Reclaiming wetlands will not help us meet MDG 7

Mike Mukasa, a dealer in maize grain in Kampala, keeps a close eye on what happens to the farmers from whom he buys grain. And, for that reason, he has interesting tales about their struggles.

Last year, Mukasa says, his grain suppliers in Mubende District were as sad as those in Luweero District were happy. Despite both districts being in central Uganda, the first rainy season of 2013 was so poor in much of Mubende District that some of the farmers mowed down their maize crop. In Luweero, on the contrary, where the rains enabled a good maize crop in the first part of 2013, the farmers reaped big.

Luweero farmers cannot rest on their laurels, for the misfortune that struck their Mubende counterparts last year, has been visiting different areas in turns.

Scientists have a term for unpredictable rainy seasons. They call it rainfall variability. It has been happening to “a worrying degree” in recent times, Mukasa says, and it has forced farmers into a dangerous game of weather forecasting, bordering on gambling.

In order to cope with the changing trends, Mukasa says, the farmers now rely more on intuition than on forecasts by the Meteorological Department.
“The government’s forecast is often wrong, so many of the farmers I work with rely on their hunch. Some will plant as soon as the first rains come and others will wait for weeks to be sure (that the rains will persist),” Mukasa says.

Scenarios like what these farmers are experiencing, it is now an established scientific fact, will almost certainly result when in the pursuit of economic growth, people exploit environmental resources as if they were unlimited in supply.

Interest in protecting the environment has grown as a result, and world leaders have taken cue and reacted in one way or another – at least on paper. It was against this background that Millennium Development Goal Seven (MDG7) was adopted.

MDG7 set out to “ensure environmental sustainability”, by “integrating the principles of sustainable development into country policies and programmes and “reversing the loss of environmental resources.”

Helping future generations
According to the World Commission on Environment and Development, sustainable development is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Since man’s wellbeing is closely connected to the environment, sustainable development has come to be closely associated with environmental protection.
To further protect the environment, MDG7 aimed to “reduce biodiversity loss, achieving, by 2010, a significant reduction in the rate of loss.” Biodiversity, short for biological diversity, is the variety of plant and animal species in an area. Scientists say that the more diverse the creatures are in an area, the better for the environment.
The other MDG7 targets were to reduce by half the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation between 1990 and 2015 and to improve the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers by 2020.
Uganda, being party to the MDG agenda, adopted all the targets of MDG7 except the one on improving the lives of slum dwellers.

But achieving the targets is a tough call, especially following years of rather intensifying pressure on the environment.

According to a 2009 report by the National Environment Management Authority (Nema), 13 per cent of Uganda’s area was originally covered by wetlands. A recent report by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), however, says that the wetland cover has now reduced to only 484,037 hectares, or about two per cent of Uganda’s total area. The report is titled “Uganda biodiversity and tropical forest assessment.”

Reclaiming wetlands is common in Kampala and other areas. Many of the former wetlands are now teeming with magnificent buildings.

Scientists credit wetlands with multiple functions in the wellbeing of the environment. The USAID report says that Uganda’s wetlands contain “significant habitats” for plants and animals.

These habitats, the report sadly notes, “are under threat of degradation and loss” as the wetlands disappear. “It has been estimated that 159 species of birds are wetlands specialists,” says the report, and destroying the wetlands would lead to their loss, hurting the bid to protect biodiversity.

“Most wetlands in Uganda occur outside of protected areas, and their range and quality is rapidly being eroded for agricultural land,” says the report. This means, in effect, that many more wetlands are due for destruction.
The report adds that some “large mammals” like the black and white rhinos and wild dogs are extinct or are near extinction because much of the savanna grassland which used to be home to different animals has since been converted to human use.

The forests have not been spared either, with some estimates predicting that unless the current rate of destruction is checked, the country could lose all its natural forest cover by 2050 or even earlier.

The report cites a study by Leon Bennun and others that estimated that 187 of Uganda’s 1,007 bird species were “forests specialists”, meaning that they would only survive in particular types of forests and that they would disappear if the particular forests to which they are accustomed disappeared.

Regarding fishing activities on Lake Victoria, the report says: “The decline of native fish species in Lake Victoria from over-harvesting and introduction of alien species is considered the largest documented loss of biodiversity ever inflicted by man on an ecosystem.”

Because many environmental resources have been abused, says Prof JB Nyakaana of Makerere University’s Department of Environmental Management, “rainfall variability, desertification and climate change are inevitable.”

That does not auger well for the smallholder farmers who supply Mukasa with maize, and indeed for everybody. A number of initiatives, the regional Lake Victoria Commission, is an example, have been put in place stem this abuse as a result.
Speaking after the budget reading mid June, President Museveni sounded particularly enthusiastic about protecting the environment. He vowed to support all efforts to evict encroachers on natural forests, for instance (in the past, those evicted from the forests would appeal to him and sometimes return to the forests). And the government has recently spoken more pointedly about protecting the environment.

According to Gideon Badagawa, the executive director of the Private Sector Foundation, “environmental protection is the surest way of guaranteeing sustained growth.” Badagawa says that Uganda “has immense tourism potential,” which he says can only be optimally exploited if the environment is healthy.

Talking of Uganda’s “rich” environment, the USAID report says that the country “could have up to 18,783 plant and animal species.” Whereas Uganda covers only 0.18 per cent of the world’s land and freshwater surface, the report notes, it harbors 4.6 per cent of the dragonflies, 6.8 per cent of the butterflies, 7.5 per cent of the mammals, and 10.2 per cent of the bird species globally recognised.

It adds that Uganda has more species of primates – apes, chimpanzees, etc – than anywhere else on earth of similar area. In just the forests of Bwindi Impenetrable and Kibale National Park, the report says, scientists have recorded 173 species of polypore fungi, “which is 16 per cent of the total species known from North America, Tropical Africa and Europe.”

To underscore how beautiful and revered Uganda’s environment is, no tourism attraction campaign can be complete without stressing how “gifted by nature” Uganda is. By the designs of MDG7, Ugandans were supposed to jealously protect this natural endowment.

But, in the testimonies of Mukasa’s farmers – rains failing to come when they are expected and coming in torrents when they are not expected – there is evidence that more has to be done as regards this goal.

Slums and access to safe drinking water

Environmental protection, at least in theory, should ensure sustainable development, and in turn benefit all Ugandans. One Ugandan who is desperate for such a change to happen is Julius Asiimwe. What he calls home is a one room mud and wattle shack in Kinawataka, Nakawa division, Kampala.

His “house” has no running water, electricity or toilet.
He has been a hawker for six years, he says, but life just got tougher.

While at “work”, Asiimwe is always on the lookout for the urban authority’s law enforcement officers, who he says have confiscated his merchandise twice in the past six months.

To manage the risk, Asiimwe says he now buys merchandise for not less than Shs 10,000 at a time so that in case he comes face-to-face with the enforcement officers, he can prioritise his safety over the merchandise.

When world leaders set a target to improve the livelihoods of 100m people who live in slums globally by the year 2020, they had people like Asiimwe in mind. But, it seems, Ugandan authorities thought they were not even in position to start working on this aspect. So the country did not set itself a target on dealing with slum life under MDG7.

Something has been done
Nonetheless, the country’s MDG Report for 2013 doesn’t ignore Asiimwe and people like him completely. “There have been improvements in the lives of slum dwellers but progress over recent years has been slow,” the report says.

It says that the number of urban people living in “temporary housing structures or with poor sanitation facilities” reduced from 34 per cent in 20056 to 28 per cent in 2011.

But this statistic does not even start to tell the story of how people live in many of Kampala’s poor neighbourhoods. In Asiimwe’s vicinity, for instance, a 20-litre jerrycan of piped water goes for Shs200. Those who cannot afford it can draw water for free from a “protected spring”, which is about 120 metres away from Asiimwe’s place. But, a number of studies have shown, there is a big danger that water from “protected springs” in Kampala is contaminated.

A big part of the problem is that Kampala does not have a well-developed sewage system which is centrally managed, leaving individual developers with the responsibility to develop their own sewer systems. This is a big problem and in the words of Makindye Division Mayor Ian Clarke, “Kampala is one big toilet.”

In areas like Kinawataka where most dwelling places are temporary, it is difficult to encounter people investing in pit latrine or toilet construction. Apart from lacking the money, many of them don’t own the land on which they live.
A 2010 study funded by the European Union water initiative Urban Affordable Clean Toilets (U-ACT) that surveyed 1,500 people found that 84 per cent of the households in Kampala’s poor neighbourhoods used pit latrines which were shared by five households with at least 20 people. Asiimwe is likely one of those.

According to the Uganda MDG Report 2013, Uganda’s urban centres have a housing deficit of 211,000 units. The report points to inadequate long-term financing and overlapping land rights as the major challenges to solving this problem.

It says that computerising the land registry to “improve the security of land tenure and encourage investment in the housing market” would help deal with the problem.

However, having more housing units built would not guarantee Asiimwe decent housing, for he would still have to get a more dependable job from which to get regular and higher income. This, as Badagawa says, speaks to the interconnectedness of all the MDGs and pursuing them with “mores seriousness”.

As the Uganda MDG Report 2013 makes clear, Uganda will not achieve MDG7 by 2015. Asiimwe and the farmers Mukasa refers to, it seems, will have to wait for longer.

Efforts at environment protection

• Efforts to monitor environmental trends and identify necessary reforms in ecosystem management have “been stepped up” through, for example, the periodic publication of the Sustainable Development Report expected to begin this year.
• Uganda’s renewable energy policy (2007) targets an increase in the use of modern renewable energy from the current four per cent to 61 per cent of the total energy consumption by 2017.
•There have been efforts to reduce reliance on wood fuel, and use more efficient cooking stoves.
• The government is also working on increasing the supply of wood for fuel through efforts like the Ministry of Water and Environment extending the Sawlog Production Grant Scheme. The scheme “has directly supported the establishment of over 25,000 hectares of timber plantations of fast-growing bio-energy plantations for fuel wood and charcoal production.”
• “The climate change policy currently under formulation is expected to further facilitate access to low-cost sustainable energy for all and reduce dependency on non-renewable energy sources.”
• Government interventions to diversify economic activity away from agriculture, such as rural electrification, will also help to reduce encroachment into forested areas

emukiibi@ug.nationmedia.com

SOURCE: Daily Monitor

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