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FLOODING ENHANCES THE VULNERABILITY OF WETLAND-DEPENDENT COMMUNITIES IN SOUTH WESTERN UGANDA

Phionah Orishaba, Project Assistant, Nature Uganda (NU), Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), and International Crane Foundation Partnership (ICF), PhionaO@ewt.org.za

In the 1950s, as a result of the growing population and resultant increased demand for food, communities in the Kabale region of south western Uganda began draining intact wetlands for agriculture. With their rich, fertile soils, wetlands, riverbanks, and lakeshores were considered prime areas for crop production. Natural wetland resources are also harvested for food, building materials, and craft construction. Intact, functioning wetlands provide critical ecosystem services, such as water absorption and storage, which reduce flooding in the rainy season. Wetlands also release stored water during the onset of the dry season, thereby delaying water shortages during times of drought. However, extensive wetland encroachment and degradation has impacted the ecological functioning of wetlands, including the regulation of flooding.

Prolonged rainfall events from March to May of this year, resulted in excessive flooding and landslides throughout most wetland areas in south western Uganda. Floodwaters carry substrates such as soil, stones and small boulders which endanger wildlife and degrade natural ecosystems. Resultantly, the floods impacted the survival and breeding success of local Grey Crowned Cranes, as they occurred during the peak of the crane breeding season.

The floods caused other forms of devastation, including the loss of crops and animals, and the destruction of buildings and roads. Maziba Primary School in Maziba Sub-County and Kakoma Church of Uganda in Katuna Town Council are among the buildings that were destroyed during the ordeal. Roads in Rubaya Sub-County were also ravaged. According to the District Natural Resources Officer of Kabale, Mr Rogers Akatwijuka, the floods resulted from increased rainfall, coupled with wetland encroachment and poor farming practices in the upslope regions. Mr Akatwijuka recommended that wetland restoration, and soil and water conservation initiatives be implemented to minimise the impact of future flooding events.

Ms Evas Asiimwe, the District Environment Officer of Kabale, said that economic activities such as agriculture, sand mining, brick making, industrialisation, infrastructure development, and wetland encroachment were the main drivers of habitat degradation. She continued, “Currently the region is facing weather-related challenges because most of the natural vegetation resources have been depleted, leaving the soils bare”. Ms Asiimwe emphasised that there is an urgent need to restore degraded habitats, guided by the national environmental policies and guidelines.

Mr John Zinkubire, the chairperson of the Kibuga Abarihamwe Community Group, and Crane Custodian Mr David Musinga reported that their crops were washed away by the floods and they are expecting that their community will face increased food insecurity and poverty. Amid the devastation, they did happily report that the six pairs of cranes, usually seen foraging in the wetland and cattle farms near their homes, survived the floods, and have been seen with juveniles. Similarly, Mr Francis Mwebesa, a community member of Mayengo Ward, Katuna Town Council, said the flooding this year was particularly extreme. The two families of cranes in the nearby wetlands are reported to have narrowly survived the floods. He witnessed the chicks floating on the water surface and navigating their way to safety.

Unfortunately, not all crane families would have been so lucky. In an attempt to locate the two families of cranes in the wetland near Hakiheiga Trading Centre, Crane Custodians, Annet Tusiime and Jeniffer Tumuhimbise reported that, although the adult cranes were seen feeding near the flooded wetlands, none of their chicks were observed. They were unable to investigate further due to excessive flooding in the area. Mr Kamuzinzi Edward, a Crane Custodian from Kahungye Sub-County, reported that landslides had devasted his crops, and soil from the upland slopes had been washed into the wetlands. He feared that any eggs that had not yet hatched would have been unlikely to survive.

Lt Col Robert Nahamya of the Uganda Peoples Defence Forces and his army provided a helping hand to the families in Kaharo, whose homes had been affected by the flood. The Kabale LCV Chairperson, Mr Patrick Besigye Keihwa, extended comforting words to households whose properties were destroyed, promising to inform the office of the Prime Minister and the Ministry of Risks and Disaster Management, who would be able to provide additional relief services. Milton Kwesiga, the Executive Director of Africa Disaster Reduction Research and Emergency Missions, said that according to the constitution of Uganda, wetlands are protected areas. He continued that any agricultural activity in wetlands, except for recommended sustainable livelihoods, like apiary and harvesting of local materials for handicrafts, is illegal and should be punishable. He noted that wetlands provide essential ecological services, including water filtration, hydrological cycling, and flood control.

All Ugandans are called upon to curb wetland degradation by becoming conservation ambassadors and taking action to restore and conserve wetlands and reduce risks associated with climate change. There is an urgent need to implement environmental protection interventions, such as tree planting along wetland buffer zones, and soil and water conservation initiatives using bamboo and elephant grass. Most people in the Kigezi region depend on wetlands for survival and economic security. Thus, a collaborative approach between communities, government, and NGOs is essential to conserve wetland habitats for the benefit of both people and biodiversity.