Gap in policies enforcement encourages farmers to make huge money from Gulu town wetland.
Ismail Zandia, is one of the many farmers from Mbale district cultivating cabbages inside Pece channel which stretches from the western to eastern part of Gulu town.
The 25-year-old says he moved to grow vegetables in Pece channel after experiencing huge losses in ferrying perishable vegetables from Eastern Uganda to the markets in Gulu Town.
Since 2017 when he descended on Pece channel, Zandia boasts of dramatic increment in income.
“I started with just half an acre of land in Holy Rosary Parish in Laroo Division in Gulu Municipality which I hired at between Uganda 30,000 and 100,000 shillings from locals living around the wetland. From these plots, I earned some “good millions of shillings” he said with unwillingness to mention the exact figure.
Zandia is now a proud owner of 10 plots of land covered with pale green cabbages which are nearly ready for sale.
Massa Esao, another farmer from Mbale district found land inside the Wetland in exchange for mentorship of its owner in vegetable farming.
He previously supplied sacks of sweet Bugoya bananas and onions cultivated in Mbale before moving to amass wealth in Pece Channel, like his fellow farmer.
He confesses of earning an average of Uganda 10.5 million shillings annually from the plots they shaped in form of terraces on the river banks.
Zandia revealed that more than 50 farmers including both the locals and majority from Eastern are cultivating on the wetland.
The administrative section of Gulu district falls to the North of Pece Channel while the business centre lies to the South of the channel whose source is in Bar Dege Division, West of the town.
It is the major drainage channel for run-off water from the rusty roofs of the old town buildings – the channel is also home to the town’s lagoon and Laroo Central Forest Reserve, the last surviving green belt.
With such massive influx of horticulturalists, Pece wetland ecosystem is undergoing massive degradation by producers of cabbages, onions and tomatoes. The entire length of the water channel over 10 Kilometers from Kony Paco ward in Laroo Division to Aywee Village in Pece Division is covered in plots of different vegetables.
TND News observed that the farming activities are taking place in the heart of the seasonal stream. The practices have intensified over the last two years by vegetable growers from Eastern Uganda districts of Mbale and Kapchorwa, with others coming from Masindi district.
Such pressure from the farming activities is forcing the lagoon to discharge sewerage and sludge onto the vegetable farms, something residents fear might negatively impact the health of consumers in Gulu town and neighboring districts.
The landscape is covered in small holdings of different vegetable varieties from Kony Paco to as far as Aywee in Pece, estimated to be more than 10 kilometers.
A recent interview with the farmers confirmed that they struggle for days to filter the sludge from the channel water they draw for irrigating their crops. And when the channel bursts its bank, the story is scary for vegetable consumers, especially those in Gulu town.
Zandia explained that the clearing of the vegetation cover of the wetland has exposed the water ways to the flash floods so much that sewerage in the Lagoon get discharged onto growing vegetable farms.
The problem is compounded by sewer burst from the old pipes delivering sewerage from the town to the lagoon. And when such a disaster strikes, the farmers must spend at least two weeks sprinkling their crops with clean water from the channel to undo the damage the sewerage has had on the crops.
And this comes with increased used of insecticides. The farmers are ignorant of the effect of sewerage on their crops.
The farmers say the menace of the sewer burst is forcing farmers to heavily descend on the wetland during the dry season between November and February as well as around July.
Around these times, just like now, vegetable farms cover all the areas around the lagoon, stretching many kilometers downstream.
And the produce ends up in major markets in the town including Gulu main market, Cereleno market, Laroo, Wii Got and those in the various Divisions in the Municipality. Some of them are transported to Adjumani district and other neighbouring towns.
The encroachment situation.
The vegetable farmers divert water from the main channel into their plots to nourish their vegetables. TND News witnessed at least eight farmers blocking the main water flow in the channel for water to reach their plots.
They only release the water when they have got enough. This has resulted into heavy siltation of the channel and disruption of the normal flow of water with pressure from the use of chemicals worsening the burden.
Zandia reveals the water level in the wetland has been on steady decline with increasing numbers of vegetable farmers entering the wetland basin.
He recalls that the wetland had lots of water and deep loam soil on its banks.
Today, the banks of the channel have been drained into farmland with about 50 farmers only in Holy Rosary sub ward who are cultivating cabbages, tomatoes and green vegetables in the heart of the wetland. Flash floods from Gulu Town have pushed some of the fertile soil underneath the Papyrus vegetation located several kilometers downstream.
Degraded wetland as a deterrent against crimes.
Mrs Joyce Oryem, the Holy Rosary Village LC1 chairperson says farming in the Wetland has disrupted the habitat of some critical flora and fauna species.
She says it has become extremely different to see the different species of River birds which used to nest or breed inside the wetland following the increased rate of degradation of the wetland.
Oryem says local leaders encouraged farming activities in the wetland as a counter measure for criminal activities in the area.
Oryem says they now regret envisioning the wetland as a source of employment for the youth and want to regulate the activities.
“Criminals were using the wetland as their hideouts from where we used to recover stolen items such as mattresses, radio sets, dead bodies and aborted human fetuses. This prompted local leaders to parcel the Wetland into smaller manageable plots for the young people to cultivate,” she stated.
Pece channel is not the only wetland facing degradation in Gulu town. In Pece division, the Channel of Aywee stream has also been encroached on by influx of the horticulturalists.
Residents there say the channel which provided them with water for domestic purposes is not the same again today as the farmers cultivate vegetables along its pathway.
Kelly Komakech, the chairman of Pece division blames the degradation on the division’s Environment Inspector and the village leaders who he accuses of neglecting their responsibilities of protecting the delicate wetland.
Upstream in Layibi Division, the channel is known as Kirombe Water way. It is a wetland of bustling farming activities for vegetable farmers in the area.
Alfred Oluba, the Layibi Division chairperson attributes the degradation to rural-urban settlement which happened during the peak of conflict led by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in the district which forced displaced persons to seek refuge inside the wetland.
“During the conflict, many people settled in Kirombe village. The need for food forced them to engage in vegetable farming inside the wetlands while others erected houses in its middle,” Oluba said.
Formerly, the wetland was a major water reservoir flowing throughout the year from its source in Kirombe across the railway line on Gulu – Kampala highway before joining Pece channel at Aywee village.
Today, the channel is a thin seasonal river whose bank is filled with gardens of yams, sugarcane, sweet potatoes, maize, cabbages and green peas.
Impact of pesticides.
Pesticides used in controlling pests on the crops are having a serious impact on aquatic lives. Residents say they can no longer find natural fish which they used to harvest from the wetlands outside the areas of the lagoon.
Some of the chemicals being used include Dudu Cypher, Rocket and Decis. It is unclear how they impact existence of aquatic lives in the area.
Geoffrey Anywar, the Principal Agricultural Engineer of Gulu district says poor use of chemicals is harmful to the soil microorganisms responsible for soil formation and fertility. He says if poorly used around water, some of the pesticides are known to cause water contamination. The contamination can be hazardous for aquatic lives.
Desmond Anywar, the Refugee Law Project Environment Officer says if the farmers are allowed to farm in the wetland unchecked, the wetland risks developing hazardous peats which will prevent oxygen circulation in the wetland. It will then start emitting Green House Gas known as Methane, the second agent of global warming after Carbondioxide gas.
Peats are partially decayed organic matters consisting primarily of plant materials in wetlands and swamps. In contacts with water, they prevent air circulation required for the survival of aquatic lives.
Arthur Owor, the CEO of the Center for African Research says they intend to launch a campaign to protect the wetland from degradation. He says they intend to move to Parliament to petition the legislature to protect the wetland.
“We are going to petition the speaker of Parliament in early February this year to highlight some of the grave environmental crimes taking place including devastation and degradation of wetlands in the heart of town center of Gulu municipality”.
Owor is appealing to organizations with environment components to scale up their activities in fighting environmental injustices taking place in the region. He says silence will only worsen the already bad situation.
Intervention of National Forestry Authority.
The National Forestry Authority (NFA) has given the farmers up to June 2019 to integrate fruit trees into the enterprises they are engaged in cultivating to try and control soil erosion. They believe that the measure will conserve the wetland from complete breakdown.
They have so far recommended the introduction of bananas, Avocado, Eucalyptus trees, mangoes, paw paws as well as pine trees alongside the usual green peas, cabbages, tomatoes and beans. The farmers say they are preparing to implement the ultimatum of the National Forestry Authority (NFA).
The Aswa region Sector Manager of National Forestry Authority, Reuben Arinitwe says they had asked the farmers to vacate the wetland by January 2019 to allow the authority undertakes some restoration measures in the area.
“We intend to plant indigenous trees such as Mahogany and Musisi. We don’t think Eucalyptus is good enough for the degraded wetland,” Arinitwe said, adding that the degradation has also extended to the National Forestry Authority areas outside the wetland.
Arinaitwe said with such heavy degradation, the spacing of the new trees will have to be enhanced for the trees to do well. “We shall plant the trees 10 meters from each other to allow them regenerate naturally,” he explained.
While the National Environment Management Act restricts human activities in wetlands in the Country, enforcement remains a major challenge for many authorities in the country.
Section 36 of the Act says no person shall (a) reclaim or drain any wetland; (b) erect, construct, place, alter, extend, remove or demolish any structure that is fixed in, on, under or over any wetland; (c) disturb any wetland by drilling or tunneling in a manner that has or is likely to have an adverse effect on the wetland.
It also prohibits (d) deposition in, on or under any wetland any substance in a manner that has or is likely to have an adverse effect on the wetland; as well as (e) destroying, damaging or disturbing any wetland in a manner that has or is likely to have an adverse effect on any plant or animal or its habitat amongst others.
The act requires that any person who intends to introduce or plant any exotic or introduced plant or animal in a wetland, must do so with written approval from the authority given in consultation with the lead agency.
Gulu Municipal Council says it is facing severe social and policy challenges in enforcing the Act.
Michael Christopher Ocan, the Municipal Environment Officer told TND News that the Municipal Council lacks the necessary logistics for combating the human activities in the delicate ecosystem.
He says they require funds for transport and sensitization of communities alongside cooperation from area leaders.
Ocan says up to One Third of the available wetlands in the municipality have been degraded. He says unless the situation is reversed with immediate effect, the destruction of the town’s water catchment will worsen the water crisis experienced in 2016.
“The catchments insulate the town from harmful effects of Climate Change. They equally nourish the underground water system. So, without them, we expect flooding to disturb settlements near the degraded wetlands” Ocan added.
Ocan urged residents living near the affected wetlands in Limu, Holy Rosary, Aywee, Pawel and Go-Down to seek permission from Municipal authorities to sustainably utilize the wetlands.
According to Ocan, other dangerous activities choking the wetlands in Gulu town include human settlement, car washing businesses in which detergents are heavily used, illegal fish farming among others.
In 2017, the Ministry of Water and Environment halted the development of a 334 million shillings NUSAF Project in part of Pece Channel in Laroo division.
The Ministry accused Laroo Division Council of illegally approving the development in the heart of the wetland, some 50 meters from Gulu hospital mortuary.
The NUSAF Project had planned to turn the channel into a leisure park and a fish pond. It has already backfilled part of the water Channel with stone gravels and murrum before the Ministry of Water and Environment intervened to stop it for lacking an Environment Impact Assessment Report and NEMA License.
According to the Water Ministry, some people have started altering the demarcated boundary of the wetland inward in order to gain more farm lands along their banks.
Silvano Afai, the Northern Uganda Region Wetland Coordinator in the Ministry of Water and Environment says Pece channel has been the worst affected wetland.
He explained that the Ministry has been forced to code the boundary using Global Positioning Coordinates to beat the alterations, adding that those who engaged in the practice will be arrested and prosecuted.
According to Afai, government does not allocate resources to Municipalities for environmental protection. This he says has made it hard for municipalities who are struggling to raise revenue to regulate or protect wetlands within their areas.
This contemporary news website understands that municipalities only receive technical assistance from the Ministry of Water and Environment while district local councils benefit from conditional grants allocated to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources for wetland protection.
This is the primary reason why the Ministry of Water and Environment undertakes the demarcation of most Wetlands around the country.
In the case of Pece channel, the Ministry plans to work with Gulu Municipal Council to redraw the boundary to its original positions by replacing its markstones.
Pece Channel is historically known for acting as carbon sink for the Northern Uganda town for decades since the town was established in the 1960s.
It absorbs carbon emissions from the town alongside moderating her temperature for urban dwellers to get fresh and healthy breathes.
If nothing is done to regulate such activities on wetland, locals are afraid that Gulu town will soon experience massive flooding like in Bwaise, Mbale which usually affect transport networks, settlement, businesses and disease outbreak.
Environmentalists worry that without the stream, the town will not be the same again in terms of rainfall formation and water catchment for Oyitino Dams, from which the National Water and Sewerage Corporation treat and pump the town’s water supplies.
In 2108, Wetland Management Department under Ministry of Water and Environment reported that Uganda is losing 2.5 percent of it 8.5 percent coverage. The ministry also projected that the country will remain with only 1.6 percent wetland coverage by 2040.
This Special Report has been made possible with a grant from the Northern Uganda Media Club (NUMEC) with the generous Financial Support of the American Jewish World Service (AJWS).