By Mugwisa Moses
Uganda’s National Policy for the Conservation and Management of Wetland Resources (1995) defines wetlands as areas “where plants and animals have become adapted to temporary or permanent flooding.”
It includes permanently flooded areas with papyrus or grass swamps, swamp forests or high-altitude Mountain bogs, as well as seasonal floodplains and grasslands. While all wetlands are characterized by impeded drainage, the length of their flooding period, depth of water, soil fertility, and other environmental factors vary with different wetland types.
Wetlands are home to distinctive plant and animal communities that are well adapted to the presence of water and flooding regimes.
Wetlands provide a large array of ecosystem services defined as the benefits people derive from nature to Ugandans in urban and rural areas.
They are used for farming, fishing, and livestock grazing. They supply families with basic needs such as water, construction material, and fuel. In addition to these local uses, the system of interconnected wetlands plays a crucial role at a regional level by filtering pollutants and regulating water flows (influencing groundwater recharge, flood impacts, and water availability during the dry season).
Of a total population of 28 million Ugandans, it is estimated that wetlands provide about 320,000 workers with direct employment and provide subsistence employment for over 2.4 million (MFPED, 2004).
Uganda’s wetlands also provide important ecological benefits that reach beyond the region. They are the home of globally endangered species including birds such as the Shoebill (Balaeniceps rex) and Fox’s weaver (Ploceus spekeoides), and fish species of the Cichlidae family.
Many wetlands are an important stopover for large congregations of migratory water birds. Wetlands can act as a reservoir to store carbon dioxide, mitigating climate change impacts. National and international visitors seek out wetlands as tourist attractions and educational opportunities to learn about their unique animals and plants.
But is are facing terrific degradation (clearing and soil filling) in the urban areas due to industrial developments, business investments like commercial flower farming and house construction accompanied with development of slums with poor structures.
While such conversions provide economic benefits from agricultural crops and real estate development, they are also associated with social costs primarily due to reduced or total loss of hydrological functions, habitat benefits, or other ecosystem services.
One of the factors driving these conversions is that the immediate economic returns to individuals appear to outweigh the costs to the wider society associated with the loss of important ecosystem benefits.
However, in most cases, the economic costs are not fully accounted for because some ecosystem services mostly regulating services such as groundwater recharge, water purification, waste treatment, or flood control—are not factored into conventional economic analysis. Instead they are considered as non-monetary bounties of nature that are “free-of-charge.”
They are what economists call “public goods,” which have virtually no agreed value in the market place. As a result, the financial incentives driving land use are often not aligned with the goal of managing and conserving these services for the broader public good.
The economic benefits from marketed products of converted wetlands are often greater than returns from subsistence use and small-scale resource extraction in the unconverted wetlands.
However, when both the marketed and non-marketed values of ecosystem services are accounted for, the total economic value of unconverted wetlands can be greater than that of converted wetlands. For example, conservative economic valuation estimates put the direct annual productive value of wetlands at sh450,000 - 900,000 (US$300 - 600) per hectare (MFPED, 2004).
Economic valuation studies that include a broader set of non-marketed regulating services, such as water purification and carbon sequestration, suggest a per hectare-value as high as 15 million Uganda Shillings (US$ 10,000) (MFPED, 2004). Unfortunately, despite their high economic value, wetlands are not yet managed as environmental capital, worthy of protection and investment.
The Nakivubo wetland, an urban wetland in Kampala, the value of water treatment and purification services from a fully used and intact wetland are estimated at 2.3–4.3 million Uganda Shillings (US$ 1,500-2,900) per hectare per year (Emerton et al., 1999).
However, over the past decades, the potential of the wetland to remove nutrients and pollutants has been greatly reduced by growing human settlements, industrial establishments, and drainage channels for crop production (NEMA, 2008).
More than half of the wetland has been modified with only the lower parts remaining in fair condition. Consequently, water quality in the discharge area of Inner Murchison Bay of Lake Victoria has steadily deteriorated leading to higher treatment costs for Kampala’s drinking water pumped from this area.
The environmental and social impact assessment of the planned expansion of the Kampala Sanitation Programme has proposed a two-pronged approach to improve water quality in Lake Victoria: reduce the pollutant load by expanding sewage treatment facilities in Kampala and rehabilitate Nakivubo wetland (including a substantial increase of the active wetland area) to reestablish its original treatment capabilities (NEMA, 2008).
The other important wetlands in kampala and neighboring towns have continued to experience serious degradation for example kinawataka wetland system, Lubigi wetland system which continues to threaten the quality of water in lake victoria and increased sediment load entering the Lake, though there are various interventions by the government and its organs to encounter the problem of water quality for public use through waste water treatment plants and water treatment plants, still there is a forgotten treasure of hydrological functions of natural wetlands in the urban centers in our country.
The importance of artificial wetlands/constructed plants would be supporting the natural wetlands in filtration, purification of water and other hydrological functions like water balance on top of macroclimate modification, and carbon sinking, but the natural wetlands are disappearing and their ecological and hydrological functions have been reduced to the last mile.
Can we say that the natural wetlands in urban centers are of no importance? On the other side; are the artificial treatment plants enough, effective and efficient to carry out the hydrological functions of natural wetlands would be doing?
If our urban planners and developers don’t realize the critical values of wetland in a blessed wetland found city like Kampala then our city is doomed! In my opinion we would gazette, which has been done! But has the laws been enforced and followed strictly, has the government improved the natural wetlands in city? Of course not!
Wetlands are good and of value to a long life time than people can estimate of their short term benefits by reclaiming them. I say this because the natural beauty of wetlands can exist alongside infrastructure development, if we could borrow a leaf from developed countries which protect and develop their natural resources in their cities like rivers, lakes and swamps that co-exist together with the city and become of great economic value, such resources bring the uniqueness of the city and its heritage which makes a center of attraction for tourism growth in the country at large.
For instance USA and its cities is well endowed with good drainage systems such as rivers that flow within the cities and around which have been maintained, protected and improved which brings out the natural uniqueness of their existence.
I would like to recommend;
Ugandans should embrace sustainable city development without suppressing the natural heritage and uniqueness.
The government should borrow a leaf from developed city that have maintained their rich natural heritage in their cities like Switzerland, china, Holland and Dubai. Instead of allowing continued degradation of wetland, we should maintain, develop and improve on their uniqueness in order to realize the long time lost golden value in them!
Our urban dwellers should respect, protect and avoid degrading of gazetted urban wetlands because at end of it all cost of pay goes back to them during service payment.
The writer is an Environmental Science Technologist
Green Organization Africa (GOA)