling with.
According to Bitswande, the world must come to the realization that the Rwenzori glaciers are incredibly unique and once they recede, no other place in the world might provide such beauty.
“We continue to pollute the environment and what we see in the Rwenzori is just an effect of global warming resulting from emissions from the whole world,” Bitswande says.
“Incidentally, the Rwenzori community emits little or no gasses. That’s why all of us (the entire world) need to protect this unique mountain and her rare glaciers thereon. We just need more resources to also enhance the capacities of our communities to adapt to climate change – they have suffered,” he adds.
Reporting by: Alex Baluku
Photography by: Alex Baluku
Editing: Annika McGinnis
Data Visualizations: Primrose Natukunda
Graphics: Jonathan Kabugo