1 February 2014

Uganda: Swamped On the Banks of Lake Victoria


Uganda's capital, Kampala, sits on the shores of Lake Victoria, Africa's largest freshwater body. The lake provides the city with water and fish, such as the gigantic Nile perch, tilapia and silver fish.

But Kampala is struggling to cope with pressures exerted by its rapidly expanding population: its wetlands are disappearing as environmental protection falls prey to broken and corrupt politics.

Kampala could face a future of severe flooding, shortages of drinking water and disappearing fish - as well as a plethora of health hazards - if wetland destruction is not urgently stopped.

Still a comparatively small city of 3m people, Kampala has a high annual population growth rate of 3.2% as people from impoverished rural areas flood the city seeking economic opportunities.

The state-administered Kampala Capital City Authority expects the city's population to reach 8m by 2030. As the city's population grows, the wetland-covered valleys are yielding to population and economic pressures.

Wetlands in the city -   and throughout central Uganda - serve as the rainfall catchment area for Lake Victoria. Besides serving as a critical water source for Kampala's residents, the wetlands filter much of the filth and toxic material carried by storm waters as they drain from the city to the lake.

Kam pala's sewerage services cover only part of the city and the wetlands act as natural strainers protecting the lake.

This safety shield is diminishing because the wetlands are shrinking at an alarming rate, according to Uganda's National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA).

The national wetland cover, both permanent and seasonal, has shrunk from 37,575 square kilometres in 1994 to 26,308 square kilometres in 2008, resulting in a loss of 11,268 square kilometres, or nearly 30%.

Frank Muramuzi, head of the Kampala-based National Association of Professional Environmentalists (NAPE), said that based on his own observation, Kampala could have lost as much as three-quarters of its swamps in the last 15 years.

Factories, flower farms, residential mansions and two of Kampala's biggest shopping centres, Garden City and Oasis Mall, now fill several wetlands that used to be natural features of the capital city.

"We're reaching a point where the situation could be irreversible," Mr Muramuzi said. Once houses and other structures are built on a wetland, he added, the natural resource could be lost permanently, even if a more stringent environmental policy is put in place in the future. "My worst fear is floods will be all over, filth will all be draining into Lake Victoria. The contamination in this lake will be terrible."

Uganda's state-run water utility, the National Water and Sewerage Corpora- tion (NWSC), draws water from the lake, which it then treats and sells to Kampala's residents and businesses.

Top NWSC executives - among them managing director Silver Mugisha and his predecessor William Muhairwe - have complained that the lake's water quality has deteriorated markedly in recent years as the pace of wetland destruction has increased.

Nitrates, petrochemicals and other industrial waste are flowing unfiltered into Lake Victoria. They have triggered blue algae blooms and high water contamination near the lake's shores, Mr Mugisha told Africa in Fact. "When you encroach on a wetland you [will] have all this waste water with toxic materials going directly into the lake," he said.

As a result, the utility is spending much more on chemicals to treat water, a rise of 20% in the last four years, Mr Mugisha said.

In addition, the NWSC has also had to invest in longer suction pipelines extending deeper into the lake, where it is less polluted.

These higher operating costs will eventually be transferred to consumers, most of whom are already struggling to cope with existing prices.

NAPE's Mr Muramuzi blamed the environmental destruction on wealthy businessmen and NEMA. Civic consciousness needs to be raised so people understand the perils facing them from unchecked wetland encroachment, he said.

Uganda's parliament passed legislation creating NEMA in 1997, which it later strengthened with a police unit. But environmentalists and others have criticised the agency for its alleged failure to stand up to industrialists and politically-connected individuals building commercial developments in the wetlands.

A well-known example is Rosebud, a huge flower farm owned by property mogul Sudhir Ruparelia. (Mr Ruparelia is Uganda's richest man, with a net worth estimated by Forbes magazine this year to be $1.1 billion.)

NEMA stirred widespread outrage for allegedly allowing Mr Ruparelia, who is widely believed to be connected to powerful politicians, to set up the farm in the Lutembe wetland on the shores of Lake Victoria, after pouring tonnes of soil to reclaim the swamp.

NAPE officials, area residents and others have pointed out that the farm will cause immense harm to the health of the Lutembe wetland, which is a Ramsar site (as defined by a 1971 intergovernmental treaty signed in Ramsar, Iran, which lists wetlands of international importance).

Fertilisers and other chemicals from the farm, these critics say, will drain directly into the swamp and damage the lake's ecosystem.

Criticism of NEMA is misdirected, said Tom Okurut, NEMA's executive director, in an interview with Africa in Fact. Instead he blamed the Uganda Land Commission for issuing Mr Ruparelia with a land title for the swamp. NEMA, he said, was powerless to stop the development once this deed had been issued.

The main culprits behind the city's wetland loss are Kampala's rapidly rising population, widespread poverty and NEMA's underfunding, Mr Okurut said.

"The population of Uganda has increased, and...it is a poor population which has migrated to Kampala," he added. "Poor population, high numbers coupled with poor planning, these are the drivers [of wetland destruction]."

Mr Okurut supports the argument often put forward by President Yoweri Museveni: environmental protection is not needed in a country's early stages of economic development.

According to this thesis, it is preferable for a poor nation to achieve faster economic growth and lift its people out of poverty regardless of the negative environ- mental consequences.

This reasoning has informed the Museveni government's environmental policies, which have often angered environmental activists.

In April 2007, for instance, environmentalists spearheaded a violent and bloody demonstration in Kampala when they protested against Mr Museveni's decision to allow a sugar producer, Mehta Group, to cut down a huge portion of a natural forest in central Uganda to plant cane.

The riots, in which several Asians were killed (Mehta is Indian-owned), forced the government to temporarily reverse the decision. Although more than a dozen people were arrested, there have been no convictions for the killings.

Mr Museveni has since revived the issue. In 2011 he insisted that Mehta would be given title to the land and permission to cut down the trees and plant cane. He described opponents of the decision as enemies of Uganda's industrialisation drive.

Until now, however, the government has not done anything and the forest is still standing.

It is possible to balance the need for development with environmental protection, Mr Okurut emphasised: "It's also wrong to think that wetlands actually should not be touched."

What is important is to ensure any activities allowed in the swamps do not lead to alteration of their natural state, he added. NEMA, however, lacks sufficient personnel and money to monitor compliance with environmental standards in the wetlands, he admitted.

NAPE's Mr Muramuzi said he fears the massive destruction of wetlands in central Uganda is creating a precedent that could be followed by the systematic targeting of forests, and then other equally precious natural resources.

Dickens Kamugisha, CEO at Africa Centre for Energy Governance, a Kampala- based think-tank, warned that this is already happening.

"In Uganda, for instance, we have seen landslides kill a lot of people as a result of allowing people to clear forests on mountainsides and now the government realises that we need to resettle all these people in danger zones in landslide prone areas," he said.

"But we don't have the money. That would have been prevented if we had strict environmental policies and not allowed settlement and cultivation on mountain ranges."

Uganda's environmental protection does not have to be sacrificed at the altar of economic growth, Mr Kamugisha said.

"The imperative for environmental protection is even greater for poor countries like Uganda, because the effects of destroying the environment in most cases overwhelm these countries' coping mechanisms," he added.

Poor countries can concurrently use new technologies that protect the environment while achieving development.

"If solar energy technology and new water purification techniques, for instance, can be rapidly deployed in rural areas, that would reduce the pressure for rural-urban migration, because both of these can allow people in rural areas to enjoy a semi-urban life style and that would take away the population pressure on Kampala and other towns which is partly the reason wetlands are being destroyed," Mr Kamugisha said.

"There's no choice between environmental protection and development," he said. "Both are equally treasured and must [be] pursued simultaneously."

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