In Mbale district, Nambitsi, Ndokhwe and Nashirumba rivers are almost no more – people have built permanent houses at their banks and established gardens in their passage.
ENVIRONMENT CLIMATE CHANGE
The natural world as we know, it is certainly unimaginably more useful to us than we are to it. Aware of this, our ancestors nobly bequeathed to us a natural world good enough to live in.
Whether the current generation shall ably do the same for posterity elicits monumental doubt considering the damage human activity has exacted on key environmental features such as Wanale ridge.
Breathtakingly beheld from all areas in Mbale and neighbouring districts, the 6,864 ft ridge has for years unceasingly mothered Bugisu region and a greater part of the country's eastern swath with water that gushes from its stony hills, and calmly flows through materially poor, but food-secure rural communities, into River Manafwa.
River Manafwa then involuntarily flows through rice-cultivating communities in Butaleja, Kibuku and Budaka districts, into Mpologoma River which drains into Lake Kyoga, leaving in their wake incredibly fertile soils that have for generations enabled locals to enjoy economic sustenance and guaranteed food security through irrigation, animal husbandry and cultivation of crops such as bananas, maize, millet, rice, sorghum, beans, rice, among others.
The aforesaid sustenance agricultural activities, however, are gradually diminishing for lack of environmentally sustainable and acceptable farming methods.
This has resulted in soil erosion and decreasing water levels at the Wanale river resource, subsequently affecting several other rivers in the region.
The shrinking water levels are attributed to siltation, triggered by poor farming methods, sand mining, eucalyptus tree growing, water diversion into individual gardens and poor waste disposal.
This has turned, for example, the once serene flowing Manafwa, Nabuyonga, Namatala, Khala, Tsume and Nambale, Nabinjo rivers in Elgon region into dirty streams, pushing the communities into the inconvenient search for clean water.
The rivers have shrunk leaving locals with fond memories of the gone days, considering 67-year-old Yahaya Wamakale's nostalgic recollection of River Tsume's thunderous nature as the water for years negotiated past the boulders in its path.
"That has ceased. You cannot know there was once a river unless told," he sombrely notes, recalling: "The rainy seasons worried our parents the most - not even adults would risk cross it."
River Tsume, arguably one of the biggest after Manafwa in the region, is now suffocating under the weight of extinction.
In Bubilabi Mbale district, River Khala which was also one of the biggest in the area is also suffocating.
What remains of it are huge boulders, negligible water flow and gardens that have consumed part of its path, according to 65-year-old Francis Wambuto, a resident of Bubilabi village, Mbale district.
"The water has dried up. Even when there is a heavy down power, no one can reorganize that Khala exists," he observes, recalling that the river banks had indigenous trees that no one was allowed to cut. Although this justifiably aimed at river preservation and protection, none of these trees exists today.
"They were selfishly cut and replaced with commercial trees," he reports, complaining: "Commercial trees such as eucalyptus do not preserve water. They consume it." This has, he notes, affected crop production.
Again, in Mbale district, Nambitsi, Ndokhwe and Nashirumba rivers are almost no more - people have built permanent houses at their banks and established gardens in their passage.
Julius Wamuyale, an LC 1 chairman notes, for example, that the various water channels that used to feed river Ndokwe, which he avers was massive, have since dried up notwithstanding the community sensitisation on river bank conservation.
"I have tried my best to sensitise the public, but they claim that since the government is giving away big wetlands to investors, local leaders have no authority to intervene," he resignedly notes.
Thinking of the cleanest and coldest water in the area, Nashirumba was the river to talk about. "Its water," states Mary Masawi, "was always cold even in the dry seasons and was not contaminated by human activity".
This, she says, was so because upon leaving Wanale hill and reaching the lower levels, the water flowed underground, later surfacing under a huge Ficus natalensis tree where it burst out into a wide stream.
What is fuelling the problem?
Yonasani Bululu, the Bududa district vice-chairperson and secretary natural resource and production contends that a big problem exists and attributes it to human behaviour.
"There is a lot of destruction of natural trees and other plants that used to protect the water, leaving the water bare which in the results in evaporation," he notes.
Similarly, Yosia Kule, an environmentalist, adds rapid population growth, urbanization, poverty levels in rural and peri-urban areas, to the list of factors exacerbating serious depletion and degradation of the available water resources,
"The overall impact of global warming implies that volumes of water in the form of rain and underground have to reduce," he observes, adding: "As people struggle to survive, they clear out vegetation, encroach on water banks to irrigate their crops, and carry out bricklaying to construct houses, among others."
Kule warns that rivers are drying up portends inevitable future difficulties such as lack of water for use, the disappearance of breezes, mist and fog, and increases water evaporation.
What needs to be done
The major solution to anything, argues Joanita Babirye a climate campaigner, is having a political will and warns that once politicians and other leaders do not take treat climate change and environmental protection seriously, a dire situation awaits us.
"Communities too, need to be involved in all the drives aimed at restoring the environment," she advises, arguing that this certainly enables communities to own up the environment and work towards protecting it.
The affected communities, she says, must not sit back on their laurels and look on - they must stand up and demand from their leader's reliable solutions. "If the communities are united, they can never sit and look on as leaders continue to give away natural resources to certain individuals," she avers.
Additionally, she opines that new alternatives and lifestyles need to be adopted, for example, embracing environmentally friendly forms of energy such as solar and electricity compared to firewood and charcoal.
What government says
According to Albert Orijabo, the assistant commissioner of the directorate of water resources management in the water and environment ministry, the challenges bedevilling Wanale region are within the ministry's knowledge.
"Although we want to stop this problem, there are challenges that are hampering us such as meagre human resource to enforce or support in protecting these water resources. Also, the finances to support conservation are meagre," says Orijabo.
According to the ministry's national water policy 1999, Uganda's freshwater is a key strategic resource vital for sustaining life, promoting development and maintaining the environment
It is perhaps for this reason that not all is grim considering that as a solution to the many challenges of water scarcity and depletion, the ministry, reports Orijabo is promoting an Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) that is aimed at de-concentration of water resources management to the Water Management Zone (WMZ) and catchment levels.
In the same sense, he adds, the ministry is promoting a Catchment-based Water Resources Management (CbWRM) to not only ensure equitable access to and use of water resources but also safeguard key natural resources for sustainable socio-economic development of the country.
Mutwalib Mafwabi Zandya, Mayor Mbale municipal says that several rivers and other small water channels that were coming from Wanale hill have either dried up or reduced in the past five to ten years.
According to Zandaya, in Mbale town, you would see big falls on the hill, but today they are becoming streams.
"All are as a result of bad human activities such as encroachment on the water sources, cutting down of traditional trees and also diversion of the water to people's gardens.
He, however, revealed that as a council they are working with environment officers to sensitize the public on why they need to conserve the water bodies.