6 January 2013

Uganda: Wetland Abuse a Very Serious National Issue

Wetlands in Uganda have come under considerable pressure and most them are on the brink of total degradation due to the uneven nature of activities there.

Political interference, population pressures and increased economic developments are the driving factor for the degradation of these wetlands, making a mockery of the eminent value of wetlands, especially the ecological ones.

Uganda covers a total land area of about 241,500 square kilometres, of which 30,105 (13%) is wetland (NEMA-2000). In 1964, the total area of wetlands was estimated at 32,000 square kilometres but by 1999, it had decreased to 30,000.

Preliminary data from the National Biomass Study Unit of the National Forestry Authority (NFA) (2008) suggest that Uganda's wetlands cover, as estimated in 2005, has now been reduced to 26,308 square kilometres, or 11% of the total land area.

The Ramsar Convention 1971 defines wetlands as areas of marsh, fen, peat land or water, whether natural or artificial, permanent or seasonal, with water that is static or flowing, fresh, brackish or salt, including areas of marine water, the depth of which at low tide does not exceed six meters.

In general, wetlands are shallow water bodies teeming with life of complex fauna and flora. Wetlands represent one of the vital natural resources Uganda is endowed with. They provide an ecological service (climate modification, water purification, waste water treatment, flood control and water storage and distribution in space and time); they have direct uses such as acting as a source of water for domestic purposes, livestock watering, a source of fish, medicinal plants and animals, and various other materials.

For instance, estimates show the purification function of the five-square kilometre Nakivubo wetland in Kampala at $1.3m per year. Papyrus harvesting and mat making in rural wetlands in eastern Uganda contribute $200 per year, per family. The primary indirect drivers of degradation and loss of inland wetlands have been population growth and increasing economic development. These include infrastructure development, land conversion, water withdrawal, pollution, overharvesting and overexploitation.

The communities that access these wetlands and use them for agriculture and extraction of various raw materials and fishing have greatly contributed to their degradation. The limited wetland areas of Uganda are under considerable pressure from a growing population and industrial development. Poor natural resource management, coupled with poorly planned or executed development activities have, and are continuing to deplete the limited renewable natural resource base of the country.

The recent encroachment on wetlands in Uganda has been closely linked to government influence and meddling. Although the government has in the past institutionalized its role in environmental planning and management with supporting legislation and regulation, sadly, many wetlands have been degraded at the hands of the very government that is supposed to play a watchdog role. It has severally allocated wetland areas to developers.

Government projects have greatly contributed to the destruction and degradation of wetlands. For instance in Kampala, Lubigi wetland was cleared to pave way for the construction of the Northern By-pass as well as a new water treatment plant for Kampala city. Consideration for economic development has outweighed the benefits from wetlands, thus leading to wetland utilisation and exploitation. This has led to the overutilisation of these resources, resulting in wetland loss and degradation.

The fundamental cause of wetlands destruction is the unquenchable desire of both the rich and the poor to obtain livelihoods from them. This is exacerbated by the high annual population growth rate that is estimated at 3.3% (UBOS 2002) and pressure from industrial development. In areas where population increased tremendously, such as the districts of Kabale, Rukungiri, Kisoro and Bushenyi, wetlands became the first targets.

To counteract the drivers of wetland degradation, measures have to be put in place to check on the inadequate funding, political interference and limited awareness by the population of the existing wetland legislation. This should further be backed by the adoption of new and innovative approaches that effectively integrate various aspects of wetland management to curtail the current degradation of catchment areas and ecologically fragile areas.

The author is Programme Assistant, Advocates for Natural Resources Governance and Development (ANARDE).

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