Wetland Conservation – a chain of broken promises

WETLAND CONSERVATION – A CHAIN OF BROKEN COMMITMENTS

One of Uganda’s Ramsar Wetland sites, Lutembe Bay, has been in the media once again, and once more for all the wrong reasons. Initially extending over nearly 100 hectares of forest patches, swamps and reed grass covered shallow water, the area has over the years shrunk, shrunk and then shrunk some more still, with none of the culprits responsible ever being charged in court or fined.

Once the resting place for myriads of migrationary birds and a haven for bird watchers – incidentally visitors spending a lot more in average than ‘ordinary’ tourists – the shrinking and polluted habitat has led to a substantial reduction in bird numbers coming to Lutembe over the past years. A number of environmental watch dogs and conservation NGO’s, together with well reputed individuals, have time and again highlighted the plight of Ugandan wetlands, not just Lutembe but many outlying areas around the capital city and across the entire country, which in past years were drained, turned into land for crops and buildings and to no surprise for informed onlookers regularly flood after heavy rains, as the general drainage from between Kampala’s hills towards the lake continues to be blocked off, keeping runoff water stationary and inundating ‘shambas’ and houses located there.

Lutembe is being eyed by developers, to expand flower farms and create real estate ventures near the lake shores and almost inch by inch, day by day, more and more of the former Lutembe Ramsar Site is lost with  about half of its original size ‘gone for good’ according to a regular conservation source who is particularly conversant with birdlife.

NEMA, the national environmental watch dog of Uganda, has become notorious for acting erratically on such developments, depending on who is behind those, and while often swooping down on the ‘splinters’ equally often they tend to overlook the ‘logs’. This correspondent for instance has now given up writing emails to NEMA about the daily encroachment at the Konge valley, between the Kansanga and Bunga areas of Kampala where the wetland is now being built over and cultivated across the entire area. Years ago NEMA shut down ‘Swampies’, a bar and nightclub allegedly built in the wetland, but when looking at the remains of that site, it has by far been overtaken deeper into the wetland by little farms and new buildings, which are normally advanced at night time using spotlights – some allegations have been made that even the electricity is being ‘stolen’ as was of course the land itself – to avoid, if any are dispatched at all, NEMA inspectors who only operate during day time. To add to the woes of this site, water is being extracted for use in building sites elsewhere in the city, and tankers are a frequent sight along the road reserve, using pumps to extract water from one of the narrow channels, again violating NEMA regulations.

One source within NEMA claims this has all been caused by the lack of support by government to actually operationalise the special environmental police force, but that can only be part of the true reasons, as NEMA seems to find manpower and muscles when it intends to swoop down on someone or something but seemingly cannot when they do not want to act. This has left the organization open to a range of allegations over favouritism, political expediency and even corruption, frequently emerging in the daily papers, letters to the editors and in conservation fora, yet no change has come about.

Observers claim that the time should be up for the top managers of NEMA and a radical overhaul of management is now called for to inject a new lease of life into the organisation, and going by the report in the Daily Monitor earlier this week about the fate of Lutembe, this indeed seems long overdue.

Last year I wrote a story about the restoration of a wetland in Northern Uganda, where villages had initially drained the water off only to then find that neither did their crops grow nor did their livestock find water with ease. Eventually, as hunger hit the area, several villages came together, restored the wetland to its original format – assisted by NGO’s but notably not NEMA – and now they benefit from having both water and healthy crops again. Unless and until conservation laws and regulations are therefore strictly enforced, there will be a growing threat of environmental damages and disasters, and where near protected areas it will also eventually have an impact on wildlife and nature based tourism, which crucially depends on keeping our biodiversity and environment intact.

However, conventional wisdom tells a different story, where profit comes before environment and biodiversity and who, I ask, dares to stand in the way of the all powerful individuals promoting and advancing their businesses at the expense of nature?

Few will stand up to be counted!

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