Wetlands filled with tonnes of soil as leaders look on
At the edge of Lake Victoria, off the road to Kigo prison, just behind Lake Victoria Serena resort in Wakiso district, heaps of brown soil dot what would have been a green area.
Kigo, today, is a beehive of construction activity. One marked feature is a rising storeyed building, now on first-floor level. Everything here is fenced off; only construction workers and officials are allowed in through the gate.
Previously, this place was covered by green vegetation -papyrus plants, grass and flooding water, like a typical wetland. All these have been replaced by heaps of soil and the nascent buildings. A resident, who has lived in Kigo village for several years, tells The Observer that these activities started about four years ago.
"It's the extension of Lake Victoria Serena. No one knows the owner of that hotel, but we hear that they are trying to put up the new facilities here," says one resident.
Grant Kajura, who has lived here for six years, vividly remembers the Kigo swamp where residents grew crops and grazed animals.
"People grew sweet potatoes and sugarcane here. We also fetched water, but when the place was filled with soil, they dug for us a borehole so that we don't complain," Kajura says.
"We first resisted the takeover of this place as residents, but we were overpowered."
A private company, The Cementers, is carrying out the works. On the Cementers website, the company notes; "...Opened in October 2009, the resort [Lake Victoria Serena] will be complemented by the addition of a 25-berth marina and the golf plan. Fream, Dale & Ramsey Architecture designed the 18-hole championship golf course on completion."
The project status is on-going. Paul Mafabi, the commissioner for wetlands at the ministry of Water and Environment, says the project is threatening the lake.
"They [constructors] were stopped, but defied. We told them to stay 200m away from the lake and that's not what is happening," says a furious Mafabi.
Yet Kigo wetland is just one of thousands of wetlands that have been reclaimed in the name of development. At the Bugolobi wetland in the Bugolobi suburb of Kampala, an inscription "UG WET" stands imposingly in the fence of St Kizito primary school. And this is what is remaining of the three-acre wetland. Outside the school, the area has been fenced with iron sheets to stop people accessing the place.
Peeping through the iron sheets, one notes that the place has been filled with heaps of murram soil. Residents say tens of trucks have been ferrying this soil there. In a distance, there is a residential house - which Bugolobi residents think was put up to house those who keep on monitoring the place. According to a resident, hundreds of trucks of soil were poured there mid last year and what is remaining is construction.
"I think they have left the soil to set and they come to start constructing," a resident tells The Observer.
He says they have seen city tycoon Hassan Basajjabalaba inspecting the place. But in an interview with Daily Monitor last year, he denied being interested in the wetland.
"I have been in Dubai for three weeks. Who saw me and when? Where is that land you are talking about? I do not know what you are talking about. In fact you are just telling me a story. I don't think there are any of my people appearing in those companies [filling the wetland with soil]," he said.
But Frank Muramuzi, the executive director of National Association for Professional Environmentalists (NAPE), says responsible bodies like National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) and the ministry of Water and Environment should get serious or Uganda will have no wetlands in the coming years.
"The problem is more than what we see," says Muramuzi.
"There is a lot of politics and this is what is killing our wetlands. The people on top will squeeze the small people if they touch the wetland, but leave the big people."
"If you went to Kinawataka, Munyonyo, Bwaise and other places; there are no more wetlands," Muramuzi tells The Observer.
A report, "Mapping a Better Future: How Spatial Analysis Can Benefit Wetlands and Reduce Poverty in Uganda", released in 2009 by the World Resources Institute and Wetlands Management Department at the ministry of Water and Environment showed that wetlands in Uganda have an estimated annual productive value of between Shs 9 trillion and Shs 18 trillion.
Wetlands cover about 10-15% of the land area in Uganda. The report notes that wetlands provide subsistence employment to about 2.4 million people. Indeed, Ugandans have traditionally used them as a source of materials for construction, crafts, furniture, and as hunting or fishing areas.
Seasonal wetland margins have been used for grazing cattle, growing arable crops and for domestic water. Wetlands provide an important habitat for wildlife apart from their natural role of draining runoff water from higher ground.
Besides, environmentalists say wetlands previously played an important role in minimising flooding in the city - which they believe explains why Kampala floods when it rains.
In the name of development
Many wetlands have been reclaimed in the name of development. They are either replaced with hotels or shopping malls, regarded to be more "developmental" than wetlands. But according to Muramuzi, the mentality by government bureaucrats that wetlands are a "wasteland" is backed by ignorance.
"They [authorities] don't now what they are doing. This alone shows that NEMA and the ministry have failed from the word go," he says.
Indeed, some of the biggest hotels, malls, and politicians' houses in Kampala are built on places which were hitherto wetlands. But Mafabi says the development and wetlands policies are very clear.
"Building in a wetland is a breach of NEMA rules; I think it really boils down to impunity of some people who think they can do anything and can't be touched."
He says it has really been a tug of war between developers and the ministry. "They have land titles in the wetland and it becomes difficult to evict them."
To Muramuzi, the bigger problem is the endless blame games played by those supposed to be protecting the wetlands. For instance, NEMA blames the Land Commission for dishing out land titles for areas designated as swamps on the national map. But the registry also blames NEMA for failing to keep within its bounds on wetland regulations.
"To me, it is the greater failure of the country. Look at forestry, land tenure systems, our lakes - everything is in tatters here," Muramuzi said.
Mafabi says they are demoralised when they attempt to evict encroachers and find them with documents.
"Of course the Land Commission denies issuing titles in wetlands, but we ask ourselves where do they get them from?" says Mafabi.
To Mafabi, it should be the responsibility of every Ugandan to preserve the wetlands.
"We have always told people that wetlands are part of water purifiers and filters when maintained well. We all need good water, let's protect wetlands."
This Observer feature is published in partnership with Panos Eastern Africa, with funding from the European Union's Media For Democratic Governance and Accountability project.