opinionBy Samuel Nabwiiso
Kampala — Uganda early this month joined the rest of the world to mark the World Wetlands Day, although the day was not officially celebrated here.
Uganda is one of the countries in the East African Community (EAC) that is endowered with a number of wetlands.
According to available statistics, the country's wetlands cover is 33,000km, which is about 13% of the total land area of Uganda.
The main reason for celebrating this day is to see how countries have tried to implement the Ramsar Wetlands Convention, which Uganda signed on the 2/Feb/1971 in the Iranian city of Ramsar.
Despite being a member of the treaty, Uganda may be suspended from the Ramsar Club because it has not implemented what the treaty asked member's states to do.
This is due to the rate at which wetlands are being degraded in Uganda, which environmentalists say is alarming.
Why wetlands should be protected
Mr. Paul Mafabi, the Director Environment Affairs at Uganda's Ministry of Water and Environment told East African Business Week that wetlands play vital roles in the ecosystem of the country.
He says that if all wetlands are not protected, the country will experience a shortage of water for both domestic consumption and production.
"Most of our water sources are fed by wetlands whose unique function of water storage and retention ensures its availability throughout the year.
"Wetlands ensure that communities living adjacent to them can continue to have water for livestock, domestic uses and irrigation," notes Mafabi.
He stresses that wetlands help in the formation of rainfall through evapo -transpiration where the water vapour is released into the atmosphere leading to cloud formation.
This, finally results into rainfall there for wetlands contribute much on balancing of the hydrological cycle by maintaining both surface and underground water supply.
The Environment Director also noted that wetlands are key in the purification of water.
What is likely to happen if wetlands are not protected?
According to Mr. Anthony Maseke, an environmentalist and a human rights defender the exploitation of wetlands means destruction of natural habitats.
"Many kinds of animals and plants inhabit wetlands like fish, papyrus, snakes and crocodiles to mention but a few.
"These species have been displaced and this has affected both the species and the Ugandan tourism industry," points Maseke.
He adds that wetlands are characterized by fertile soils, like the acidic soils of bogs which are suitable for agriculture.
Maseke says that repeated cultivation of food in these areas has led to soil erosion and soil exhaustion.
This in turn has affected the people staying around the wetlands.
Wetlands also harbor dangerous animals and insects like mosquitoes and Nairobi flies which have rendered these areas unsuitable for human development.
Maseke stresses that since drainage of wetlands is mainly done through digging of channels, it lowers the water table of the area and this leads to the drying up of uplands (highlands) around the affected areas.
"The fish in the wetlands have been displaced by either over fishing or destruction of the wetlands especially in the swamps," he affirms.
"Many wetlands have been extensively drained especially the swamps to create land for cultivation.
"Wells and streams have dried up and this has resulted in a serious water shortage for the people and animals as well," explains Maseke.
Maseke predicts that Uganda may be drastically affected by climate change since he notes that there has been change in climatic regimes especially in relation to rainfall totals.
This he asserts is due to land reclamation which directly affects the rate of evapor transpiration, a process which adds water to the atmosphere.
"This partly explains why areas formerly occupied by wetlands which used to be among the coldest parts are gradually becoming warm."
What must be done to avert the problem of wetlands destruction?
Many environmentalists argue that the best solution to wetland depletion is massive education and local campaigning to people.
They reason that it is important to note too, that high demand for land for settlement in urban centers like Kampala has also tended to endanger the existing wetlands.
No wonder today most of areas like Bwaise, Nakawa, Industrial area (all city suburbs) are affected by frequent flooding, especially when it rains heavily.
This education and campaign can be done through meetings with their local council leaders and through publication of different environmental sectors.
More so, alternative sources of income generation may be the best alternative instead of exploiting the wetlands.
People should be encouraged to take strong measures in their activities in order to avoid the natural casualties.
Instead of displacing some of these wetland residents, one can instead preserve and protect them thereby earning income through the tourist industry
Bodies formed by the government like the National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) should be supported by allocating to them enough resources to carry out public sensitization.
This can change people's minds so that communities can embrace wetlands conservation.
Clubs like the Uganda Wildlife Club which assists in the sensitization of people about conservation of both the flora and the fauna should be set up.
The government should legislate against swamps and wetland reclamation. Swamps must be allowed to re-grow.
The government in this case should institute rules that people must follow in that before one goes on with the reclamation of wetlands, he or she must get proper documentation from the government.
Government agencies should be prepared to act when confronted with cases of unnecessary wetland and swamp reclamation.
As mentioned before, overpopulation has been identified as the major problem and threat to the degradation of wetlands.
A number of measures can be taken to avoid all this. One of them could be, through controlling population growth rate by use of better family planning methods.
This aims at minimizing excess demand for land which tends to force people to encroach on wetlands.