Fond memories of River Rwizi in its heydays run through Prof Elly N. Sabiiti’s mind every time he touches base with Mbarara District.
During his early days, Prof Sabiiti who went to Mbarara High School for his studies, says the river used to froth at some points, an act that attracted him and his peers to learn how to swim.
According to Prof. Sabiiti, the vegetation around the river was very thick, a thing that attracted thousands of wild animals, including birds that made memorable melody chants in the morning and evening.
The thick vegetation made mainly of papyrus and other wetland grasses acted as water filters, catchment and regulated flooding in the area, which are some of the uses of wetlands.
“We would swim and drink this water without boiling while we grazed cattle and it was okay. The water was very clean,” Prof Sabiiti, 65, says.
Other resources like firewood, roofing materials and water for animals were in abundance, he adds.
“In 1950s, Mbarara was like Europe. It was very cold with plenty of fog in the morning. You could barely see anything a metre away because of the fog in the morning. I wish we could restore this river and go back to those days,” he pleads.
Prof Sabiiti’s recent visit to the area treated him to reality. Things are falling apart so fast, with visible indicators that the river may dry up in the near future should human activities continue to go on unabated.
The all-important Rwizi River, which qualifies to be called a lone source of life to Mbarara District, a town rapidly growing not only in human and animal population but industries too, is now being relegated to a thin stretch of water flowing from the hilly terrain of Buhweju District.
The river flows with low steam to the dry land belt of Mbarara and Rakai on its way to Lake Victoria owing to its reduced water volume, which experts attribute to human activities.
Some of the human activities that are making the river to struggle for survival include degradation of its catchments as encroachers look for land to settle, agriculture and setting up factories.
These activities have resulted in people cutting down trees, papyrus surrounding the river, digging around and in some extreme cases, reclaiming the river for these activities without looking at the bigger contribution of the river to their livelihoods. Exposing the river to extreme temperatures is also causing water evaporation, further worsen the situation.
“In 1950s, this river formed a livelihood for many people and life was very easy for us. We had animals like water bucks,” Prof. Sabiti says.
Conservation and survival
“But in such a small period of time, we have lost these birds. We have lost the water bucks, other small animals and we are only left with mud fish,” he said.
The mud fish may also disappear in the near future considering that water of the river is terribly diminishing.
The scanty mud fish caught in the river ends up in Murchison Falls where it is used as bets for sport fishing.
Aaron Muhwezi, a brick layer on the banks of the river, concurs that the river is decimating but they are caught in the paradox of conservation and survival now.
“We (brick makers) cut trees [around the river] to burn the bricks and not for luxury. What do you want us to do if we do not do this? Give us alternatives,” Muhwezi says.
Muhwezi’s view point, the Mbarara municipal environment officer Herbert Tumwebaze says, has been advanced by many encroachers but they forget that they are “self-destroying because Rwizi River means life” to the district and beyond.
“We have found out that a lot of people in this town and in rural areas are encroaching on the fragile ecosystem system in search for land for settlements, setting up businesses, agriculture…” Tumwebaze says.
As prevention is better than cure, Tumwebaze says the Municipal Council recently resolved that an environment officer will now attend all the physical planning committee meetings of the district to avert approval of projects deemed destructive to the Rwizi River.
“We can longer approve a plan in the range of 100 metres which is a buffer zone of the river and 30 metres of the river’s drainage system,” Tumwebaze says.
But there are some people or projects that were or are ongoing in the said zones their effects will need to be addressed the Council.
“National Water and Sewerage Corporation (NWSC) officials are now measuring 100 meters from the river and after demarcation, government will know what to do with these people already in the buffer zones,” he adds
Should government politicise the issue and fail to eject or prevent further encroachments on the river, the entire district will runout of water soon, experts say.
Already, Tumwebaze says “Mbarara has attracted many industries which need a lot of water ...and as of now, the water in river Rwizi cannot serve both domestic and commercial purposes.”
Tumwebaze says most people coming from the villages are poor and as a result settle for cheaper plots in wetlands which they attain fraudulently.
By whatever reason, no one is supposed to carry out any activities in wetlands if Ugandans were to follow the law.
Section 36 of the National Environment Act provides for protection of wetlands and prohibiting any person from reclaiming, erecting or demolishing any structure that is fixed in, on, under or above any wetland.
And as a remedy for the encroachers who already settled in wetlands, Cabinet directed Nema, in 2014 to cancel more than 17,000 land titles acquired in wetland. The cancellation has not yet kicked with government compiling the list of the said titles.
Stopping encroachment has proved to be a hard call for the Nema and other agencies as use the wetlands to get through planting crops like cabbages, carrots, yams among other crops which earn the rural poor a living.
More efforts will need to be done to save the river amid growing population both for humans, factories and animals that all depend on the river for water.
In fact, some abattoir pours it effluent straight into the river further contaminating the water quality.
The destruction of Rwizi, directly affects Lake Victoria, since the latter gets some of its water the former.
“This is the main livelihood for us, I am 65 years I have seen it. At 4, we were grazing around it but what saddens me is the fact that the river is dying when we are so knowledgeable about the environment,” Prof Sabiiti, who doubles as Nema board of directors, said.