How Tumusiime restored 800 hectares of Nyakambu Wetland

To streamline the restoration work on the Nyakambu wetland, NEMA advised Tumusiime to create a management committee.  PHOTOS | TONY MUSHOROBOZI

What you need to know:

  • With a high population growth rate and the need to make a living, Uganda’s wetlands are in danger as they are encroached on with impunity. However, when communities, organisations, and governments come together with a common goal, wetlands can be restored, as Tony Mushoborozi writes about the Nyakambu community.

It has been said that those who discover the purpose of their existence, and follow that path, meet true success. Such heroes can be found at the lowest levels in the community as much as they can be found on the global scale.

Julius Tumusiime was a councillor, representing the Nyakambu Ward, Masheruka Town Council, in what is now Sheema district, when he decided to help restore a degraded section of Nyakambu wetland.

Since 2011, livestock and crop farmer had been degrading the upstream areas of the Nyakambu wetland. The wetland, which drains into River Rwizi, covers five districts and is over 2,000 hectares.

Over the years, Tumusiime had witnessed the environmental dilemma brought about by the destruction of the wetland.

The droughts had become longer and more frequent, water for home use was hard to find, and crops were failing due to an invasion pests and diseases, specifically the banana bacteria wilt.

“As a child, I fetched water from the swamp for my mother. As a teenager, I rummaged in its muddy undergrowth for mudfish to sell to earn some money, and as an adult, I cut mulch from it for my farm. But all that was no more now. When the wetland was drained it became impossible to plant crops and expect a bumper harvest.  The area had become so dry that we could not irrigate our beans, coffee or bananas. You would plant and within a month the crop would die. As a leader, I was troubled by what we were experiencing,” Tumusiime says.

Kellen Karyamarwakyi, a farmer in the village says the situation became so bad that residents started buying water from neighbouring villages.

“We were buying water from Buhweju village at Shs500 per jerry can. In a situation where people could not sell off excess food, a jerry can of water was too costly. Several times a week, my husband rode his bicycle to Buhweju to buy potatoes and beans to feed the family because our entire crop failed,” she says.

Poverty came on the heels of the failed harvests, and later, insecurity, according to Kellen Karyamarwakyi, the LC3 councillor for Mabare Ward in Masheruka Town Council.

“For years, the young men in the village had relied on the swamp for mudfish, which they would harvest and sell for a living. When the fishing activity ended, robberies become common. Young men with time on their hands and took to roaming the villages, stealing peoples bags and raiding granaries at night,” she says.

Nyakambu Swamp (or the lack of it) was a constant point of discussion in town council meetings, but there seemed no political will on the part of the local government to restore it.

How the wetland disappeared

In 1999, a retired military officer settled in Nyakambu village, and bought a piece of land next to the swamp. By coincidence, that year, a long and hard drought hit the land.

The water in the wetland reduced to a level that made it easy for cows to walk about without sinking in the mud. The officer took advantage of the drought to cut the papyrus in a large section in the centre of the swamp to graze his cows.

“When the drought ended, he dug channels and trenches and drained all the water from the cleared area into River Rwizi. Because he was operating in the centre of the swamp, it took us a long time to discover what he was doing and how much he had cleared. When residents complained, he sweet-talked them, advising them to grab a piece of the swamp, clear it, and claim ownership. These people realised it was now possible to take over new land and make it their own. Within a few years, the swamp disappeared,” Tumusiime says.

People from other areas would bring their cows to graze in the degraded section that the officer’s had cleared, and pay him a fee. By 2011, when Tumusiime was elected councillor, it was impossible for an outsider to look at the Nyakambu valley and believe that there had once been a wetland in the area. It had become a green meadow full of cows in some sections and crops in other sections.

“I started by sensitising my people – at funerals and in the markets – about the need to chase the invaders out of the wetland. I knew that if we were united we could do it. Later, I reported the matter to Bushenyi district local government, since at the time, we were still under their authority. But I was not helped or supported in my efforts. For two years, between 2011 and 2013, I convinced the people that the disappearance of the swamp was the cause of our problems. I reminded them that the droughts and raging winds came after the swamp had been destroyed. The wind would take the roofs off some homes and schools,” Tumusiime says.

A woman caries reeds harvested for basket making. 

While the indigenous residents responded positively to Tumusiime appeal, the livestock and crop farmers who had grabbed land in the wetland threatened to harm him if he continued with his efforts.

Involving government

By July 2013, Tumusiime figured that the next step would be to involve the government. He informed the local council that his community had decided to restore the wetland.

“I tried to sell the idea to councillors from other affected villages, in vain. No one seemed interested. To make matters worse, the vice chairperson of the council was one of the degraders of the swamp. I travelled to Mbarara district and reported the military officer to the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA). NEMA wrote to Sheema district local government and to Masheruka sub-county directing that the offending person (vice-chairman) be removed from office,” he says.

The residents of Nyakambu village, led by Tumusiime, were given the mandate to confiscate cows that were not peacefully moved out of the wetland by their owners. The confiscated cows were handed into the custody of the police. One had to part with Shs50,000 to reclaim each cow.

“Because we had a mandate, suddenly, the police was eager to work with us, and even our young men volunteered to arrest the cows because they expected to earn from the exercise. Within a short time, the cattle farmers vacated the swamp and later, the crop farmers also left,” Tumusiime says.

To streamline the restoration work, NEMA advised Tumusiime to create a management committee. In January 2014, the Nyakambu Wetland Management Committee was launched. The next step was to block all the trenches and channels so that the water stopped draining from the land.

“By mid-2015, the swamp had almost been restored to its original level. We had restored 800 hectares. The villagers were sensitised that their role was to protect the swamp from re-encroachment. People kept joining the committee and today there are 120 members. We changed the name to Masheruka Restored Wetland Management Committee. The committee is also a savings and credit cooperative organisations which is boosting the livelihoods of members,” Tumusiime says.

Benefits of restoration

Patrick Turyatunga, who heads the natural resources department in Sheema district, says the destruction of Nyakambu wetland started prior to the creation of the district.

“By the time Sheema district was created, it looked like the wetland could not be recovered. However, I commend the Nyakambu community for being alert. They kept appealing to everyone involved in environmental conservation until they got help to restore the wetland. Today, the president is very proud of this community and considers Nyakambu to be one of the most successfully restored wetlands,” he says.

He adds that with the restoration, the animals, which had found a natural habitat in the wetland, are returning to their abode. “We are seeing an increased biodiversity, such as migratory birds and crested cranes, coming back. The wetland is now home to egrets, which had become almost extinct. Sitatunga antelopes and hippopotamuses are also returning,” he says.

The residents of Nyakambu Ward say the restoration of the wetland has lowered temperatures, normalised dry seasons and broken the destructive winds. Crop pests and diseases have also disappeared.

“Our harvests have increased. The youth are making money from mudfish again. Farmers are harvesting trucks of mulch from the swamp, which they sell at Shs200,000 per truck. Our women are also harvesting papyrus reeds for weaving baskets and mats for sale like they used to do in the old days. We have also planted boundary stones so that no one will go beyond them,” Tumusiime says.

To discourage the communities surrounding the wetland from encroaching on the swamp, the district is implementing a government project, Building Resilient Communities, Wetlands Ecosystems and Associated Catchments in Uganda, to give them livelihood options.

“Some people’s livelihoods were destroyed during the restoration of the wetland, so we are extending opportunities to them. These include beekeeping, tree growing, piggery, poultry, and fish farming. They will soon see the goodness associated with conservation,” Turyatunga says.

Cows in the middle of the wetland recently cleared  by a wealthy farmer. 

Some challenges remain

The only fly in the ointment is that one livestock farmer returned recently and cleared a section of the swamp to graze his cows.

“That man has been bribing politicians, making it difficult for us to throw him out. We appeal to the government to help us remove him from the wetland. The chairperson of our committee has written to the resident district commissioner and the chief accounting officer of the district, in vain. The residents are ready to help the government remove this man,” Karyamarwakyi says.

Turyatunga adds that another challenge are the charcoal burners who hide in the middle of the wetland.

«They normally come during the dry season. I don’t know how they reach the middle of the wetland because we never find canoes anywhere. Maybe they use witchcraft. Many times, I have been alerted to their presence, and travelled there with an enforcement team. We see the smoke from a distance but by the time we reach the place where they burn charcoal, they have disappeared. It’s the same thing with the livestock owners. When they see us, they abandon their cows and go into hiding. We have now resolved to arrest the cows as exhibits,” he says.

Hunters have also become notorious for burning the papyrus in the wetland in the dry season. This is done in order to scatter the antelopes and make them easy prey.

Despite the challenges, the residents of Nyakambu Ward and the district entered a memorandum of understanding to co-manage the wetland. The basis of this was that the residents have information on who the degraders are and are watchdogs of the resource, while the district can reinforce any operation with  enforcers.