By Rosa Malango
‘Urban wetlands, prized land, not wasteland’
Achieving sustainable development and providing dignified humanitarian assistance requires us to place people and the planet at the center of our work. We all have a responsibility through our shared humanity to protect our environment and improve the quality of life of all. Uganda has the opportunity to pursue a green growth strategy as it pursues its development aspirations.
Do you want fresh and clean air in Kampala, Mbarara, Mbale or any town in Uganda? Protect its wetlands. Wetlands are a natural sponge that cleans rain absorbing, filtering and storing rain water before it reaches bigger water bodies like lakes and rivers.
Despite their importance, it’s estimated that at least 64% of the world’s wetlands have disappeared since 1990. In Uganda, the wetlands area has reduced from 15.6% in 1994 to 10.9% in 2017 despite the fact that they are ecologically and economically important.
Every year on 2nd February, we celebrate, ‘World Wetlands Day’ to mark the adoption of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands and to reflect on the state of this great resource in each country. This year the global theme is ‘Wetlands for a Sustainable Urban Future,’ and the theme in Uganda is ‘Urban wetlands, prized land, not wasteland’. This year’s themes remind is of the importance of wetlands in urban areas.
As cities expand and demand for land increases, the tendency is to encroach on wetlands. They are degraded, filled in and built upon. In Kampala and Arua where the national commemorations will be hosted, urbanisation, industrialisation, the search for land for settling and farming by the urban poor has led to reclamation and degradation of wetlands. Some urban dwellers also view them as a garbage disposal point which contaminates the environment and affects the quality of our health and wellbeing.
When left intact or restored, urban wetlands make cities livable in many important ways. They reduce flooding, replenish drinking water, filter waste, provide urban green spaces and are a source of livelihoods as well as a habitat for several plants and animal species. As natural sponges, wetlands absorb flood waters during heavy rains and release it in the dry season, which helps communities cope with extreme weather events and protects them from disasters.
Urban wetlands are indeed prized land playing a vital role in making cities safe, resilient and sustainable. This is the aim of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 11 on sustainable cities and communities and 12 on responsible consumption.
In the rapidly growing Kampala urban center, Nakivubo swamp, for example, remains a buffer for Uganda’s capital city. The swamp covers some 550 hectares (1,360 acres), stretching from Kampala’s industrial heart through residential areas with around 100,000 households. A 2003 estimate put the value of its natural water treatment services at $US2 million (7.2billion shillings) per year.
Wetlands also filter the water that seeps into aquifers, replenishing the important water sources while the silt-rich soil and abundant plants in wetlands function as water filters, absorbing some harmful toxins and industrial waste. Urban wetlands also help treat sewage from households. This contributes to SDGs 13 on climate change, 14 on protecting life below water and 15 on protecting life on land.
Urban authorities face a practical dilemma of how to meet the increasing demand for land in cities while still preserving this important resource. If we are to attain sustainable development and inclusive economic growth, it remains important for authorities and business leaders to integrate wetland preservation into development and investment planning for cities, towns and districts. It makes environmental and economic sense.
Every citizen has a role to play in the achievement of the
Sustainable Development Goals, the national vision 2040 and the national development plan. Urban authorities, local councils, cultural and religious leaders, private sector leaders and civil society champions must ensure that policies and actions in Uganda help conserve urban wetlands and sustainable development. Uganda has rich heritage linked to its culture, people and environment. Responsible environment friendly development represent an opportunity for positive traditional values of respect and protection of the environment to be complemented by contemporary values outlined in the SDGs.
We have an opportunity to improve knowledge management on this important issue. I’m delighted that last year our partnership with the
government of Uganda in this area led United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the United Nations Environment Programme to support the development of Uganda’s first wetlands atlas in partnership with the Ministry of Water and Environment. We have supported the dissemination of the atlas online and in hard copy to members of Parliament, government, development partners and business leaders. It is my hope that the media will join us in disseminating this important information through your programs in English and local languages.
The Atlas details the location and current state of wetlands in Uganda. It also provides recommendations on how to restore and protect wetlands across the country. To implement its recommendations, last year 2017, UNDP and the Government signed a financing agreement for the eight year Green Climate Fund project that will focus on wetlands restoration and community resilience. This project is a response to the Presidential Initiative on Wetlands.
UNDP is also working with the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) to implement the Biodiversity Finance Initiative (BIOFIN) which aims to conserve biological resources by identifying cost effective ways of protecting biodiversity in Uganda. The Strengthening Climate information and Early Warning Systems (SCIEWS) project has supported the government to install modern digital information infrastructure for weather, climate and disaster management.
Since this day also marks the adoption of the Ramsar Wetlands Convention, I would like to congratulate Uganda for ratifying this convention and a host of other international agreements including the Convention on Biological Diversity, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention to Combat Desertification.
I urge the Government and Parliament to ensure that these legal frameworks are fully implemented at all levels to save this beautiful country from the high price it could have to pay if its environment is depleted while it pursues its development aspirations.
This wetlands day, let us avoid settling and farming in wetlands, dumping waste in them. Let us plant trees around them and educate our local communities on their importance. On behalf of the United Nations family, I reiterate our commitment to support Uganda as it pursues its socio-economic transformation.
Healthy wetlands will guarantee clean and environmentally safe urban centres for us, our children and generations to come. Together let’s eradicate poverty, reduce inequalities and ensure a sustainable approach to development. SDG 17 on Partnerships for the goals is key to the successful inclusive development of the Pearl of Africa.
The author is the United Nations Resident Coordinator/UNDP Resident Representative