Social discipline to stop practices that endanger the environment should replace era of inaction about climate change
COMMENT | WALTER AKENA | When humans decide to wage war against nature, as we have always done by building on wetlands, cutting down trees, sand mining, and farming in marshlands, the outcome is always obvious- humans will lose. When nature avenges, it does so with utmost ferocity and brutality, leaving behind a trail of fatalities and socio-economic corollaries.
Last week, the Katonga River burst its banks leading to a colossal water flow that inundated part of the Katonga Bridge and cut off the Kampala-Masaka Highway. In Mbarara, River Rwizi also burst its banks a fortnight ago, destroying crops and several buildings, as water swept through areas neighbouring the river. In the Kigezi region, mudslides triggered by torrential rain claimed 16 lives; all testimonies that no one wins the war against nature.
Fascinatingly, experts had warned of catastrophic consequences of unsustainable human activities around Lwera Swamp and River Rwizi. In 2020, a Makerere University Professor warned that rice growing in the marshlands of Lwera and Masaka affected the stability of Lake Victoria’s water levels. For whatever reason, this virtuous counsel was ignored, and business continued as usual. As sure as day follows the night, both Katonga and Rwizi eventually succumbed to the weight of torrential rains.
In most cases, the affront on our environment is driven by poverty and greedy desires for quick money, but the effects are fatal, long lasting, and far-reaching. When the River Rwizi erupted, water pumps were flooded, cutting off water supply to most parts of Mbarara City, causing a weeklong water shortage. The collapse Katonga Bridge on the other hand, cut off traffic on Kampala-Masaka Highway disrupting business for traders in Lukaya, a popular stopover for snacks for travellers along that route. Undoubtedly, the country will lose revenue from trans-border trade aided by the road, which is the main gateway to Burundi, DR Congo, Rwanda, and Tanzania. Furthermore, there will be a disruption in the supply of food including Matooke, Irish, rice, beans, and cowpeas from Western Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi, and Rwanda, which would cause food inflation.
We are always quick to point at other people in the discussion about who is to blame for the increasingly unpredictable change in climate, but in reality, we are all culpable based on the legal concept of liability by omission. Environmental crime offenders have been emboldened by the general public’s inactivity.
Despite a statutory instrument banning it, charcoal burning in industrial scale has continued in Northern Uganda, particularly in the Acholi Sub-region. Failure by individuals, leaders, and law enforcement officers, to execute their constitutional responsibilities to enforce the ban, have mostly assisted this. With the exception of former Aruu County MP Odonga Otto and a handful of activists under his “Ribbe Pi Paco” group, nobody in the region has thought it necessary, to enforce the ban. In some cases, law enforcement officials and local leaders have abetted the practice by issuing licenses and providing the charcoal dealers safe passages whenever they feel threatened by the Otto-led group.
The 13th and 15th Sustainable Development Goals push us to act quickly to combat climate change and its effects, protect, restore, and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, stop desertification, and reverse land degradation and biodiversity loss.
To accomplish this, we must all work together to end environmental damage, cultivate the social discipline to stop practices that endanger the environment, and expose offenders. The earlier we realise that nature is crucial for our society and economy, the earlier we shall embrace the moral duty to coexist with it rather than destroy it for selfish purposes.
On its part, the government must strengthen the enforcement of environmental protection laws. Local leaders and law enforcers who abet environmental crimes must be swiftly reproached. The National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) should develop a framework for rewarding environmental conservation best practices and punishing those who harm the environment. As the saying goes, failing to decide is deciding to fail; we must decide to act now.
The writer is a Research Officer under the Local Government Council Scorecard Initiative at ACODE
Happy if ACODE could quantify and publish the economic losses arising from loss of the ecosystem functions of the Kagera wetland system