Last Updated on: 17th February 2023, 12:44 pm
Five years after the establishment of the wetland conservation and management rules of 2017 that focus on ensuring that the public should not destroy wetlands, its implementation has remained at stake, resulting in cruel climatic conditions experienced in the Lango sub-region.
The Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) through the local government have modified new Wetland (Conservation and Management) Rules 2017 that prohibit a range of activities in wetlands but the enforcement has remained a big challenge.
The 2017 Wetland Rules have been criticized for doing away with strong wetland monitoring systems and omitting important wetland types.
The 2010 and 2017 Rules for wetlands both emphasize that the ecological character of wetlands ought to be maintained for their conservation. ‘Ecological character’ refers to processes and components which make the wetland a particular, and sometimes unique, ecosystem.
Under the new rules, no authority to issue directives, which are binding in nature to desist from any activity detrimental to wetland conservation, has been prescribed to state wetland authorities.
In the Lango sub-region, northern Uganda, the increasing population continues to exert substantial pressure on the wetland and its resources basically due to an increasing need for land for agriculture, settlement, industrial development, and urban growth, among others.
Walter Ocen, the senior environment officer of Lira district said wetlands in Lira district cover about 419km2 of which 298 km2 are permanent and 121km2 are seasonal wetlands.
“The wetlands in the district are categorized into three major systems namely Olweny wetland system, Okole wetlands system, and Moroto wetland system,” he explained
The Olweny wetland system drains into Lake Kwania in Dokolo District, the Moroto system drains into the Aswa river system, and the Okole system drains into the Albert Nile.
According to Ocen, the Olweny wetland system which is about 10,000 hectares, has had 600 hectares of its area developed into the Itek and Okile rice Project, distributed in Amach sub-county 350 hectares and Barr sub-county 250 hectares.
He said here that out of the four wetland systems in the district, up to 46% of the Okole wetland has been encroached on and degraded by communities for farming due to poor weather which makes crop farming in the upland area unproductive.
“The rising demand for land for urbanization and peri-urban agriculture also continues to threaten the wetland systems that covered the areas around Lira district and city,” Ocen said.
Ocen adds that currently the government of Uganda is only allowing fish farming to access wetland areas saying as the environment department in Lira district, they have given an ultimatum of one month that will elapse this month December 2022 to the wetland encroachers to evacuate else they face arrest and conviction.
The encroachment and degradation of the wetland continue to provide threats in terms of dwindling surface and groundwater availability, micro-climate change, and wetland product scarcity with adverse consequences on the quality of life of the communities who depend directly on the wetland for livelihoods.
Ebong Boniface, the Otuke district environment officer says the department has now embarked on community sensitization on wetland issues creating awareness of the importance of wetlands and the law governing wetland areas in Uganda.
“When people continue to cultivate the wetland the water level will go down,” added Ebong.
Ebong revealed that human influences have caused significant changes in the function and quality of many wetlands in Otuke district saying that these changes have resulted from alteration of the physical, chemical, and biological components of wetland ecosystems.
“Widespread land development and clearing have caused increased erosion in uplands areas leading to increased sedimentation in lowland wetlands,” he explained
He said the study revealed that wetland degradation has resulted in serious effects such as changes in microclimate and hence loss of biological diversity, lowered water tables leading to drying of wells, and shortage of raw materials for handicrafts and some medical plants.
In Alebtong district, wetlands cover about 879km2 of which 681km2 are permanent and 198km2 are seasonal wetlands according to Patrick Okello, the Alebtong district environment officer.
Okello said 98% of the wetland in Alebtong district has been encroached on by the community for agriculture, making the weather pattern change over time in Alebtong district.
“We are currently embarked on community sensitization, enforcement, demarcation, and restoration of wetland in the district as well as encouraging farmers to adopt upland rice farming,” Okello said.
Kole district like other districts in the Lango sub-region of Northern Uganda, wetlands covers about 2847km2 of which 35% has been degraded.
Abraham Ogwal, the Kole district Environment officer said wetlands in Kole district have two major systems that include Okole and Arena with about 300 tributaries.
“Kole district environment department is currently embarked on training of the key personnel on the importance of wetland and also using enforcement where people are degrading the wetland”. Ogwal revealed.
Ogwal adds that if the degradation continues, the borehole which supplies water for domestic use will dry up. According to Ogwal, the economic activities that have been taking place in most of the wetlands in Kole district are cabbage and tomato farming, rice farming, sun mining, bricklaying, construction of houses, and industrial development.
Why local people are encroaching into wetlands
Sam Obira, a farmer and a resident of Itek sub-county in Lira district said the wetland is the only source of their income that is supporting their children in school. Obira adds that they are aware of the policy against encroaching into wetlands but the people are so poor and the only way they can survive is by using the wetland to plant crops.
Boniface Nyanga another farmer from Aduku village in Itek sub-county in Lira district blamed their leaders for the mismanagement of wetlands by the locals. He says leaders always watch the destruction of reserves meant to keep aquatic animals and also feed their domestic animals.
“They do nothing about it. Something has to be done on it fast,” he says.
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Tonny Ogwal, a farmer in Ogor sub-county in Otuke district, said degradation of the wetland significantly influenced the dwindling livelihood options available to local households and worsened the plight of the rural poor.
Ogwal said the residents experienced food insecurity, malnutrition, water shortages mostly during the dry season, and income loss among other survival challenges.
District local governments
On the other hand are local officials, driven by wetland concerns and struggling to maintain control over the business. This combative relationship recently led the Lira District executive committee to pass a resolution that imposes immense fines on wetland encroachers.
In some parts of the region like in the districts of Lira, Dokolo, Otuke, and Alebtong the heat waves indicate a temperature rise of up to 42℃ as of March 2022 which is unusual compared to the 18, 19 and the highest being 22 Degrees Celsius in the past years.
This comes at a time the district is endlessly witnessing increased agricultural activities in the wetland area despite a ban on illicit wetland farming instituted in July 2018.
Bonny Omara, the Vice Chairperson of Lira district local government said human activities continue to pile pressure on natural resources, and the terrible effects of climate change continue to bite harder. Farmers in wetlands are ceaselessly sacrificing the environment at the altar of business opportunities.
“A case in point is the Lango sub-region, northern Uganda, in the district of Lira, Otuke, Dokolo, and Alebtong among other districts will continue facing climate changes,” adding that a joint effort involving the area leadership and non-governmental organizations is ensuring the situation is arrested before it gets worse.
Superintendent of Police (SP) Jimmy Patrick Okema, the north Kyoga regional police spokesperson said as a police force they have the mandate to enforce the law regarding the environment.
According to him, the department in charge of the environment has been trying to see that people are sensitized about wetlands protection.
“It is everyone’s role to see that the environment is promoted if the environment is abused and the result will come in future,” he added.
Okema admits that the Officer in charge of environmental protection in the region is not doing much in protecting the environment due to no means of transport to facilitate his move to the field. However, he said their top leadership has been notified and they are working on it adding that once the vehicle comes to the matters on the ground will be handled directly. Listen to more from him here.
Recently, police environmental officers headed by the regional wetland coordinator northern region under the ministry of water and environment stormed Otuke district and slashed down over 100 acres of rice plantations planted in the wetlands areas.
Regarding the operations, ASP Okema tells more here.
The government, in July last year banned the growing of rice and other crops in wetlands across the country.
In a resolution passed by the Cabinet chaired by President Museveni, and communicated by the Minister of State for Environment, Ms Beatrice Anywar, the government said the move is aimed at restoring the environment.
President Museveni in February warned Ugandans against encroaching on wetlands, saying the government will cancel their titles. The President also warned farmers against planting rice in the wetlands.
Weather patterns in Northern Uganda
The southern part of Uganda has two Wet seasons: from mid-September to November and March to May, but it can rain at any time. The north has one continuous Wet season from March to November and a more obvious Dry season from December to February.
Mercy Otuar, the student minister of health and environment at Lira University said for the past three years, the climate in Northern Uganda has been changing over time.
Uganda’s climate is largely tropical with two rainy seasons per year, March to May and September to December. The northern region, which forms one-quarter of the country, lies outside the tropical belt and hence experiences only one rainy season, March to October.
Soon if environmental crime continues, Lango sub-region which has been one of Uganda’s food baskets due to agriculture may become a desert if less attention is paid to this rampant trade in the wetland water and restoration efforts.
This story was produced with funding from Aga Khan University Excellence In Climate Change Journalism Program.