By Andrew Mafundo
KAMPALA - Environmental management has been ignored in broader national governance, and natural resource use and environmental services have remained a peripheral issue.
Severe implications of resource scarcity and disruption of ecology have been deliberately ignored in the realm of growing consumerism.
What we all forget is, that natural resources have a strong and broad impact on the economy.
Sustainable use of natural resources can only take place through a strong political commitment, clear vision, fair and responsive administration that can offer continuous protection from malpractice.
These crucial elements of environmental governance are severely lacking at present and one can easily conclude that Uganda’s recent wetlands protection talk by the Executive is mere politicking.
Wetlands are an important resource worth protecting because they constitute an important component of national development.
Their ecological function provide countless benefits to the people. They are often referred to as the kidneys of landscape.
According to the Uganda Wetlands Atlas, contamination of water resources, which is partly caused by reduced buffering capacity of wetlands near open water bodies, costs the country sh38b annually and in the past couple of decades, there has been noticeable destruction of most of Uganda’s ecologically sensitive wetlands.
This unprecedented encroachment is attributed to increased population pressure, political interference, climate change, corruption and intense urbanization.
The encroachers violate all humanitarian norms and deprive a larger section of the society of crucial ecological services.
To curb this, we need to follow a zero-tolerance policy on removing encroachments and human settlements from wetlands and prosecuting the perpetrators.
Government officials are required to hold in trust for the people and protect natural resources, not to lease them out or otherwise alienate any natural resource defined and protected by law.
Those responsible for issuance of land titles and Environmental Impact Assessment permits in respect to wetlands or within regulated lake shores and river bank zones should be individually held accountable.
There are several legal frameworks for the conservation and management of wetlands like the mandatory environmental impact assessment for all activities in the wetlands, riverbanks and lakeshores, most of the seasonal wetlands have been encroached upon and reclaimed for human settlements, industry, agriculture, solid waste dumping and illegal sand mining.
The issuance of title and permits in wetlands by the District Land Boards and Uganda Land Commission without emphasizing usage in an ecological manner is worsening the situation.
Recently, Dr. Okurut-NEMA Executive Director, while appearing before the Commission of inquiry into land matters, opined that technocrats at the Ministry of Lands should explain why titles were issued in wetlands that are gazetted and protected under the law. He also revealed that there are over 1,300 litigants against NEMA demanding compensation before they leave these wetlands.
The Local Government Act (1997) devolved the responsibility of wetland management to district authorities with intention of promoting efficiency. However, local authority continues to witness most of the encroachments and little if any is done regarding wetlands management.
Last month,the land commission of inquiry while investigating circumstances under which some people got land titles in a wetland located in Luzira and Butabika, tasked a one Kalema Edward- former Nakawa Land committee member to explain what his team based on to allocate a wetland to individuals.
In his response, Kalema blamed NEMA that had issued a clearance of environmental impact assessment.
Also, the committee heard that, Mr. Kamoga, former Chairperson of Nakawa Land Committee is a beneficiary of Butabika wetland and had sued the government over the cancellation of his tittles for the same wetland.
The concern of allocation and issuance of land titles in wetlands was drawn to the attention of the Policy Committee on Environment (PCE) and between May and July 2010, the PCE toured the wetlands located in Kampala and Wakiso districts and noted with concern, the illegal act of issuing land titles in wetlands and directed Kampala City Council (now KCCA) and Uganda Lands Commission to cancel all land titles issued in wetlands after 1995.
This was ignored and titles continue to be dished out to whomever can pay for one.
Therefore, Cabinet’s recent decision to cancel most of the land titles in wetlands in and around Kampala and Wakiso should not cause any celebration among conservationists because is neither new nor a surprise to any encroacher or developer of any kind
Government’s main weakness in environmental governance is lack of consistency in the implementation of policies and enforcement of laws.
We need local authority interventions and mechanisms like sub-county enforcement teams supported and supervised by one lead agency.
The enforcement teams are usually compromised by corruption, and political interference. For sustainable management of wetlands, NEMA should apply ‘polluter pays’ principle on whoever encroaches on a wetland.
Ensuring a clean and healthy environment is the mandate of NEMA. They should walk the talk or government takes action against officials perpetuating degradation of the environment.
They should work with other agencies like Ministry of Lands and Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, to cancel the affected titles, hold culprits accountable, and to evict any encroacher in wetlands.
As a country, our natural resources governance requires a thorough appraisal of the existing laws, institutions and practices.
We need holistic wetland management planning and funding to cope with the demand and challenges on the ground, not duplicated and uncoordinated environmental protection entities who are costly to maintain.
They should merge into a single autonomous and empowered entity.
The writer is the executive director of the Citizens’ Concern Africa.