Encroachers reclaim over 900 acres of Fort Portal wetlands

Fort Portal City leaders inspect one of the degraded areas last week. Photo/ALEX ASHABA

What you need to know:

  • Leaders say the urban authority has experienced a surge in population since attaining city status four years ago. 

At least 32 percent of wetlands in Fort Portal City have been degraded, with leaders and environment activists concerned that it is contributing to the harsh weather conditions being experienced in the area.

Ms Gladys Natugonza Mirembe, the senior environment officer of Fort Portal City, on Monday told the Monitor that since the urban area’s elevation to city status on July 2020, it has witnessed a surge in population. Consequently, there has been encroachment on wetlands and river banks for farming and other human activities.

According to Ms Natugonza, wetlands comprise 1,189.52 hectares of the 124 square kilometres of land in the city. Of this, only 807.07 hectares of wetlands, constituting 67.8 percent, remain intact, while 382.45 hectares of wetland, equivalent to 32 percent, have been degraded. A total of 382 hectares is equivalent to 943 acres of land.
She said unregulated human activities; animal grazing, crop cultivation along the edges, settlement, and infrastructure development are being carried out in the wetlands.

“Previously, the absence of environmental policing hindered enforcement efforts. Currently, we have one regional police officer overseeing the entire region. However, there lacks clear demarcation of certain wetlands, leading many to erroneously believe they possess ownership rights,” Ms Natugonza said. 
“Nevertheless, I am pleased that we are on track to establish an inventory of all wetlands and obtain their coordinates,” she explained.

During Monday’s stakeholder meeting addressing the protection and restoration of wetlands and river banks in Fort Portal City, she presented a list of 37 wetlands in the city’s two divisions facing extinction due to encroachment.
The most affected are Nyamumbwa/Kaitabatimba, with 20 acres encroached upon, Nyamugombwa wetland, with 8 acres encroached, and Muhoora wetland with 15 acres encroached, all situated in the North Division.

Others are Binanata, Bugunda, Buhoiga, Butangwa/Mugunu, Itaara 1, Kamengo, Kanywankoko 1, Karamaga, Katojo, Kiculeeta, Kiyanja, Mpanga behind Kahungabunyonyi, Nyakimya, Rukongora, Kamengo and Busanga.
Dr Emmanuel Guma Brian, the team leader of the Albertine Water Management Zone at the Ministry of Water and Environment, said all wetlands are vital ecosystems whose loss will jeopardise biodiversity.

“When we lose these wetlands, we expose ourselves to the adverse effects of climate change, such as increased flooding during the rainy season and prolonged dry spells. As a ministry, we have developed a catchment management plan to address the conservation and sustainable management of these resources in the Albertine region,” Dr Brian said.
Mr Prosper Businge, the Fort Portal City Council Secretary for Works and Natural Resources, states that to address the problem of wetland degradation, the government needs to allocate resources to the urban authority to ensure that all wetlands are titled.

“We need to obtain titles for all the wetlands in the city, and this will assist us in taking legal action against offenders. Without a land title, it is challenging to win court cases against those occupying wetlands. Additionally, we continue to face difficulties in enforcing the mandated 100-meter buffer zone along riverbanks. The majority of projects, including government initiatives, are located in wetlands. The current law is not realistic unless it is amended to require a buffer zone of 30 meters,” he explains.

The wetlands in the city are not gazetted, making it difficult for the city to proceed with legal action against the degraders.
Residents and climate change experts say that the weather pattern in Fort Portal has changed so drastically in the last five years due to the degradation of the environment and the area, once known for its morning fog and abundant rainfall throughout the year, is getting warmer.
Developers have also encroached on the banks of rivers Mpanga and Mugunu, which wind through the town. The recommended 100-metre buffer zones along these rivers have been compromised.

Lay of hope
Fort Portal City in collaboration with Join For Water,  a development partner, has hired a consultant firm, Aide Environment to do an inventory of wetlands in the area.
Ms Evelyn Busingye, the project team leader from Aid Environment, said while doing the inventory, they want to establish key issues affecting wetlands in Fort Portal and then do a restoration plan for degraded wetlands.

“Among the key issues we shall look at is the water balance in the city both surface and ground to know how much is available to be able to determine the impact on future developments, we are now consulting with stakeholders and by July we shall present a draft wetland restoration management plan,” she said.
Mr Isaiah Ndungo, the country coordinator of Join For Water said the three-year project, slated to run until 2026, also aims to build resilient communities and wetland ecosystems by promoting catchment-based, equitable, and sustainable water management in Fort Portal City.

He said it will be implemented by the Natural Resource Defence Initiative and the Kyaninga Forest Foundation.
“We want to protect, conserve, and restore degraded wetlands and river banks in Fort Portal because many of the wetlands are diminishing in size due to encroachment caused by increased human activities such as farming and sand mining,” Mr Ndungo said.

What law says
 The National Environment (Wetlands, Riverbanks, and Lakeshores Management) Regulations No. 3 of 2000, section 37, stipulates that anyone who reclaims or drains a wetland, erects, constructs, alters, extends, removes, or demolishes any structure within a wetland without authorization, upon conviction under these regulations, offenders face imprisonment for a minimum of three months or a fine not exceeding Shs3 million, or both.