On a cold midmorning in the quiet Nakagga swamp in Ddewe, Lutembe, eight-year-old Allan Mugisha, a student of Jjanyi Primary School, walks onto a rubbish heap. For a few minutes, he roots around the rubbish until he stands up triumphantly with a handful of empty packs of milk.
“I am going to make a football out of these packs,” Mugisha says, adding: “Some of my friends are also coming but I want to collect many packs before they come.” As if on cue, two other children come running down the road, and stop at a truck onto which sand is being loaded.
The rubbish heap has been growing and spreading over the last few weeks and the rubbish is at different levels of decomposition. Next to the heap are three deserted fish ponds. Further ahead, young men are mining sand in the swamp.
Mr Fred Ssebuuma, one of the sand miners, says they have been encouraging truck drivers to dump the rubbish at the site every Saturday.
“We have been tasked by our boss to repair his fish ponds and we are finding a lot of difficulty in the rainy season walking on the ground between the ponds. The ground is uneven and slippery, so in two weeks’ time, we will flatten the rubbish and pour a truckload of murram to make it even.”
He adds that the path that passes by the swamp is dark and insecure, so filling up some parts of the swamp with soil and murram would widen it.
However, beyond building a road, there is a sinister motive behind pouring the rubbish into the swamp. Mr Ssalongo Steven Ssekatawa, who owns land near the swamp, says: “Eventually, when the land is firm, I will put up some buildings there just like my neighbour has done.”
Mr Ssekatawa, a kibanja holder, acquired the land in the swamp 50 years ago. First, he planted eucalyptus trees but after warning from the National Environmental Management Authority (Nema), he switched to fish farming and sand mining.
Nakagga swamp is part of the many swamps that make up Lutembe Bay wetlands. The wetlands are a Ramsar Site, making it an important area for the conservation of water birds.
According to Mr Collins Oloya, the commissioner Wetlands Management Department in the Ministry of Water and Environment, Uganda is losing wetlands at an alarming rate.
“In 1994, when the first wetland inventory and assessment was done, we had 15.6 per cent of the land surface covered in permanent and seasonal wetlands. In the last 25 years, we have lost 44 per cent of the wetland coverage. Out of the 15.6 per cent, we are only remaining with less than 8.4 per cent of wetlands covering the land surface. We are losing wetlands at a rate of 2.5 per cent every year. They are being turned into buildings, roads, plantations, and railways,” he says.
Mr Oloya adds that by 2040, according to the projections of the ministry, Uganda will remain with only 1.6 per cent wetland coverage.
“The wetlands that will remain are those we call victory wetlands – those whose water regimes are constant – such as Mpologoma and Katonga wetlands. If no action is taken, the consequences of wetland degradation are dire,” he says.
In 2014, Cabinet directed that all land titles in wetlands that were issued after the drafting of the 1995 Constitution be cancelled. This directive has since been buttressed by a presidential directive, ordering that people be evicted from urban wetlands at whatever cost.
Four years after the directive, no evictions have been done as yet. “The policy committee on the environment established a technical working group to spearhead the exercise. The criteria for cancelation has been approved for the land titles in Mukono, Wakiso, and Kampala wetlands, which we have communicated to the Ministry of Lands, Housing, and Urban Development.”
Lack of political will
Without a certificate of financial implication and a budget, none of these plans can go ahead. Mr Matia Lwanga Bwanika, the Wakiso District chairperson, believes the answer to the conservation of wetlands does not lie in cancelling land titles.
“Personally, I dispel that nonsense because of the challenges government can face in implementing such a directive, such as finding resources to compensate the title owners. Owning a title in a wetland is not the problem. The issue is that there is no political will to monitor the activities taking place in the wetlands. These small time degraders are not the problem; those degrading are powerful people yet there is no political will to stop them,” he says.
Mr Bwanika insists that these activities have to be scrutinised by authorities such as Nema through environmental impact assessments (EIAs).
“I cannot blame Nema for not working on every incident of degradation because they are not facilitated. How many trucks does Nema police have? Even at the local level, we do not have enforcement mechanisms,” he says.
Three months ago, there was a collective move from the Ministry of Water and Environment and Wakiso District to clear Lubigi swamp.
“We offered them trucks and the area where they were going to dump what they had cleared from the swamp. However, as we were getting ready for the operation, a reshuffle was made for (former Inspector General of Police) Kale Kayihura. The activity stalled. For two months now, the ministry is waiting for the transition in police before they can continue with the exercise,” Mr Bwanika said.
Wakiso District has only one wetlands officer to monitor the 12 seasonal and permanent wetlands in the district. The district has only one vehicle to do inspections, so it is hard to collect evidence of degradation in real time. The annual budget for the district environment office (wetlands and forestry) is Shs8 million only.
“Recently there was a circular stopping every government agency from recruiting but how can one environmental officer cater for four town councils?” Mr Bwanika asks, adding: “There is money to buy Members of Parliament to change the Constitution but there is never enough money to protect the environment.”
According to Mr Oloya, the Wetlands Management Department is allocated Shs2.89 billion only annually. Mr Emmanuel Esabu, the operations officer of the Environmental Protection Police Unit, says although his officers carry out routine checks to arrest those degrading wetlands, they are limited by logistical challenges.
“Although there are 200 officers in the unit countrywide, sometimes there is a limitation of fuel, so we end up only responding to emergencies when we get information through our intelligence network. The wetland coverage around the country is large, so we cannot keep an eye on each and every wetland. To sustain a long term operation in a wetland, you need food and water for personnel.”
Measure being taken
With the issuance of EIAs, which stipulate the activity a company is going to do in the wetland and how degradation will be mitigated, conservation and development of wetlands can occur at the same time.
“With the EIA, we show the developer the boundary of the wetland and tell them where their activities can stop,” Mr Oloya says, adding: “Then, we develop a wetland management plan to regulate the users, indicate the seasons, and the amount of natural resource they can extract. At the edges, we encourage people to construct fish ponds for some income generation activity.”
The ministry is piloting a project in 10 districts whereby it will provide solar-powered irrigation pumps to communities adjacent to the wetlands. “These pumps will help them pump water upstream to irrigate their fields and gardens instead of going into the wetlands and draining them for rice, tea, and sugarcane plantations.”
The ministry has so far demarcated and restored sections of 20 wetlands such as Nakivubo, Kirinya, Namatala and Walugogo, which are critical to the provision of water and sinking of waste in urban centres, with the help of local governments.
Consequences of degradation
All these mitigation measures seem to be aimed at addressing large developers in wetlands. However, for the owners of small plots such as Ssekatawa, the jury is still out. To pay his workers, Ssekatawa has allowed them to mine as much sand as they want to. Two tonnes of sand are sold at Shs70,000.”
According to Esabu, his unit finds it hard to explain to the community why they should arrest people like Ssekatawa who are providing employment to youth. “Some of those working in the wetlands whom the public considers to be big fish have EIAs. Many times when we go to arrest some small time degraders, the communities bar us, saying the degrader is helping them,” he says.
“Of course, I sympathise with the communities because as we enforce, we only grab the small fish,” Mr Bwanika says, adding: “If someone is dumping in a wetland, they usually come with armed guards. How do you expect the community members to react? They will run away. Few communities are knowledgeable about environmental degradation but I insist before they are sensitised, let us first deal with the powerful degraders. These ones know that what they are doing is wrong but they degrade with impunity.”
Mr Bwanika adds that 20 years from now, Uganda will be facing an environmental catastrophe. “I remember when Parliament was looking for money to buy rice for people facing famine. It costs a lot of money to look for rice yet they can increase the budget for environmental conservation. In only five year, if the trend continues, the wetlands will be totally down because the degradation is at a high magnitude now.”
A continued degradation of wetlands means there will be a reduction in water development activities, according to Mr Oloya. “The hydro power generation potential will decrease heavily and that will affect industrialisation. The fauna and flora will decrease and we will emit more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Whenever wetland soil is opened up for any activity, the semi decomposed carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere and this will jeopardise our signing of the UN Framework for Climate Change.”
He adds that because of wetland degradation in Ggaba, the National Water and Sewerage Corporation (NWSC) is spending seven times more that it would normally spend on treating sewage and waste water before it enters Lake Victoria. As a consequence, the NWSC customer will bear the brunt of the increased cost.
“In order to enforce wetlands management, Ugandans should demand for a wetland specific law with enough provisions for regulating access and use and sufficient penalties to deter degradation,” Mr Oloya says.
Currently, the authorities charged with conserving wetlands are using Cap 153 of the National Environmental Act, which is not sufficient to regulate wetlands.