Is there hope for degraded water resources?

What you need to know:

  • The backyard of the school was a cozy one. A river gently trickling through the valley, carrying with it artistically rounded stones.

Most vivid among my childhood memories is a primary school trip we took to Kilembe hill in Kasese District. A hill endowed with Copper and Cobalt mines, cable cars, remains of the old Kasese railway line and other artifacts dating as far back as the 1950’s.

In the same neighbourhood was Bulembia Primary School where we were accommodated over the night.

The backyard of the school was a cozy one. A river gently trickling through the valley, carrying with it artistically rounded stones. We would later learn that this was River Nyamwamba. The sights and sounds of the Rwenzori foothills made our stay a memorable one. Little could be known though, that seven years down the road, the gentle and peaceful river would turn wild.

On May 1st 2013, the pendulum swung backwards. In an event accelerated by the heavy rains in the Rwenzori mountains, River Nyamwamba burst its banks. The valley that housed Kilembe Mines Ltd and its infrastructure was destroyed by the flush floods. Most of the bridges over the river were swept away. What used to be Bulembia School now stands as ruins, with only few of its structures still standing. The destructive boulders that were carried by the river, some as big as a saloon car, can still be seen at this site today.

And yet the destruction was more devastating. The floods dislodged the chairlift station, the old KML petrol station in the upstream of Nyamwamba, and Katiri main bridge, the Kilembe Hospital residential units, and part of Kilembe Mines Hospital, further downstream.

Four human bodies were found scattered along the river banks in the aftermaths of the flood. Similar events reoccurred in 2014, 2015 and 2021, prompting the government of Uganda to counter act.

Various emergency response interventions were put in place. These include early warning systems, evacuation and internal displacement camps. However, the challenge at hand called for more sustainable solutions, since Kasese has for long been a hotspot for floods, due to the rugged nature of its scenery and the numerous glacier-fed rivers. Through the Directorate of Water Resources Management, the Ministry of Water and Environment launched a catchment management plan to sustainably manage the Nyamwamba catchment area.

In October 2021, the ministry embarked on interventions in the upstream, midstream and downstream sub-catchments of the river. The river buffer on a stretch of over 20km has been restored, demarcated and planted with bamboo and indigenous tree species, to stabilise the banks during flood periods. Degraded land in excess of 1,500 hectares has been reclaimed and afforested. Soil and water conservation technologies have been implemented on over 650 hectares in this catchment, notably through construction of run off infiltration channels, and planting of slope stabilisation plant species. These measures serve to increase the resilience of the catchment to heavy rains and consequent floods.

The ministry also embarked on emergency maintenance and construction works over a distance of about 5.6km, to protect priority hotspot areas. These include gabion works and cyclopean concrete. 

In addition, several enterprises have been set up for the affected communities, under apiary, stone value addition, coffee value addition, aqua culture, eco-tourism and fruit growing, to offer alternative livelihood options to the community dwellers. This is a strategic move to lessen the pressure exerted by dwellers on the natural environment.

To implement these measures has been no mean feat. Unlike in the past, where conservation of the environment was solely pursued by the relevant government organs, this project adopted an “integrated approach” where management of water resources is participatory and implemented by involving stakeholders from the lowest level. This approach harnesses the contribution of NGO’s, women groups, youth, religious institutions, local leaders; each having a particular contribution. For example, local leaders are responsible for mobilisation. Catchment management committees have been constituted, with each group fronting a representative, to manage the river system. Through this approach, the communities have enthusiastically welcomed and owned this project.

The Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) approach is being replicated in the four water management zones of Albert, Victoria, Kyoga and Upper Nile, and regeneration of the formerly dilapidated river systems is already being observed. It remains to be seen, if the interventions will be effectively sustained by the host communities, but the key lesson picked is that effective management of the water resources is a net contribution of every individual in the community. 

Andrew Mwesigwa, Water officer-Albert Water Management Zone, Ministry of Water and Environment                [email protected]