As a Member of Katwe Wetland Management Association, Frida Nasirue has switched her business model from cattle grazing to millet farming in Uganda’s Rwizi River Basin. For over 20 years, water flowing from the Rwizi – one of Uganda’s most environmentally and socially valuable rivers - has been slowly on a decline due to increasing human migration to the basin’s fertile wetlands. This degradation of wetlands, caused by climate change, livestock grazing and unsustainable farming practices, is threatening water security, leaving large local employers operating in Mbarara, Uganda’s fourth largest city, as well as local farmers in the basin competing for fresh water resources four months per year during dry season.
“We used to graze cattle in the wetland, but then learned that this practice was not good for the environment,” said Nasirue. “I have since taken up millet farming, which I financed through a small loan from the livelihood fund that was established. We never knew that we were affecting the Rwizi River by farming and grazing in the wetland.”
Public authorities, companies and communities depending on the river agreed that restoring wetlands could help reverse the damage caused by channels dredged to grow crops and keep livestock on the previously flooded areas.
John Kaburabuzo has lived in Nyakambu, a town along the Rwizi River for 60 years. Kaburabuzo, like many others, believe that a sharp population rise in the Rwizi – and the related rise in the cultivation of crops and keeping of livestock – has caused water levels to decline. However, since local farmers have altered their practices he noticed a positive change in the river’s water flow: “After we learned better ways to farm and left the wetlands for other farming opportunities, we started seeing water levels rise. Now, Nyakambu looks much like it looked 30 years ago.”
Practical solutions for long-term results
Collective action was taken to drive water security efforts. With support from UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), Uganda’s Ministry of Water and Environment, The Coca-Cola Company and the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ)’s International Water Stewardship Programme (IWaSP) joined forces to establish the Rwizi Catchment Management Committee, improve Rwizi’s wetlands and drive development growth in a more sustainable manner.
The partners agreed that restoring the Rwizi’s wetlands and securing reliable water access would require buy in and involvement from local communities, including them adapting their farming practices. GIZ’s IWaSP supported this process by mapping stakeholders in the catchment to understand who and how they were affected; ensuring the key players from civil society and government officials were engaged; building knowledge and capacity and investing in scientific studies including hydrological modelling and water resource assessments.
In addition to ensure local farmers had the knowledge to more efficient and environmentally friendly farming practices, GIZ’s IWaSP also financially supported the establishment of alternative livelihoods. Community-based revolving fund schemes were installed and enabled farmers to access financial means all year round. These Community Environmental Conservation Funds, or CECFs, allowed farmers to buy supplies including seed and other agricultural necessities in an effort to shift their business models to income generating activities outside of the newly restored wetlands.
More sustainable opportunities
Having financial support, farmers were able to quickly replace their lost income and the Rwizi’s wetlands began to replenish. Two years after the close of this IWaSP supported project, which included the restoration of 500 hectares across seven different wetland systems of the Rwizi, the revolving funds provided to the Rwizi Community Environmental Conservation Fund continue to support farmers. The river’s water flow has become more regular and wetlands are better retaining water, leading to increased water availability during dry months. Additionally, secondary business opportunities such as new mulching techniques have resulted in noticeably fuller and healthier ‘matoke’ crops, the staple banana crop in Uganda.
“I also have a banana plantation, which I can now mulch with material from the wetland,” said Nasirue. “Due to increased water levels, we will have now enough water even throughout the dry seasons.”
The programme took a very practical approach and supported environmentally friendly business ideas such as farming mudskippers, a local sort of marine life chiefly sold as fishing bait, as a supplementary source of income for local residents. Local vegetation found along the banks of the Rwizi was also introduced to catchment area dwellers as an alternative to their irrigation channels. Used as a mulching base, this indigenous plant helps retain water and more sustainably promotes the growth of the farmers’ secondary crops.
“I have personally seen the results of our project, and they are very encouraging,” said Derrick Mugweri, Plant Manager at Century Bottling Company Ltd., a subsidiary of Coca-Cola Beverages Africa, which is based in Mbara, Uganda, and had contributed around €105,000 towards the project. “Five years ago, we were very worried about our water supply for production. However, ever since the Catchment Management Committee has been established and our activities implemented, we have seen positive developments in the catchment.”
- What is so unique about the Rwizi Catchment management initiative under the IWasP initiative?
"Rwizi is currently the first place where the private sector closely engages on catchment activities and water resources management. They too will benefit at the end of the day when water resources improve and remain sustainable. The initiative has also leveraged some financial resources from the private sector.
Second, the alternative livelihood fund where communities are able to borrow at low interest rates, as they work to preserve and protect that catchment, makes the communities feel that they are cared about. It demonstrates that the initiative understands that they are probably farming in the wetland/riverbank because they are experiencing financial challenges."
- What is the regulatory framework?
"The Government used to do the planning and implementing of such projects, however this was not yielding the desired results. Around 2006, the approach to water resource management changed to catchment based integrated water resource management that is stakeholder driven. The result of water reform studies also recommended that we needed to be near where the water challenges occurred and that stakeholders need to be actively involved in water management. In our new policy approach, we are saying stakeholders need to be involved in identifying water issues facing them as well as possible solutions.
The country was divided into four water management zones under the water management reforms, where Rwizi catchment was made part of the Lake Victoria water management zone. In each zone, there are several catchments and each catchment has a stakeholder forum. Rwizi catchment for example has a stakeholder forum that meets every year. The forum elects a committee of stakeholders who live around the area. So, we cannot have somebody from Kampala coming to be a stakeholder in Rwizi. The catchment is also supported by a technical committee and ideally each should have a secretariat."
- What challenges have been encountered so far?
"The traditional focus of people who want to see tangible results immediately. Secondly, where politicians are involved and we have five-year political cycles (elections), you find that politicians are sometimes reluctant to participate when the results will be realized beyond the five-year period and cannot be used to bring them back to power. Skepticism is another thing we experience, where people say “you are not the first person to come with such a project”. Sustaining the meetings and ensuring that people keep coming for the meetings is also a challenge. Finally, keeping all these people working together… the Government is sometimes suspicious of civil society, while the private sector may be suspicious of the Government etc."
- What are some of the lessons learnt and successes achieved?
"That private sector can be involved by mobilizing them through issues that affect them. They can be approached from the perspective of water risks by letting them know that if they are not there, their issues will not be addressed. Secondly, projects, whether by donors or any other group, need to be created to fit within the existing government frame-work. Third, you can really not get commitment from people without incentives. Lastly, people must be involved in and be convinced of what is going on. This is why you need to regularly meet with the people and interface with them to give them feedback and continue to get their buy-in. Continuous awareness raising is also important, as we might appreciate the information we have but the people may not know about it. That is why we are embarking on documentation and information sharing.
In terms of successes, seeing passionate stakeholders who are engaged is encouraging. There was a wetland that, by March 2014, was very degraded and in a few months things have improved — the place has been restored. The conservation fund is another key success, as most community members don’t have access to credit. Getting the Government, private sector and CSOs to meet and sit together and discuss and do something together — we consider this a success."