IT is two decades since President Yoweri Museveni outlawed the reclamation of wetlands, pending creation of a policy. He also referred to the wetlands as â€œwater granariesâ€ giving hope to conservation.
But securing wetlands from encroachers, especially in the urban areas, seems an impossible task to achieve. The trend shows that more houses are sprouting up in the precious wetlands. This has prompted some people to draw the conclusion that wetlands will soon be no more. Their reasoning is premised on the fact that it is not easy to demolish houses in the wetlands.
What has gone wrong?
In my view, destruction of wetlands starts and ends with the politicians at local and national level.
The colonial and post-colonial governments christened wetlands as â€œwastelands.â€ To them, wetlands were breeding grounds for the anopheles mosquito, which spreads malaria, and where possible, the wetlnds were reclaimed.
In eastern Uganda, large-scale irrigation schemes like Kibimba and Doho rice schemes were set up in the wetlands. The local people took up growing of rice in the swamps and at the moment, it is their only source of income for most peasants.
Elsewhere, investments like Garden City, Shoprite, Speke Resort Munyonyo that are sitting on wetlands, have come into being with the support of politicians.
This has led some critics to ask: â€œWhere is the policy on wetlands? They are deceiving us with a policy which allows some people to build and prohibits others. If I had money and links, I would build in a wetland.â€
Even the environment minister Maria Mutagamba did not spare a patch of wetland on her land at Nakasozi-Buddo, along Masaka Road. When the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) officials got wind of it, they advised Mutagamba to conduct an environment impact assessment study.
But the issue is that development, which Mutagamba described as a beautification park, had started without the necessary scrutiny by the environment managers. How could Mutagamba have missed this step when she is the chief custodian of the environment laws? Is this a way of saying, â€œdo as I say and not as I doâ€?
It is disheartening that leaders who should lead by example are betraying the crusade and creating a hostile environment for the institutions to operate.
To make matters worse, they also rub dirt on environmental institutions saying: â€œThis NEMA is doing nothing.â€
Another is issue is that wetlands do not speak. But politicians, during â€œvote huntingâ€, ally with the encroachers, saying: â€œWetlands do not vote.â€
Museveni, in the last elections, was caught in the same trap when he ordered environmental institutions to stop evictions from forests and wetlands.
At the same time, environmentalists have taken swipe from Museveni who refers to them as saboteurs. Sometimes encroachers contact big shots in the Government to intervene and save them from the environmental institutions that are â€˜sabotaging developmentâ€™.
It is pointless to create environmental institutions whose hands are tied. This is the case for the NEMA and the Wetlands Management Department. For instance, when NEMA demolished Godfrey Nyakaanaâ€™s house, there was a lot of public anger directed at NEMA.
Another case was the eviction of market vendors from an illegal market between Banda and Kireka. Prior to their relocation to a railway reserve in Kireka, NEMA and the Police invaded the premises of the market at night. The following morning, the encroachers protested.
â€œPeople powerâ€ is critical. In the case of the Mabira give-away, the public came out and opposed the politicians bent on axing part of the forest for sugarcane cultivation. These protests helped save Mabira. What would be the result if the public protested about the wetlands?
Kampala City Council (KCC), which should take pride in maintaining the wetlands as protected areas because they offer drainage functions and filter dirty water before it is distributed to city dwellers, is instead leasing the wetlands to prospective developers.
Selling and buying wetlands has become a lucrative business. There are people working for big shots to sniff out available land.
The implication is that securing wetlands and promoting conservation is becoming risky. In some instances, people have been seen holding placards saying â€œWe shall not allow NEMA to steal our landâ€.
It has been argued that NEMA and the Wetlands Management Department should create awareness about the wetlands, but the problem is beyond awareness. For instance, how much awareness do you need to provide to owners of buildings in wetlands that are demanding for compensation?
That aside, the cost of destroying a wetland is not expensive enough to encourage people to keep off wetlands. Under the law, someone can access a permit for occupying a wetland at sh200,000.
The incentives to protect wetlands include control of floods, climate, provide habitats for wild animals and sources of water. But to the people who are hard-pressed with poverty and scavenge on scarce resources, their priority is survival. So they can not resist the temptation of invading the swamp.
In absence of the incentives, politicians give environmental bodies a lot of mileage to secure the wetlands. If this is not done, disasters like floods, drought, conflicts over wetlands which are already knocking on the door, will become more rampant.
The Government needs to renew its commitment to conserve the environment. Short of this, people living in heavily populated areas like in the mountainous areas in Mbale, will, and have started moving to the low lying areas of Pallisa. They believe that their soil, which has been eroded from Mt. Elgon, is lying down in the wetlands.
All this calls for better governance to reduce conflicts and promote socio-economic development that can relieve pressure on wetlands, but what is needed as the beginning point is political will.
The writer is an environment
Everybody is guilty of wetland destruction