River erosion: Uganda losing land to Congo

Mar 23, 2015

WHILE in some areas like Ntoroko, Uganda is losing land to DRC, however, in others, Congo is losing to Uganda

By Gerald Tenywa


IN five years, Emmanuel Kyamanywa and his wife, Rose Namirembe, have abandoned their home five times. Each time they relocate to a new site, the River Semliki comes closer until it displaces them again. 


They now live about 100m away from what used to be Bweramule trading centre in Ntoroko district. The riverside settlement, which was home to about 300 people, was abandoned as the river advanced, threatening to wash away the settlement. 


“When we saw the river threatening to hit us, we moved to safer areas,” Namirembe told Sunday Vision. 


The residents live in constant fear of being swept away.


In its new position, the river stands between Namirembe’s family land and the land where they cultivate food. And because the river marks the boundary between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), by changing its route, the river has shifted part of the family’s land from Uganda to DRC.


Women and children have been hit hardest. “Can you imagine that we have to hire a boat to cross Semliki in order to access our gardens in DR Congo?” laments Namirembe. “We used to walk freely into our gardens to cultivate or harvest food or firewood but this is no longer the case.”


Not far away, Grace Kyamanywa sits behind heaps of sweet potatoes at a makeshift market in Bweramule. She is determined not to lose to River Semiliki, even if she has to dig deeper into her pocket to cross to DRC to get food. 


“We are overstretched,” says Kyamanywa. “It takes a long time to cross the river to our gardens and back home. We also face many risks including hostile agents of local chiefs in the DR Congo who keep demanding for money from us, claiming that we are cultivating on their land.”


While in some areas like Ntoroko, Uganda is losing land to DRC, however, in others, Congo is losing to Uganda. There are no accurate figures on the amount of land lost. What is known for certain is that the changing parts of the river stretch over 100km. In some areas, the river has shifted by as much as 1km while in others, the shift is only 10 metres. 


As the battle for survival at Bweramule takes a new face, alternative activities such as fishing, petty trading and herding cattle have attracted the men, leaving the women to till the ground. Other men have opted to migrate to Bundibugyo, Fort Portal, Kasese and Kampala.


“We need to engage in different activities in order to survive,” says Peter Mugisa. 


In the end, some men looking for menial work in other towns, end up marrying other women. They then send money to their families in the village, says Mugisa. 




River Semliki which originates from Lake Edward, with some of its tributaries from the Rwenzori Mountain and the DRC, flows through the Rwenzori foothills and pours into Lake Albert. It runs over 240km between lakes Edward and Albert. Semliki has greatly changed course in its last 60km. 


According to Jockus Matte, the district environment officer for Bundibugyo, in Bweramule, Uganda has lost a huge part of its territory to the DRC, but has also gained in some parts as the river flows down to Lake Albert. 


“As a country, we need to stop marking boundaries with natural features that can change anytime,” he says, adding that the changing course of Semliki could be a precursor to conflict. 


Matte says the change in the course of Semliki is partly because of global warming, which has contributed to the rapid melting of the glaciers on Mt. Rwenzori. As a result, an increased volume of water running into Semliki has contributed to its erosive power. As the water flows, it hits against the river’s weak banks, eroding the sides. 


Climate change is caused by gases such as carbon dioxide that trap the heat escaping from the earth. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in its recent report, stated that human activity such as industrial production that rely on fossil fuels such as oil and coal are responsible for releasing such gases, which have been increasing over a long time.


The degraded banks of River Semliki are widening at 10 metres every year due to the receding snow on the Rwenzori Mountains, according to the State of Environmental Sensitivity Atlas for the Albertine Grabben (western arm of the rift valley), 2010. 


The ice on Rwenzori has shrunk from some seven square kilometers in 1906 to one square kilometre today, meaning that 80% has been lost due to climate change, according to the State of Environment Report, 2008 released by the National Environment Management Authority.




The women and children seem to be abandoned in the fight to tame River Semliki. But the district environmental experts say this is not the case. “We wanted to construct concrete walls that could hold out against the erosive river but this was too expensive to construct,” Matte says.


Another option included planting trees to keep the banks intact. This too, has not worked. The trees along a five-kilometre stretch of the bank, have either been destroyed by people or swept away by the raging river.


This conservation effort was undertaken with the help of the Nile Trans-boundary Environment Action Plan (NTEAP) under the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI). The support, which was channeled through the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), was seen as part of the efforts to restore the degraded banks. But its impact was short-lived.


“Cattle keepers let us down when they drove their cattle into the restored areas,” says Hassan Mukasa, the LC3 chairperson of Rwebisengo sub-county. “The cattle were starving and the only grass was left near Semliki.”


Other experts say the wealthy cattle keepers call the shots in this part of the world and do not respect the cultivators who are less influential and mostly afflicted by poverty. 


“The farmers suffer more than the cattle keepers,” says Matte. “The missing link was the byelaws that have been formulated over the years, but have been shelved,” he explains. 




According to Dr. Callist Tindimugaya, a commissioner in the Ministry of Water and Environment, the climate has been changing slowly for ages but in recent years, the pace has been faster. 


“Climate change is being experienced through impacts on water,” he says, adding that sometimes there is too much water, causing flooding and in some cases there is no water, resulting in drought. 


He also points out that ecological systems that would shield the local people from the vagaries of nature are getting degraded, making people vulnerable to the impact of climate change. 


He adds that a water catchment committee for Semliki has been created to lead the interventions. 


“We need the local people as well as the private sector to appreciate the problem and accept that they are part of the problem,” he says, adding that shared water bodies and the environment should not be left to the Government or NGOs or communities or women and children to manage. 


“We all have a role to play if we are to have sustainable development.” 


Tindimugaya explains that the Government is implementing the Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) strategy to bring together water users including communities, policy makers, private sector such as industries and donors to maintain the quality and quantity of water. 


He says cooperation is important to undertake restoration of the environment as well as sharing of benefits from trans-boundary rivers such as Semliki. 


“We have started working with World Wildlife for Nature (WWF) to roll out activities that will restore the river and empower communities to address challenges of climate change,” says Tindimugaya, adding that the Africa Development Bank has funded Uganda and DRC to improve fisheries and management of the environment in the catchment of Lake Albert and River Semliki. 


“We hope to restore the ecological systems and enhance human survival.” 




In Kampala, climate change has been felt mostly through reduced electricity production and high temperatures. 


Medical experts have linked the recent typhoid outbreak in Kampala to the hot season, which led to increased consumption of contaminated water and juices sold around markets, shopping malls, taxi and bus parks. 


But the bigger effect is on electricity production. James Banaabe, a commissioner in the Ministry of Energy, cites 2004 and 2006, when the water level of Lake Victoria dropped due to prolonged dry seasons. 


This led to reduced electricity production, power rationing, higher electricity bills and reduced economic growth. To-date, the lake regains its water level every rainy season and loses it again during the dry seasons, but not to the extent that it did between 2004 and 2006. 




Uganda’s economy is also hit by extreme weather events such as floods and drought, according to Dr. Kisamba Mugerwa, the head of the National Planning Authority. “When we have drought or floods, the economic growth reduces,” he told Sunday Vision. 


Moreover, Ugandan farmers are dependent on rain-fed agriculture, which is currently undermined by unpredictable rainy seasons. 


“It has been reported that the rainy season has become shorter and more intense,” says the State of the River Nile Basin 2012 report. 


The growing environmental crisis, according to David Duli, the country director of WWF, shows that the world is one and we have to work together to promote sustainable development locally and globally. 


“Climate change affects different areas differently, meaning that relevant adaptation interventions are needed,” he says. 


Water remains at the core of sustainable development. Shortage of water brings tears, but lives are lost when water goes wild. Sustainable development requires that water remains available in a controlled manner.

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