Kampala — PROSSY Nalubwama was under siege. Her belongings were in ruins after the floods poured into the house as she slept. She held on to a floating empty jerrycan until she was rescued.
Her ordeal is not strange to the neighbours. They know that her house is one of those that are worst hit by floods.
This scene in Kalerwe is common in Kampala's suburbs, which are prone to floods. As the rainy season approaches, the tenants shift to escape the menacing floods. New unsuspecting tenants usually replace them in the dry season.
More than half a million people in Kampala, especially the low-income earners, have been suffering quietly as a result of floods.
"We know about the plight of the people, but it is their fault," says Robert Wabunoha, a senior environmental lawyer of the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA).
Wabunoha says many people in Kampala have over the years built houses in the valleys where water naturally flows. Because the water has nowhere else to go, it floods people's homes.
Wabunoha says government has come up with new environmental laws to protect the ecologically sensitive areas such as wetlands.
As the wetlands, which used to hold enormous quantities of water become no more, the city has begun witnessing a catastrophe.
"It is becoming a routine to lose lives when floods hit the city," says Paul Mafabi, the assistant commissioner in charge of wetlands in the Ministry of Water, Lands and Environment.
Mafabi says most wetlands in Kampala have been cleared for human settlement and industries.
In a recent tour organised by Shelter and Settlements, an NGO, the low-lying Kifumbira slum that separates Mulago hill from Bukoto was found to have countless pools of water. The pools provide a breeding ground for mosquitoes and create a dirty environment that favours cholera. The area suffered most from past cholera outbreaks.
This is because the latrines are built above water streams. During rains the area residents usually open a hole to release faeces from the latrines. The rain then washes away the faeces to streams, from where they fetch water.
However, not many people have access to toilet facilities. Some defecate in polythene bags, which they throw into the stream. This has earned buveera the name: "flying toilet."
There are also heaps of unclaimed garbage because the crowded houses leave only tiny passages, which can not be accessed by garbage collectors.
Rwandume Mugizi, the KCC environment inspector, says Kampala has swallowed up the greenery that once covered the empty hills and valleys.
"We have a concrete jungle, which does not allow water filtration in the soil and most of the water runs above the ground," he says.
Mugizi points out that most of the land in Kampala belongs to individuals. This makes it difficult for the city council to plan and ensure that houses are built to the required standards.
"The authorities plan for land that is not in their hands."
He says the lack of policies on housing has led to haphazard development in Kampala and its suburbs. Mugizi also blames old laws that did not recognise wetlands as important ecological areas. It is only in 1995 that a law was put in place to protect wetlands. Henceforth it became illegal to encroach on a wetland.
When the floods hit Kampala early this year, the former minister of environment, Dr. Kezimbira Miyingo, issued a directive that all houses in wetlands should be demolished.
But Phoebe Gubya, the KCC environment officer, complains about the directive saying there is need for compensation. He says landowners claim that they did not know they were building on wetlands.
However, Mafabi says there is no need for compensation for the houses built after 1995 when a law was put in place to protect wetlands.
Mafabi says some of the wetlands such as the Nakivubo swamp, purify waste water before it enters Lake Victoria. In so doing they protect the lake from pollution.
"Soon the authorities will be mining water from filth as the mouth of the lake is located a stone's throw away from Ggaba Water Works," he says.
He says efforts are in advanced stages to gazette the Nakivubo wetland as a protected area, and to stop fresh encroachment on it.
He says that after gazetting the Nakivubo swamp, the team will move in to save Kinawataka wetland.
The war to protect wetlands has seen government taking contradictory positions. As the government prepares to evict over 10,000 yam growers from the Nakivubo wetland, a few rich owners of houses in Bugolobi who should be evicted, have been left intact.
In a special report in The New Vision of April 25, it was reported that the new proposed boundaries were being changed to favour the rich owners of the houses.
Even the recent directive by Kezimbira came at a time when a controversial shopping mall, Shoprite, was being put up at Lugogo play grounds, which is a water way.
Mafabi says some politicians have abdicated from the noble cause of protecting wetlands because they fear to make unpopular decisions.
"We are making a new law on wetlands to close the pitfalls," says a source in the ministry of environment.