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NEMA’s latest mess

By Ronald Musoke

Should we let this man destroy the Kinawataka wetland?

Something dangerous is happening in the Kinawataka Swamp in the Banda area; a low-lying suburb about 10kms from Kampala city’s Central Business District along the eastern route. Since the beginning of this year, a mysterious encroacher has been dumping hundreds of tonnes of murram into the wetland.Almost every night these days, convoys of trucks off-load tonnes of earth debris and murram into the swamp; effectively burying it.

As soon as the ground firms up slightly, construction begins. It is mainly warehouses and small manufacturing plants.

As some anxious residents told The Independent recently, the encroacher is a “powerful” person because one needs powerful allies to destroy a gazetted wetland with such unprecedented impunity.

Some said the encroacher is the billionaire businessman Sudhir Ruparelia who has several warehouses in the nearby Kyambogo area. When asked about the Kinawataka warehouses, however, Sudhir sounded frustrated by the accusation.

“I know nothing about those warehouses,” he said. “If I stop anywhere in Kampala and look at a shop, people think I will buy it,” he added.

For now, the only person who can stop the Kinawataka wetland from being destroyed is Dr Tom Okurut,the executive director of the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA). So, why hasn’t he?

NEMA’s secret

Although Okurut knows the identity of the secret encroacher, he prefers to keep it a secret.

In an interview with The Independent on Feb.27, Okurut confirmed that he had approved the encroachment on the Kinawataka wetland.

“We approved the developer’s environmental impact assessment plan,” he said, “but KCCA too has to give a clearance.”

When he was told that the encroachment is destroying a strategic wetland, Okurut told The Independent that there are two things that Ugandans need to understand; first, that the country’s population is spiraling out of control and, at the same time, the government’s promotion of value addition, competitiveness, and industrialisation is ‘unstoppable’.

“The government has made a rallying call to investors and they have responded well,” he said, “however, they all seem to prefer Kampala over any other part of Uganda when it comes to building industries. But there is no more land in Kampala, except wetlands.”

Then he added: “I strongly believe that development and conservation can still co-exist although someone has to lose in the process.”

Okurut’s position is partly what is envisaged under the 1995 Wetlands policy. The policy makes it clear that population growth and increasing rate of development are inevitable. But, it says, only non-destructive uses would be allowed in and around wetlands. It also recognises that a sufficient and steady amount of water supply and discharge of effluent at an affordable cost is required.

It notes: “Any wetlands serving as a source of water supply or receiving effluent as part of a designated service to any human settlement shall be declared a fully protected wetland from any encroachment, drainage or modification”.

Disregarded dangers

In the Kinawataka case, that caveat appears to have been disregarded and Okurut’s attitude might cause an irreversible environmental catastrophe.

At 187 hectares; the Kinawataka area is the third largest gazetted industrial zone of Kampala after Nalukolongo, 251 hectares, and Kawempe, 196 hectares. In all these areas, wetlands act as natural sieves of industrial waste as they purify wastewater of hazardous chemicals.

Experts say Kampala city is a hill and valley complex and the Banda area is where one of the city’s three main drainage channels; the Kinawataka rivulet, makes its final stand in the Kinawataka swamp before plunging into its final lap into the city’s main source of fresh water; the Murchison Bay of Lake Victoria. This is where the National Water & Sewerage Corporation (NW&SC) pumps water it supplies to the city and surrounding areas.

The Kinawataka rivulet has two forks. Both originate in the Ntinda area, in northeast Kampala. One fork starts in the hill zone around the New Ntinda Market and crosses Ntinda Road at where the Crestfoam Mattress factory is. The other fork starts farther up and to the east, around Kigobe Road in the area around the Uganda National Examinations Board (UNEB) office. The two forks join in the Kyambogo area, flow through Banda, and Mbuya, to Butabika and Port Bell on the shores of Lake Victoria swamp in the south.

Experts say the Kinawataka swamp network is important as one of three main routes for tertiary treatment of wastewater from Kampala city. The others are the Nakivubo Channel, which cleans up the west and the Lubigi swamp which drains the northern part of the city and empties into Lake Kyoga. Apart from the industrial and domestic wastewater, the Kinawataka rivulet carries all the runoff from this area when it rains and dumps it in the Kinawataka wetland. To understand the danger that could come from destroying the Kinawataka swamp system, one needs to imagine what would happen to the flood situation in central and western Kampala city without the Nakivubo Channel.

Unlike Okurut, who appears content to watch as development damages the Kinawataka swamp system, experts who occupied his position in 1958 developed the Nakivubo Channel to do what nature could no longer do. Some experts, like Prof. Frank Kansiime of the Makerere University Institute of Environment and Natural Resources, are recommending solutions to the Kinawataka development saga.

First, Prof. Kansiime says, any development should stay clear of existing natural drainage channels or make provisions for drainage channels. The third is one that the NEMA boss, Okurut, is unlikely to countenance; that new developments should be discouraged.

Others say the east side of Kampala needs a well-designed channel, like the Nakivubo Channel that serves the west.

Even if this is done, however, without wetlands to purify the wastewater and added nutrients, industrial and municipal point sources will discharge untreated and partially treated wastewater into streams that empty into the Lake Victoria. This will, in turn drive up the cost of water purification by the National Water & Sewerage Corporation.

Kansiime wants KCCA to “build reticulated channels to distribute the wastewater over a large expanse of space before it finally flows into the lake.”

The Kyambogo disaster

Meanwhile, either unknown to the encroachers and experts like Okurut, or simply indifferent to the danger that lurks, each off-load of murram into the Kinawataka wetland is effectively cutting off the city’s natural cleaning arteries. If nothing is done quickly; the eastern side of the city could soon suffocate as domestic and industrial waste and water accumulates without any outlet.

Problems can already be seen. Motorists who ply the Kampala-Jinja highway to eastern Uganda know that it takes only a slight shower for the area around Kyambogo Road, about 10kms from the city, to flood and become impassable.

John Alia, a 57-year old man who was born here and is now the Local Council Chairperson of Banda Zone B3 says things were not always this bad.

Alia says when he was growing up in the 1970s; they never had problems of the area flooding. All the storm water running from the surrounding elevated villages of Kyambogo, Kamuli, Nabisunsa, Kireka and Mbuya calmly found its way and settled in the then expansive wetland. He recalls how residents around the wetland gathered material from the swamp to make mats and other crafts, fished for lungfish and catfish and hunted game like otters, wild pigs, bushbuck, and ducks.

Today, there is evidence of flooding in the premises of the big businesses in this area; like Crown Beverages Ltd, makers of Pepsi drinks, Steel and Tube Ltd, the Mercedes Benz franchise, Spear Motors, Megha mattress factory, and several warehouses and used-car depots.There are also the MOIL and Mogas fuel depots which have a combined capacity of about 6 million litres of petrol and diesel close to the desperately congested Banda low-cost residences of the poor.

Experts like Prof.Kansiime are warning that flooding in the area could get worse if the Kinawataka Wetland issue is mishandled.

He says just 30 years ago, in the 1980s, Kinawataka was as big as 9.4 sq.Km; stretching from Banda up to Inner Murchison Bay and in the process it protected the water quality of the lake from the urban catchment waste water of Ntinda, Nakawa, Kyambogo, Naguru, Kireka, Mbuya, Mutungo, Luzira and Butabika. In 2000, a report by the National Wetlands Conservation and Management Programme, said the wetland was about 4.16 Sq. Km.

Today, in my estimate, only less than one square kilometer (an area something like 10 or 15 standard football pitches) of the wetland remains.

On its edges are hundreds of tiny mud and wattle houses, flanked by the more permanent gigantic industrial buildings that over the last two decades have slowly inched their way into the heart of the wetland.

The latest encroachment is over a kilometer in length and edges closer to the railway line that runs on the fringes of the wetland.

Confused response

Protection of wetlands in Kampala is the mandate of three departments; the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), the Wetland Management Department of the ministry of Water and Environment, and Kampala Capital City Authority. A new addition is the Uganda Investment Authority.

In the Kinawataka case, all four appear helpless.

Prof. Kansiime says much as these institutions seem to function perfectly on an individual basis, they have always lacked a cohesive general coordination to work as a system that legally facilitates industrial and investment development and environmental conservation.

NEMA officials sometimes accuse KCCA officials of endorsing construction plans in wetlands. Meanwhile KCCA, which has a full-fledged wetland protection division, has itself leased out a number of plots designated as wetlands including; Wandegeya Children’s Park, Kyambogo Wetland (now a Used-Car Dealership Depot], Centenary Park, Bwaise, Luziira, Kinawataka, Bugolobi, Garden City, and Shoprite/Game Shopping Mall Lugogo. Prof. Kansiime says some developers treat an investment license from UIA to be a final approval and permission to proceed with their project. They neglect the NEMA requirement for carrying out an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) as required by law and the KCCA development approval. All are crucial steps prior to implementation of any project.

When The Independent contacted NEMA on Jan.15 to seek clarification from the Department of Environment Monitoring and Compliance regarding the status of the Kinawataka wetland, the department head, Arnold Ayazika Waiswa, refused to say anything. Such behaviour is common among civil servants who have something to hide.

Others like Paul Mafabi, the director of Environmental Affairs in the Ministry of Water and Environment are more aware of the need to be accountable to the public and offer explanation. In this case, Mafabi said, he is not aware of any approval for the development of Kinawataka wetland.

“If any approval was done, then it was done without our consent,” Mafabi told The Independent in a telephone interview on Jan.16.

He said any approval regarding the gazetting of any wetland for development is supposed to be done in consultation with the ministry’s Wetlands Department.

Okurut also appears not to have liaised with KCCA officials when his NEMA approved the Kinawataka encroachment.

On Jan.16, KCCA law enforcement officers swung into action in the mid-morning and attempted to stop the encroachment. They arrested some porters.

After the swoop, Peter Kauju, the KCCA Spokesperson, said surveillance of all wetlands in the city is still a big challenge for the team because it has to rely onNEMA and the public to report encroachers.

In a foreword to the “Uganda Water and Environment Sector Performance Report 2012, the Minister of Water, Prof. Ephraim Kamuntu, also said the demarcation and gazetting of wetlands is urgently needed to block such encroachments.

A study done in 2005 by Prof. Kansiime found that by 2002 Kampala’s wetland coverage stood at 33 sq km (16.5% of Kampala’s land area) from the original 41 sq km (19.7%) of the 1950s reflecting the area that has been encroached on by industries, homes, and agriculture.

Nationwide, by 1964, Uganda’s wetland coverage was about 32,000 sq km (13% of Uganda’s land area) but this quickly reduced to about 30,000 sq km by 1999. The onslaught on wetlands worsened six years later when the loss was as big as 12%. At the moment Uganda’s wetland coverage is about 11% or 26,308 sq km.

Okurut, who believes in development going hand in hand with conservation, says the government should revisit policies on investment and industrialisation to favour “green development”. This approach is more holistic as it considers the community’s developmental and environmental needs. However, should we destroy what we have because the current policy has loopholes?

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