Every February 2, the world commemorates World Wetlands Day following the adoption of the convention on wetlands on February 2, 1971. The day established to raise awareness about the importance of wetlands to human kind and biodiversity at large is this year themed, "Wetlands for disaster risk reduction."
In Uganda, the theme has so much bearing on the current environmentally related humanitarian challenges. The media of recent has been awash with stories of a drought taking course in different parts of the country triggering incidences of famine and hunger especially in the Eastern and South Western parts of the country.
The current season has not spared animal husbandry (Read: Cattle in Isingiro, Kiruhura starve to death, Daily Monitor, October 27 2016) and has adversely affected the Governments' Operation Wealth Creation (OWC) initiatives and individual farmers in the local communities.
With incidences of encroachment on fragile ecosystems such as wetlands, river banks and lakeshores, increasing across the country, several districts, especially in the Eastern and Northern part are experiencing a water crisis where the low levels of flow make it impossible for water authorities to abstract water for domestic and industrial use. The current dry spell has also affected electricity generation with most small hydropower plants across the country operating below capacity (Read: Small Dams operate below capacity as rivers run dry, New Vision, January 30).
These incidences, which to a greater extent can be deduced to environmental degradation could have possibly been cushioned had communities taken initiatives to protect the integrity of these ecosystems. Unquestionably, human activities are at the centre of environmental degradation including the encroachment and destruction of wetlands.
Wetlands provide various resources and benefits to surrounding communities including; provision of water, recharging the water springs, boreholes, grass for thatching, pasture for animals, providing fish, poles for construction, materials for craft industry, cultural purposes, climate modification, control of floods, water filter, among others. All these are at the verge of being completely lost given the current trend of degradation.
One of the decentralised areas of development in the Local Government Act 1997 is Environment Management. The implementation of the decentralised policy necessitated realignment of the environment and natural resources management sectors, with more responsibilities being passed on to Local Governments. The decentralisation strategy was intended to ensure that all Ugandans participate in the creation of clean and healthy environment as enshrined in the Constitution
As one of the general principles established by Section three of the National Environment Act (NEA), Cap 153 of 1995, the duty to maintain and enhance the environment is a collective responsibility including the duty to inform the relevant authorities or the local environment committee of all activities and phenomena that may affect the environment significantly.
Encroachers on these fragile ecosystems are largely community members surrounding the catchments or are protected by the same, which ends up compromising the hydrological and ecological integrity of these ecosystems and thus affecting the whole community.
In first half of 2016, Gulu District experienced one of the worst water crisis incidences following the encroachment on the Oyitino River catchment. The encroachment on River Enyau is currently stretching water provision in Arua Town, and so is the encroachment on the Limoto - Mpologoma wetland system on the current water crisis in Kibuku and Pallisa, the latter being politically motivated.
Communities like those staying around the Akadot Wetland in Teso Sub-region and Nyamuhizi - Kagogo wetlands in Mitooma realised almost late. Pockets of people had raided their wetlands catchment, drained the wetlands and established farms.
Soon the areas became water stressed and most of the ecosystem services the wetlands were offering the wider communities had been depleted. This reality check prompted a community restoration process with Inspectors from the National Environment Management Authority to salvage their wetland systems.
Communities should, therefore, be effectively involved in environmental monitoring and reporting as well as participating in formulating local tailored policies to ensure complete ownership to avert these looming disasters.
Mr Nuwagira is the senior information, education, and communications officer, Nema