Opinion
Reducing NEMA’s powers not the solution
Publish Date: Jun 12, 2014
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By Abiaz Rwamwiri

New Vision of April 14 reported that the Government would soon bring amendments to Parliament to prune the powers of the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), stopping it from “single-handedly and arbitrarily granting permits, giving away important wetlands to investors.”

The story quoted the environment state minister, Flavia Munaaba, who confirmed that the proposed amendments were due to the rampant giving away of wetlands by NEMA.

The proposal seems to have been blessed by the Government’s legal counsel, as Munaaba was quoted as saying her ministry had discussed the pruning of NEMA powers with the deputy Attorney General.

The concern is whether clipping NEMA’s powers will solve this and other environmental problems Uganda is facing, or if it is a move to solve symptoms while the real disease keeps eating up the entire system. I am always troubled by wetlands and the environment being destroyed by ‘investors’ while NEMA looks on!

NEMA was established by the National Environment Act of 1995, under section 4 that reads in part: “To provide for sustainable management of the environment; the authority shall be the principal agency in Uganda for the management of the environment and shall coordinate, monitor and supervise all activities in the field of the environment.”

The Act adds that NEMA will ensure “beneficial use” of the environment in a manner that is conducive to public health, welfare or safety and which requires protection from the effects of wastes, discharges, emissions and deposits.

We all know that the Authority has not lived up to its mandate; the question is whether the failure to live up to the expectations of its establishment is due to its being so powerful, or powerless.

It is unfortunate that we helplessly watch destruction of the environment at a critical time when climate change is biting hard.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme 2013 annual report, climate effects are on the increase. the estimated average land and ocean-surface temperature for 2001–2010 was 14.47ºC; the warmest decade since the start of modern measurements in 1850. Four years later, it might have gone higher.

The same UNEP report emphasises that the scale and impact of climate change is real and there can no longer be any doubt that climate change is the major, overriding environmental issue of our time.

The report also highlights that climate change has become a growing crisis that is already affecting human activities.

It notes that shifting weather patterns, for example, threaten food production through increased unpredictability of rainfall and increased risk of flooding; and extreme weather events are predicted to become more frequent and severe.

Uganda is not living in isolation, we are in a global village; we need to act responsibly, both at individual and policy level. According to the 2000 NEMA report, Uganda loses about 6,000 hectares of forest every 30 days to agriculture, firewood and other human activities.

The same report warns that if no action is registered by 2050, Uganda’s per capita forest cover will be zero. Wetland loss statistics are more worrying and disturbing, according to a 2009 report authored by the Wetlands Management Department, Ministry of Water and Environment; Uganda Bureau of Statistics; International Livestock Research Institute; and World Resources Institute.

It says Uganda has lost about 11,268 square kilometres of wetland, representing a loss of 30% of the country’s wetlands from 1994 to 2009. We have living examples in Bwaise when it rains.

The truth is that you cannot cheat nature forever; you can grab a swamp and cause irreversible environmental damage, but you will pay the price when nature turns against you.

Britain, which has one of the best (compared to any African country) drainage and flood rescue plans, was shocked by the flooding in Southwest England in January this year. I am not a prophet of doom, but if that befell Uganda, what would be the extent of the damage?

Uganda is among 191 states that pledged to work towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals by 2015; one of the goals is “Improved environmental sustainability”.

To achieve this requires deliberate effort and strong systems. I am doubtful that stripping NEMA of its already crippled powers can be a move towards achieving this goal (a goal we can only keep
dreaming about).

I know we need to invest in industries, create jobs and lift our people from poverty; but this development should be done in a sustained manner.

The 1987 World Environment and Development Commission defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

No one is against development, no one hates investors, but all we desire is sustainable development so that future generations can have the same opportunity of free and fresh oxygen.

As regarded by United Nations Environment Programme, the environment, with its diverse natural resources, is the source of the planet’s riches and managing environmental threats is a matter of urgency.

There is no doubt that effective environmental governance is critical, considering the strong linkage between the environment and our survival.

Back to the powers of the authority, it is important to remember that different authorities, including Uganda Revenue Authority, National Forestry Authority, National Roads Authority, Civil Aviation Authority and Uganda Wildlife Authority were formed with semi-autonomous status to cure inefficiencies from their mother ministries.

Most of these authorities have stood the test of time and have performed beyond expectations. The biggest problem these authorities have to deal with daily is political interference.

Technocrats have to appease orders from “above” from the simplest aspects like having to hire incompetent/unqualified staff with political godfathers to critical ones like free unjustified permits and clearance of investors.

All authorities are supervised by boards of directors who are appointed by and report to the respective line ministers.

Some authorities have grown strong enough to resist political interference, but unfortunately NEMA has not. it has become more vulnerable as it cannot turn down requests to take over wetlands and sensitive ecosystems from different investors who are endorsed by powerful politicians.

It takes courage of a powerful executive to dismiss such selfish advances and we do not seem to have that zeal from the authority that holds power over a key resource of our future survival. NEMA needs both capital and human resource empowerment to perform its critical duties.

The writer is a communication professional with over five years of experience in tourism and conservation rwamwiri@gmail.com

The statements, comments, or opinions expressed through the use of New Vision Online are those of their respective authors, who are solely responsible for them, and do not necessarily represent the views held by the staff and management of New Vision Online.

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