Ecosystems, people’s livelihoods at stake as rivers in Bugisu sub-region face pollution

Sand mining and farming are some of the human activities that have degraded River Manafwa which runs through several districts in Bugisu subregion.  PHOTOS | FRED WAMBEDE

What you need to know:

  • Natural ecosystems such as, wetlands and forests, have for many years contributed to the livelihoods of many Ugandans. However, the high population growth rate has increased pressure on the ecosystems as people search for land for farming, settlement, and industry, which has in the long run, led the to degradation of these ecosystems. Typically, wetland and forest cover loss is higher in the lake basin areas – in this case, the Lake Kyoga Basin – which is fed by rivers that originate in the Mt Elgon region, as Fred Wambede writes.

Freshwater ecosystems are the rivers, streams, lakes, ponds, groundwater, cave water, springs, floodplains, and wetlands (bogs, marshes, and swamps) that provide water for drinking, sanitation, agriculture, transport, electricity generation and recreation.

 Freshwater systems are also a habitat for diverse fauna and flora, which provide an important source of food and fiber that sustain incomes and livelihoods, particularly for rural communities.

According to the National Environment Regulations, No. 3/2000, rivers shall have a protection zone of 100 meters from the highest watermark of the river, with no activity permitted within protected zones without the written authority of the Executive Director. However, this has not been the case for rivers in the Bugisu sub-region.

The water level in River Manafwa, one of the freshwater ecosystems in Mt Elgon, in the eastern region, shrinks to low levels outside its natural range especially in a dry spell.

The river, which runs through several districts in Bugisu and Bukedi sub-regions to River Mpologoma, which empties into Lake Kyoga, now struggles to flow due to pollution by wastewater discharge from human activities and massive degradation. For years, locals growing crops along the banks, poor waste disposal, and sand mining, among others, have choked the river.

 Apart from River Manafwa, other rivers including Sironko, Simu, Muyembe, Atari, Khamitsaru, Passa , Liisi, Saala, Namikhoma, and Lwakhakha found in the districts of Sironko, Bulambuli, Manafwa, and Namisindwa are highly polluted and this, according to leaders, has negatively impacted the livelihoods of locals and the ecosystem.

Pollution leads to degradation

Innocent Wandadwa, an environmentalist, says pollution and human activities around the rivers are a menace that has not only affected the quality of water in the rivers but also exacerbated climate change-related disasters in the sub-region.

 “Apart from poor farming methods, there is poor waste management. It is common, especially with the growth of urban trading centres, to find locals pushing their waste and plastics into the rivers there are no dumping sites in the vicinity. Any form of pollution of the rivers is a pressing environmental issue that has adverse effects on humanity in the long run and it demands immediate attention by all stakeholders. Additionally, the locals are brewing waragi (illicit alcohol) along the rivers and the waste materials is pushed into the rivers,” he says.

 Two years ago, Rivers Nakyibiso, Namatala, Nabuyonga and Nagayilila flooded Mbale City, claiming the lives of 29 people and leaving over 800 households destroyed.

 Eng. Maximo Twinomuhangi, the team leader of the Kyoga Water Management Zone in the Ministry of Water and environment, says the poor water quality as a result of degradation leads to high costs when it comes to treating the rivers.

Members of Likono lye Bamasaba plant bamboo  along the shores of River Nabuyoga which claimed 29 people when it flooded last year.

 “The high cost of treatment, encompasses the constant breakdown of machines due to a lot of silt in water. There is need to increase the sensitisation campaigns among the masses to restore riverbanks and wetlands. The government should also take action on some factories that are discharging waste into rivers.

 Sulayi Wakalaga, the environmental officer of Manafwa district, blamed the degradation of the river catchments on population pressure and poverty.

 “As district, we face a challenge of low funding which has curtailed our sensitization activities. The Shs15 million the environment department receives from the government every financial year is not enough to carry out all our activities,” he says.

 Low water levels

For instance, in Namisindwa district, women and girls carrying jerry cans can be found flocking towards the banks of River Lwakhakha to fetch water for domestic use. Some of them travel from as far as 20 kilometers away to access this water. They say streams where they used to collect water in their sub-counties stop flowing in the dry season and this has been the case for the past four years.

 There are a number of gardens along the bank of River Lwakhakha. There is also rampant loss of forest cover due to deforestation and formation of deep gullies, which are about 20 feet wide, as a result of soil erosion.

 Janet Namutosi, a resident of Soono village in Bumbo sub-county, says they are feeling the effects of environmental degradation exacerbated by climate change.

 “The water levels of River Lwakhakha have drastically gone down and the quality of the water is not as good as it used to be but we don’t have other options. The deep gullies are not only many; they are also a threat to life. We ask the government to intervene and fill them,” she says.

 Stella Watsembe, the environment officer of Namisindwa district, says environmental degradation is the main cause of frequent climate-related disasters.

 “The high occurrence of climate-related challenges in this catchment area, require urgent intervention. There is a need for riverbank restoration, soil and water conservation, tree planting, gully restoration, and also promotion of alternative income generating activities. All these interventions need huge funds. We are planting trees along River Lwakhakha but we are constrained by the resource envelope,” she says.

Wetland cover also disappearing

Joan Wasagali, a resident of Sironko Town Council, who grows vegetables along the banks of River Sironko, says the river used to be an important source of livelihood. However, that is no longer the case now.

 “Nowadays, when we plant crops, we get poor harvests. During the rainy season, the crops are washed away. In the dry season, the crops are destroyed by the scorching sunshine. Previously, we knew that in the first season, the rains start in the February but that has changed. The rains come in April. That is sign of bad times ahead,” she says.

During the dry season, River Sironko almost runs dry. Last year, farmers in Bugisu sub-region, especially in Bulambuli and Sironko districts lost several acres of agricultural land, crops and animals due to changes in weather patterns. The losses, farmers say, are due to floods, prolonged drought, or change in rainfall seasonality and patterns.

  Statistics from the Ministry of Water and Environment show that Uganda’s wetland coverage has dropped from 17.5 percent in the early 1990s to 10 percent today, while forest cover has dropped from 45 percent to 20.3per cent due to human activities.

The Uganda Wetlands Atlas (Volume Two) shows that wetlands continue to be degraded and their area across the country is below that recorded in the 1990s. In urban areas, there is indiscriminate encroachment for settlements, while in the rural areas there is much conversion to agriculture.

The data shows that the national area of wetlands declined by 30 percent between 1994 and 2008. And although between 2008 and 2014, there was an increase in area under wetlands, this has been meager. The area under wetlands in the different river basins is on the decline. The extent of decline varies from over 53.8 percent in the

Lake Victoria basin to 14.7 percent in the Lake Albert drainage basin.

This is of concern because of the value of wetlands as an ecosystem.

The locals and district leaders start the  demarcation of River Sironko to mitigate climate change. 

The Uganda Wetlands Atlas goes on the inform that, “There are many reasons for this unfortunate situation and most of these revlolve around law enforcement and institutions. There is weak enforcement of existing laws, continued disregard for the existing laws and policy with impunity making enforcement difficult, and lack of coordination amongst key government institutions.

Restoration efforts

Innocent Wandabwa, the environment officer of Bulambuli, says the district has embarked on a boundary demarcation exercise of River Sironko in a move to conserve the marshlands that are disappearing due to encroachment.

 “The degradation has devastated the river’s potential of storing water and filtering pollutants. This demarcation exercise will involve retracing the river’s boundaries and also placing mark stones to help the river to regain its natural element,” he says.

 River Sironko, which originates in Mt Elgon, runs through the districts of Sironko, Bulambuli, Bukedea, Kumi, Ngora, and Soroti and pours its water into major water bodies such as, Lake Kyoga and River Awoja.

 John Wambaka, an environment expert, advises the government to effect the ban on single-use plastic bags which are still being used to pollute the rivers across the country.

“Plastic pollution – and any other form of pollution – has a catastrophic impact on the ecosystem because it poisons our rivers, soils, vegetation and wildlife,” he says.

Section 76(1) of the National Environment Act, 2019, prohibits the importation, export, local manufacture, use or re-use of categories of plastic carrier bags or plastic products made of polymers of polythene or polypropylene below 30 microns.

Charles Wekube, the environment officer of Mbale district, says tree planting is one of the best interventions to mitigate river pollution and climate change.

 “There is a need to push for planting grass around the rivers, especially bamboo shoots, and demarcating the rivers banks. We need to sensitise communities to stay away from the riverbanks. Sometimes the region is experiencing heavy rains and it comes at a time when we don’t expect it, causing floods. But, the degraded streams dry up after a short spell,” he says.

According to the National Environment Regulations, No. 3/2000, Each Local Government shall after the recommendation of the appropriate local environmental committee make by-laws identifying river banks and lake shores within their jurisdiction which are at risk from environmental degradation, promoting soil conservation measures along riverbanks and lake shores.

Drivers of wetlands  degradation Population explosion

The growing population is a major factor driving encroachment into wetlands for settlement, agriculture and for other resources. The recent census indicates that the population is growing at a rate of 3.2 percent per annum and has almost tripled from 12.6 million in 1980. The country is rapidly urbanising with the rate of urbanisation at 6.6 percent. The high population creates high demand for land and enormous pressure on the natural resources for food, medicines, fuel wood, clay mining for bricks and other raw materials.

Socio-economic pressures

The extent of wetlands encroachment is directly related to proximity to built-up area and roads, population density, market accessibility and market influence. Roads close to swamps offer an easy means to transport wetland goods to market. Erratic development plans also at times encourages wetlands degradation with investors and even government institutions being licensed to develop wetlands.

Industrial development

Wetlands have traditionally been seen as vast, cheap and unencumbered land available for development. The allocation of wetlands for industrial development, for instance through the Kampala Development Plan 1972, set the stage for wetlands encroachment. Industries put pressure on wetlands through heavy pollution loads and drainage for infrastructure development, among others.

Source: Uganda Wetlands Atlas (V2)