Masaka, Uganda | THE INDEPENDENT | Dr. Yahaya Barirega Akankwasah, the Executive Director of the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), has warned residents in the Katonga catchment area to brace for more floods even when the current rains have subsided.
According to Dr. Akankwasah, preliminary inspections show an anticipated increase in the volume of water in River Katonga in the near future. This phenomenon can be attributed to the rising water levels observed in other tributaries of Katonga, as well as lake Lake Wamala, which contributes its waters to the Katonga system.
He made the remarks while elaborating on the probable causes of the flooding and subsequent destruction of the bridge connecting the southwestern region of the country. His statement suggests that the ongoing flooding in the area is likely to persist and potentially worsen as a result of the interconnected water systems.
The Katonga Catchment system, which includes the River Katonga, extends an estimated area of 13,837 square kilometers and is characterized by numerous tributaries and distributaries. It encompasses several districts, namely Mubende, Mityana, Kalungu, Gomba, Sembabule, Kyegegwa, Kamwenge, Kyenjojo, Kiruhura, Lyantonde, Lwengo, Mpigi, Masaka, Kyotera, Bukomansimbi, and Butambala. The river’s waters flow into Lake George and Lake Victoria.
According to Dr. Akankwasah, the environmental organization is currently engaged in evaluating the entire Katonga catchment area, starting from Lake George. The purpose of this assessment is to analyze the landscape and identify potential impacts, allowing them to provide early warnings to the most vulnerable while exploring potential long-term solutions.
The environmentalist further emphasized that as the water inflow into Katonga increases, the amount of water pouring into the Lwera catchment area will also significantly rise. He adds that if appropriate measures are not taken, there is a risk of the flooded area eventually connecting to Lake Victoria. He, however, explains that the ongoing flooding cannot be directly attributed to sand mining activities in the Lwera areas.
His explanation suggests that while sand mining may have its own environmental implications, it is not the primary cause of the current flooding of Katonga River. A recent government report has indicated that inspections conducted upstream of the Katonga bridge have identified a “dam breach” along a 4-kilometer section of the Kalungu-Gumba road in Bugomola Village, Lwabenge Sub-county, Kalungu District.
“The rising water level is likely to have created massive force beyond the design capacity of the road creating dam breach which led to a sudden release of a large volume of water creating a flood wave that moved downstream the Katonga River,” the report reads in part.
According to Dr. Bob Ogwang Alex, the Acting Executive Director of Uganda National Meteorological Authority-UNMA, the recent floods can partly be attributed to the abnormal rainfall patterns experienced in the area over the past three months. Dr. Ogwang highlighted that in March, the Kalungu area and nearby districts experienced rainfall that exceeded 280 cubic millimeters, surpassing the long-term average of 200 cubic millimeters for the months of March to May.
As the rainy season progressed, the situation deteriorated further, with the weather station at Kamenyamigo recording rainfall amounts as high as 512 cubic millimeters in April 2023. These precipitation levels far exceeded the expected norms, indicating the extraordinary nature of the rainfall events during this period. To Dr. Ogwang, these heavy rains, in addition to other contributing factors, could have significantly increased the water volumes flowing into the River Katonga through its tributaries.
With further consequences predicted, Dr. Akankwasah has emphasized that the Lwera and Katonga wetland sections will increasingly face significant challenges. In contrast to his predecessor, who endorsed sand mining and rice cultivation in Lwera, Dr. Akankwasah strongly believes that granting permission to disrupt this delicate ecosystem was an unwise decision.
He further stated that taking into account the lessons learned from previous errors, the government has made the decision not to extend any permits for sand mining in the Lwera region. He also mentioned that there are currently only two companies with active permits, but once their permits expire, they will not be renewed.
Regarding the future of Zhong Industries Ltd, a Chinese firm involved in rice cultivation, the director said that the situation is complex. While their licenses are still valid for several years, the government may, out of goodwill, choose to uphold the area’s preservation and consider revoking their licenses.
There has been a significant shift in perspective, as the leadership of NEMA (National Environment Management Authority) has long been defending the ongoing rice cultivation and sand mining operations in the Lwera Wetland, despite facing opposition from local leaders, civil society organizations, and the general public.
In recent interviews, Frank Muramuzi, the Executive Director of the National Association of Professional Environmentalists (NAPE) warned about the potential detrimental effects of these activities. Muramuzi emphasized that apart from the evident disruption to the ecosystem, there is a grave concern due to the direct drainage of Lwera into Lake Victoria and the use of agrochemicals like fertilizers, which pose a significant risk to millions of lives.
He further questions the self-centered approach of current leaders who exploit almost every available resource without considering the needs of future generations. In light of these circumstances, Dr. Akankwasah emphasized the need for the government to adopt a two-pronged approach moving forward.
Firstly, he suggested focusing on restoration measures to address the current challenges. Secondly, he stressed the importance of implementing climate change adaptation plans to prevent similar disruptions in the future. Specifically, Dr. Akankwasah recommended that for areas like Katonga, Lwera, and other wetlands, the government should consider constructing raised bridges, similar to the one built at Nambigirwa on the Entebbe Expressway.
Moving away from the specific case of Katonga-Lwera, the director of NEMA, Dr. Akankwasah, acknowledged that in the past, there were tradeoffs that resulted in strategic mistakes, particularly regarding the location of industries in wetland areas, permitting rice cultivation in wetlands, and infrastructure development.