Champions of Sustainability

In an era of climate change, youth in Uganda and across East Africa take the lead to build resilient communities

In his 30 years of farming, William Chelengat, a local farmer in Kapchorwa district of Uganda, had never been late planting maize like in the last three years.

He was not able to plant and harvest maize at the right time in the last three years because of delayed rains. And when rains did finally come, they fell too hard and too fast for him to plant. 

These days it never rains. And when it eventually rains, it sometimes falls too much, making crops fail to germinate.
William Chelengat - Farmer in Kapchorwa district of Uganda

The consequences of the global warming climate are being felt world over, but its impacts are hitting hardest on some of the poorest regions of the world, where economies are largely dependent on natural resources and traditional weather cycles.

In East Africa - Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, Burundi and South Sudan - temperatures have risen by about 1.3 degrees Celsius since 1960 and are expected to rise by another 1.8 to 4.3 degrees by 2080 to 2099, according to the United Nations Development Programme. Average rainfall will increase overall but at the same time with unpredictable rains, an increase in intense storms and more drought.

Above-average rainfall in the past year has caused Lake Victoria, the biggest inland water body on the continent and the source of River Nile, to burst its shoreline - with water levels the highest since 1964. The flooding has submerged many beaches, landing sites, and homes, displacing more than 200,000 people in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania.

Human induced climate change effects on temperature. Source: Reliefweb

Human induced climate change effects on temperature. Source: Reliefweb

These changes are hitting hardest on the agriculture sector, the backbone of the eastern Africa economy, with maize and some bean yield declines predicted in 50-70 percent of the region, according to UNDP. Increased water scarcity, droughts, floods, landslides, loss of livestock, a higher disease burden and declines in biodiversity are already being experienced. The desert locust swarm that began last year in Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia has "unprecedented" effects on food security for the entire region, according to the FAO.

Upstream Storage and Purchasing Power Parity of the Nile Basin countries

This map shows the water storage capacity of the Nile River basin countries. Especially in upstream countries such as the East Africa nations, a higher storage capacity is associated with more flood control, irrigation, and domestic water supply. Data from the UN Biodiversity Lab.

While countries in this region have not been a major contributor to the rise in atmospheric carbon emissions that are driving climate change, unsustainable practices such as widespread deforestation, reclamation of swamps and use of unclean energy sources are destroying natural resources that help the region guard against the worst of the climate impacts. 

Charcoal consumption in Uganda from 1995-2006

The situation can seem dire. But in Uganda and across East Africa, many groups are using the changing environment as an opportunity to incubate innovations - not only to adapt to climate changes, but also to holistically improve livelihoods, health and well-being of their communities, with an eye toward ensuring sustainability for the uncertain future.

Journalists in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda highlight various grassroots efforts to adapt to #ClimateChange in East Africa.

Journalists in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda highlight various grassroots efforts to adapt to #ClimateChange in East Africa.

Such innovations are being driven primarily by youth, the largest and highest growing demographic group across the African continent. This group is the most educated and innovative of any age bracket but struggles with high unemployment and lack of access to resources.

Still, from a small scale to broader, their initiatives are driving change, and bringing hope.

Journalist Melanie Aanyu at the Sebei youths biogas project which is helping fight climate change

Journalist Melanie Aanyu at the Sebei youths biogas project which is helping fight climate change

Transforming human waste into solid fuel

In Eastern Uganda, a Sebei youth biogas project is using solar energy to transform human and livestock waste into clean and efficient cooking fuel.

The 15-million Ugandan shilling ($4,166 USD) project, dubbed “Pick It Clean,” provides locally made portable toilets called “Blue Boxes” to homes that lack proper sanitation in the Sebei region of eastern Uganda. The group also gives livestock owners garbage bags for collecting dung.

The 10-member group consists of seven females and three males, most of them unemployed university graduates of agriculture and engineering courses.

The organization collects human and livestock waste and mixes it with charcoal powder and waste plant material from nearby flower farms. Solar technology heats the mixture to an extremely high temperature, sterilizing it and making it safe for use. The mixture is moulded into small round balls called briquettes that people can buy for cooking at home.

Joan Chemusto, the group’s team leader, believes their project - the first of its kind in the Sebei sub-region - will help combat the “rampant cutting of trees for charcoal and firewood” in the area. 

Comparison of Ugandan households with the fuel types used per day. Source: National Charcoal Survey for Uganda 2015.

Comparison of Ugandan households with the fuel types used per day. Source: National Charcoal Survey for Uganda 2015.

2017 records from the Uganda National Forestry Authority indicate that the people of the Sebei region cut down 38% of the region’s trees and green cover on a monthly basis, mainly through collecting firewood and clearing land for farming.

Bundles of firewood packed in Ariwa village in Rhino refugee camp.

Bundles of firewood packed in Ariwa village in Rhino refugee camp.

Partly to blame is Uganda's booming population, which is growing at a rate of about 3.6 percent per annum. Over the last three decades, this growth in human population and corresponding increase in demand for forest products for domestic and industrial use, expansion of agricultural land, illegal settlements and weak forest management capacity have led to rampant deforestation in the country.

In the late 1980s, about 75,000 square kilometers (31.7 percent) out of 236,040 square kilometers of total land in the country consisted of forest and woodland. But today, forests and woodlands cover only makes up about 15.2 percent of Uganda’s land surface.

Forest cover loss has now increased to an estimated 200,000 hectares annually in the country, according to 2017 research conducted by Africa Natural Resources Institute. 

Percentage of forest covering Uganda between 1990 and 2015. Source: State of Uganda Forestry 2015.

Percentage of forest covering Uganda between 1990 and 2015. Source: State of Uganda Forestry 2015.

Toilets that improve health, produce clean energy

Along with reducing deforestation, the Sebei youth project is also producing crop fertilizers and improving hygiene in the area. The group has so far provided 60 toilets to homes housing up to 350 people. The locally made portable toilets require no fixed plumbing and are serviced twice a week. 

To use the Blue Boxes, one has to subscribe on a monthly or preferably annual basis, with a monthly cost of 10,800 shillings (US$3) and annual fee of 129,600 shillings (US$36).

The waste collected in the toilet then forms part of the raw material that goes into producing the briquettes.

Norah Chelengat, a mother of five children from Kapchorwa Municipality, has been using a Blue Box toilet at her home and cooking with Pick It Clean briquettes for a year.

The fact that the toilet is portable means that it can be used in any room of the house. So you don’t have to worry about getting outside to use the toilet.
Norah Chelengat - Mother from Kapchorwa

Chelengat uses half a kilo of briquettes to cook a meal. 

Although at 900 shillings ($0.25) per kilo they cost a little more than she would pay for ordinary charcoal, she says they burn for longer - up to four hours.

“You don’t keep adding fuel when cooking, given that it can last for a long time. They produce no smoke too,” Chelengat said. 

Neima Gaba, resident of Ariwa village, using charcoal briquettes for cooking

Neima Gaba resident of Ariwa village using charcoal briquettes for cooking.

According to Chemusto, the long burn time of the company’s briquettes saves its users “10 to 15 percent per month” on fuel costs.

Dr. Beatrice Aguti of Mbale Regional Referral Hospital said the project could also help address the problem of open defecation and subsequently promote health standards. 

She said many families in the region have little access to modern toilets, stating that the leading cause of death for children in the region is diarrhea, a problem exacerbated by poor sanitation. 

Neima Gaba says charcoal briquettes take longer to burn compared to firewood.

Neima Gaba says charcoal briquettes take longer to burn compared to firewood.

Financial constraints to scale up

Although communities across the country could benefit from such a project, the team says they currently do not have capacity to broaden their innovation.

They are limited by a lack of enough money to grow their plant to a bigger stage and also register with the Electricity Regulatory Authority.

Isaac Kiprotich, the team’s head of programs, said they also require further training on advanced renewable energy production and management, since they lack the expertise to develop new ideas.

The main limitation we’ve faced since inception of this project in 2017 has been the cost of re-skilling our talent. We would love to acquire potentially advanced skills in regards to operating renewable off-grid power, but we’ve got no money for it.
Isaac Kiprotich - "Pick it Clean" Head of Programs

Government promises some support 

Irene Muloni, the former minister for energy and minerals who is now a senior presidential advisor to Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, asked the team to formalize their plea for government support so that a technical team could be assigned to oversee their activities and inform the inline ministries and entities on their progress. 

“The ruling government is exceedingly committed to encouraging and supporting community-driven innovations such as this one,” she said. 

Sam Cheptoris, the minister of water and environment, said his office will consider any necessary support the group may require.

Empowering women refugees through clean and efficient cooking fuel

Hundreds of kilometres from Sebei region, a group of South Sudanese refugee women in Arua District, northern Uganda, is mitigating effects of climate change through producing energy-efficient cooking fuel. 

Just like the Sebei youth group, the South Sudanese refugee women are manufacturing briquettes out of human waste to serve as an alternative to wood fuel and charcoal.

Their Loketa women group that started in 2018 is one of five groups in the refugee settlements of Rhino Camp, Imvepi, Omugo and Bidibidi that benefited from skills training funded by Oxfam on making charcoal briquettes.

Their initial training focused on making charcoal briquettes out of solid waste generated from crop residues.  

However, the women adopted new skills of turning human waste into charcoal briquettes after attending a training in Kenya.

Tabu Regina, the secretary of the Loketa women’s group in Ariwa village of the Rhino Camp settlement said the group received initial support from Oxfam to make briquettes using crop residues and human waste.

The briquettes are made out of sorghum stalk, simsim stalk, bean stems and banana leaves. 

“We carbonize the residues; once it turns black, it is crushed with machines and mixed with porridge made out of cassava flour to form briquettes,” Tabu said.

Rashid Mawejje, a public health promoter working with Oxfam, said the organization spent over 373 million shillings ($102,191 USD) in training, procuring the equipment and providing the necessary support to the refugee women.

Deforestation in refugee settlements

Uganda hosts one of the world’s largest refugee populations, with almost 1.4 million refugees as of the end of 2019. The majority come from South Sudan, where a decades-long civil conflict has caused thousands to flee into northern Uganda. 

While Uganda has one of the world’s most generous refugee policies - allowing asylum seekers the rights to work and move freely, and often providing them with plots of land to enable them to farm and contribute to the local economy - the influx of people has also led to a strain on natural resources. 

Between 2015 and 2018, deforestation in northern Uganda’s refugee settlements became rampant due to increased use of trees for firewood, building poles, brick making, and charcoal and timber production. 

This caused a loss of 522,255.76 tons of woody biomass within a period of just 3 years.  

Given that the total biomass available in the settlements excluding the buffer is 696,018.26 tons, if the refugees were to rely only on the trees within the settlements, the remaining forest would last for only 4 years. 

Change in forest cover in Uganda between 1990 and 2015. Source: State of Uganda Forestry 2015.

Change in forest cover in Uganda between 1990 and 2015. Source: State of Uganda Forestry 2015.

Improving livelihoods, saving trees, women and girls

Making charcoal briquettes is providing jobs to refugee women and youth in the settlements. 

The Loketa women's group has 40 members who are self-employed through briquette-making. The women make more than 300 briquettes in a day and market the products within the settlements and other parts of the West Nile region.

According to Tabu, the profits realized from briquette sales help group members manage their home needs, pay school fees for their children and save the balance in their Village Savings and Loans Association.

Mary Ajonye, the group’s chairperson, said using clean charcoal briquettes helps control massive tree cutting and reduces daily expenses buying firewood and charcoal.

Ajonye said those who have scheduled their cooking well can prepare breakfast, lunch and even supper using the same briquette.

Neima Gaba, a refugee mother of one child, said when the briquettes were introduced, she “abandoned firewood” and now prefers the briquettes “that last longer in cooking than wood.”

Briquettes help her fellow women feel relaxed and be able to do other work while their food is cooking, she said.

Jenifer Cana, a P.6 pupil in Ariwa Primary School, sells food rations to buy firewood for cooking. A bundle of firewood used to cost her 3,500 shillings (about $1 USD), but the briquettes cost her just 1,000 shillings ($0.27 USD), she said.

The women have plans to scale up. Oxfam has secured a place at Yoro base camp to construct a modern processing plant for human waste to help provide materials for the women to make more briquettes.

The plant will be constructed alongside a chess pool emptier to collect fecal matter from different institutions to supply the plant.

Roda Selwa, Loketa women's group member, gives her views on charcoal briquettes.

Roda Selwa (Loketa women group member) gives her views on charcoal briquettes.

Mary Ajonye, chairperson of the Loketa women's group, displaying charcoal briquettes made using human waste.

Mary Ajonye (Chairperson Loketa Women group) displaying charcoal briquettes made using human waste.

Jenifer Cana, a P6 pupil, using firewood to cook beans.

Jenifer Cana P6 pupil using firewood to cook beans.

Planting trees to protect villages

Back in eastern Uganda, in Sebei’s neighbouring Gishu region, one brave man, Musa Mandu, ignored pleas from his wife and relatives not to quit his local government job to fight against climate change.   

Seven years ago, the former mechanic started a Village Savings and Credit Cooperative Organization dubbed Bubulo Environmental Conservation Management Association Project (BECOMAP) to conserve the environment in eastern Uganda’s Manafwa district and its neighboring areas on the slopes of Mount Elgon.

BECOMAP group signboard to their office premises.

BECOMAP group signboard to their office premises.

Group members make regular savings which they loan out to each other at low interest rates.

“In our area (Namutembi village), I wanted to ensure that people understood that prioritizing environment in whatever we do as locals all the way to policymaking is not only about protecting nature, but also ensuring that we lead better lives with financial stability,” Mandu said. 

A community solution against landslides 

Started in 2013, the project aimed at saving money amongst residents to be used for tree planting, restoration of river banks and community sensitization programs with the intent to mitigate flooding, soil erosion, water logging and landslides. 

Mandu and most of his group members are survivors of recent landslides and floods that have devastated the Mount Elgon sub-region in the past several years, especially the districts of Bududa, Manafwa, Sironkho and Bulambuli.

Districts in Uganda that are most affected by landslides and flooding.

Districts in Uganda that are most affected by landslides and flooding.

The region has a long history of landslides: Eleven million cubic meters of debris tumbled down the slopes of Mt. Elgon in the 1950s and early 1960s, depositing into rivers and streams. Thirty of these landslides dammed rivers, destroying bridges and roads when the dams broke.

But in recent years, landslides have increased in numbers and severity. Between 1997 and 2004, heavy rains left 48 people dead and ten thousand displaced and landless in the greater Manafwa area. In March 2010, a landslide in Nametsi village, Bududa District, the most severe ever recorded in Uganda, led to 100 people believed dead, more than 300 people missing and 85 homes destroyed in Nametsi.

Further landslides in 2018 killed at least 60 people, while 400 people went missing and property worth billions of shillings was swept away by the debris. Uganda Red Cross Society put the number of those affected in 2018 to 12,000 people in Bukalasi and Buwali sub-counties in Bududa. 

The impact of heavy rains and landslides in Uganda.

The impact of heavy rains and landslides in Uganda.

jAbnormal rainfall in recent years is a major cause of most of these landslides, according to the Uganda National Meteorological Authority. Most landslides occur on steep, concave slopes where water concentrates. In the mountainous Mount Elgon region, uncontrolled cutting down of trees and destruction of green vegetation has exposed the slopes and loosened the soil, contributing to the landslides.

Poor agricultural practices, including the destruction of riverbanks and streams, has also increased the worsening disasters. 

Two female group members speaking with reporter Javier in one of their man made forests planted to fight climate change.

Two female group members speaking with reporter Javier in one of their man made forests planted to fight climate change.

Worried about the rising threats, Mandu and 10 other residents of Namutembi cell-Bubwaya ward and Manafwa town council in Manafwa district founded BECOMAP in 2013 to save the environment – and the lives of the people in the region. 

Each of the 10 founding members made an initial contribution of either UGX 20,000 or 50,000 (about USD $5 - $13) and was also required to provide an acre of land where the group would plant 100 trees. 

Over 30,000 trees planted

Over the past 6 years, the organization has gradually grown to 72 registered members, with 20 percent youth and 30 percent women. The group has planted more than 30,000 trees. This project currently lies on a property of more than 50 acres of land, which is communally owned by the members.

BECOMAP sacco membership and level of impact.

BECOMAP sacco membership and level of impact.

The group mostly plants indigenous trees that were grown in the times of the African traditional society, such as the Mvule tree, alongside pine and eucalyptus trees. The indigenous tree roots possess better soil and water-holding capacity and are better integrated within crops.

The group says frequent natural disasters used to be a challenge in the area, but these have drastically reduced because of the forests. This is unlike the neighboring Bududa, Namisindwa and Butaleja districts where heavy rains frequently trigger deadly disasters.

Lydia Namukula standing next to elephant grass which is also planted by the group.

Lydia Namukula standing next to elephant grass which is also planted by the group.

Agro-forestry businesses support youth in school

Along with protecting the villages, the man-made forests have become a lucrative source of income generation activities for the community members. 

The group practices inter–cropping in their forests, growing cereal crops, vegetables such as cabbage, tomatoes and avocado, and fruits such as passion fruits and mangos for both commercial and home consumption purposes. 

Members also sell some trees for timber and have beehives within the forests to collect and sell honey.

On average, the group is able to generate UGX 1M – 1.5M (about USD $270 - $405) every week from honey, their top selling product.

John Wabuna, a local youth, said most young people like him in the community are now able to pay for school fees using funds generated from sales of the agroforestry products.

There are more than 15 youth who have officially registered as BECOMAP members, while 50 other youth are participating in the campaign.

How do trees fight climate change?

Trees remove carbon dioxide (CO2), a heat-trapping (“greenhouse”) gas from the air which they store in their trucks and in soil. Trees also discharge oxygen into the atmosphere.

Fredrick Jordan Oluka, a climate change expert and geologist, explained that trees are extremely significant in fighting climate change.

“Communities with well-shaded neighborhoods can be up to 6–10°F cooler than communities without trees, reducing the heat-island effect and reducing energy needs,” Oluka said.

Motorists plying the shaded rural roads planted by the Bubulo climate change group.

Motorists plying the shaded rural roads planted by the Bubulo climate change group.

Government officials praise the model

John Baptist Nambeshe, a Member of Parliament representing the people of Manjiya County in Bududa district, praised BECOMAP’s tree planting model. 

With inspirations from this group, I am thinking of introducing a policy that supports the mass planting of trees across the country. But we need to be careful on which species of trees; it must be quality trees, because some trees cannot withstand the difficult conditions of growing up in mountainous areas.
John Baptist Nambeshe - Member of Parliament Manjiya county

If Nambeshe’s move registers success, then Uganda may join the neighboring Rwanda and Kenya that have passed laws requiring every citizen who owns a house to at least plant a given number of trees. 

“Politicians and top businessmen in the region should join this drive,” said Rhoda Nyariibi, the environment officer for Mbarara municipality.

Planting trees to restore environment in 6 Kenyan counties

In Kenya, Scope Intervention, a youth-led organization founded in 2012 by a 35-year-old sociology graduate, Kenfrey Katui, is promoting community-based environmental conservation initiatives: fighting climate change, improving communities’ resilience to climate change, fighting poverty and empowering communities to be drivers of their own destiny.

Growing up in the slopes of Kerio River in Elgeyo-Marakwet County, one of the 47 counties in Kenya, Katui knew that what was laying ahead was a daunting task, something he was ready to face.

Climate change is affecting the rainfall amounts and seasons in Kenya, with droughts becoming more frequent, said Prof. Shem Wandiga, climate change expert and a lecturer at the University of Nairobi.

“Deforestation of Kenya’s water towers has had negative effects on the economy because the country depends directly on the ecosystem,” Wandiga added.

With his new organization, Katui set out to address some of these environmental challenges in five neighboring counties in western Kenya: Nakuru, Baringo, Elgeyo Marakwet, Uasin Gishu, Narok and Nandi.  

Scope Intervention works at the community level to fight climate change and promote socioeconomic development.

“We employ human rights and responsibilities approach in building a safe and sustainable planet - a model that recognizes responsibilities the local communities have towards their environment, while promoting protection of human rights and justice,” Katui said.

Some of the adaptation solutions his organization has initiated include adopting 100 hectares of Mau Forest for rehabilitation. This effort has saved the forest from depletion.

Mau Forest is the largest remaining indigenous forest in Kenya, covering over 400,000 hectares in southwestern Kenya, and is the largest of the country's five water towers as well as the largest closed-canopy forest ecosystem. The complex forms part of the upper water catchment area and it is the catchment source for Lake Victoria and the White Nile. It is also the source of numerous rivers, which carry Mau's waters throughout western Kenya from Lake Turkana in the north to Lake Natron in the south.

The forest provides invaluable ecological services, in terms of river flow regulation, flood mitigation, water storage, recharge of groundwater, reduced soil erosion and siltation, water purification and protection of biodiversity.

So far, Katui’s organization has planted over 100,000 trees, both indigenous and exotic species, within the 100 adopted hectares. Scope Intervention is also building the capacity of the local community in sustainable forest management and helping them adopt alternative sources of livelihoods that will promote the conservation of the forest.

Mr. Kenfrey Katui, the founder of Scope Intervention, watering a seedling just after planting

Mr. Kenfrey Katui, the founder of Scope Intervention, watering a seedling just after planting

Planting fruit trees

‘Fruit and Tree Project’ is another innovative initiative being implemented by Scope Intervention in the area. It is designed to improve the state of environment while improving their livelihoods and nutrition.

The project is being implemented through schools in Baringo County, one of the counties highly vulnerable to effects of climate change. It involves donation of fruit tree seedlings for establishment of fruit tree farms in the schools and enhancing the capacity of school-going children to initiate and promote environmental conservation initiatives in their schools and homes.

Schoolchildren take part in tree planting as part of the partnership between Scope Intervention and schools in Baringo County

Schoolchildren take part in tree planting as part of the partnership between Scope Intervention and schools in Baringo County

Through Scope Climate Leadership Program, according to John Tarus, the head of Lolotorok Primary School, the organization has empowered schoolchildren and communities with the necessary skills to help in the fight against climate change.

Saving swamps

In Uganda’s eastern sub-region of Teso, an aerial view of the zone adjacent to Awoja tributary looks like a meandering green astro-turf carpet. It runs for miles-on-end from Lake Kyoga in the southwest to lakes Bisina and Opeta, which sits astride one of Uganda’s most extensive wetland systems, in the northeast.

However, a closer look at the area adjacent to Awoja tributary shows the green cover is not natural. Instead, the banks of almost all of the 11,000 kilometres of the water body are covered by large strips of rice being grown on previously unblemished swamps.

One of the extended rice fields

One of the extended rice fields

The tributary, which provides piped water for industrial and domestic use in all the 16 districts and towns of Teso sub-region, faces a looming environmental disaster resulting from encroachment by its surrounding communities combined with the effects of climate change.

In the past, the river system had huge flash floods every year, of which the waters were drained by the swamps. Those floods restricted locals to cultivating their crops on the uplands, leaving the swamps untouched. But the changes in climate, which are resulting in longer dry spells, have forced locals to encroach on the wetlands.

Farmer Ekoyu planting rice in his field.

Farmer Ekoyu planting rice in his field.

Chrispus Okello, a farmer who cultivates crops in the swamps near Kagwara landing site in Serere district, said he has witnessed the drying up of major parts of the swamp.

There used to be water wells here that contained water even during the longest dry seasons ever. But now, if it doesn’t rain heavily, we have to suffer especially with our animals since we have to go long miles to look for water.
Chrispus Okello - Farmer

Still, Okello says he will continue to cultivate on the wetlands because he has no control over the elements that have made farming in other parts of his community very difficult.

“Since I was a young man, I used to hear that cultivating in swamps is bad for the environment. But where else can rice be grown?” he asked.

Geoffrey Ekoyu - Farmer talking about his experiences

Uganda is losing wetlands at an alarming rate, according to the Commissioner for the Wetlands Management Department in the Ministry of Water and Environment, Collins Oloya. 

In 1994, when the first wetland inventory and assessment was done, Oloya said 15.6 percent of Uganda’s land surface was covered in permanent and seasonal wetlands. But in the last 25 years, the country has lost 44 percent of its wetlands, and up to 2.5 percent more are lost every year.

The State of Environment Report for 2018 indicates that the major catchment areas in the country have already lost 70 percent of their wetlands due to human intervention such as industrial development and farming within the swamps.

Wetlands are recognized by the United National Framework on Climate Change as a way to reduce climate change because of the huge volumes of carbon dioxide they store. This prevents carbon from being released into the atmosphere, which is the main cause of the planet’s warming.

Wetlands can also help Ugandans deal with the changing climate. They act as natural sponges that absorb and store excess rainwater, which reduces flooding on inhabited land, Okurut said. Later, during the dry season, the wetlands release the stored water, thereby delaying the onset of drought and water shortages.

Dr. Tom Okurut, Executive Director NEMA Uganda.

Restoring degraded wetlands through solar-powered drip irrigation

In Pallisa district in the Teso region, farmers used to grow crops within the Limoto wetland. But this caused the natural water source to dry up - and farmers to go hungry. 

Today, these farmers are earning hundreds of dollars more every week through a new solar-powered drip irrigation project that allows them to cultivate year-round in lands outside of the wetland. 

The swamp has also regenerated, providing a crucial water source to the communities around.

Drip-powered irrigation project supports farmers while conserving the wetlands in Pallisa, Uganda

Youth planting trees in schools, churches

Also in the Teso region, a youth group dubbed Teso At Heart (TAH), is leading the fight back against swamp reclamation, deforestation and overall degradation of their environment while reversing climate change. 

Isaac Olupot, the founder and President of Teso At Heart (TAH) said the organization comprised of young people from Teso region launched a tree-planting initiative dubbed “Teso Go Green” aimed at fostering communities across the sub-region to plant more trees. 

“Initially at Teso At Heart, we used to hold concerts such as cultural music shows to promote environment conservation, but I realized that there was a problem that needed a serious intervention,” said Olupot.

The project idea has caught the attention of not only the young generation of the community, but has also had an impact across all age groups.

In order to ensure a smooth implementation and positive welcome from the community, the project involves higher institutions of learning, churches and schools in the area. 

Through this approach, Olupot said his organization mobilizes young people from the sub-region who are studying in various universities across the country. They are enrolled for brief capacity building seminars led by environment and forestry specialists on the effects of climate change and the value of planting trees as one of the measures to fight the vice. 

“After such trainings, these teams are sent to different localities where they come from to spread the message. They do this especially during holidays,” Olupot said.

Promoting trees to worshippers

Moses Opio, a pastor for Pentecostal Assemblies of God Church in Soroti district, said he maintains a nursery bed where worshipers can take trees to plant at their respective homes at a small fee.

“There are people who still believe that climate change can be solved by praying to God without putting any efforts. As church leaders, we encourage them that as much as we pray to God for rain, we should also plant trees,” Opio said.

“For purposes of sustainability of the project, we charge them only 200 Ug Shs per seedling,” Opio said.

At Ngora High School, in Ngora district, students are managing large portions of fields where they set tree nursery beds. Students maintain the full responsibility to ensure the project’s sustainability.

“We look after our tree nursery beds in shifts. I personally come here during weekends and holiday times,” said James Olupot, a student in senior six, Ngora High School.

When tree seedlings are ready for transplanting, the students collectively take them to the communities.

Recently, they took 400 tree seedlings to Gweri Sub County, in Soroti district. The trees were planted in the sub-county land and some were distributed to the local farmers in the area.

Government’s efforts to save wetlands

The Commissioner for Wetlands Management at the Uganda Ministry of Water and Environment, Collins Oloya, said that his department is committed to ensuring that all wetlands are sustainably managed to maintain their integrity and provide alternative livelihoods to the surrounding communities.

The ministry’s strategies include marking and opening up wetland boundaries, carrying out wetland inventory and assessment, and conducting research to provide knowledge to local people on the functions of wetlands as well as developing wetland management plans owned and directed by communities.

“The wetland degradation rate in Uganda stands at 70 times the rate of their restoration. If the Government can provide 167 billion shillings ($45.4 million) for the next five years to begin with, about 10 percent of the degraded wetlands will be restored as per our NDPIII target,” said Oloya.
Collins Oloya - Commissioner for Wetlands Management, Uganda Ministry of Water and Environment

The department currently receives about 3.5 billion shillings ($951,000) for the wetland management in the entire country and an additional 10 billion ($2.7 million) annually from the Green Climate Fund for wetland restoration in 22 districts in southwestern and eastern Uganda. Currently, the local government at district levels in Uganda receives 1.29 billion shillings ($350,500) for wetlands and forest department activities each year. 

In Uganda's Bushenyi district, one of the wetlands projects funded by the Green Climate Fund is in the works to restore the natural swamp while pumping water to nearby farmers for year-round cultivation.

DROP BY DROP: Restored wetland in Bushenyi, Uganda to support year-round agriculture, fish farming

Rain-fed irrigation technologies to support small-scale farmers

Mohammed Mussa is a local farmer at Morogoro Region of Tanzania---for many years, the young and energetic man depended on rain-fed fields, growing tomatoes and carrots for sustaining his livelihood.

But today, the rains that have traditionally sustained Mussa’s crops aren’t coming as usual.  As climate change impacts hit hard, causing late arrival and shorter duration of the rainy seasons,  Mussa has had to drop the growth of tomatoes and carrots that for many years earned him a living.

“In the past we used to get good rains, the growing of tomatoes and carrots sustained. I harvested all year round, but now with the impact of climate change, I harvest fewer in each season,” Mussa said.

Like in other countries in the region, agriculture is the backbone of Tanzania’s economy. It provides a livelihood to more than three quarters of the population, mostly small-scale farmers. It accounts for 15 percent of national exports, and contributes 27.8 percent of Tanzania’s Gross Domestic Product.

The Food and Agriculture Organization FAO) and the International Programme for Technology and Research in Irrigation and Drainage (IPTRID) missions have found that lower-cost, more water-efficient irrigation technologies have the potential to greatly expand small-scale irrigation in East and Southern Africa and significantly improve food security and family incomes. 

Worldwide, irrigation boosts crop production 3-4 times that of rain-fed agriculture.

While Tanzanian farmers’ current use of irrigation technologies remains low, the Tanzanian government has rolled out an ambitious plan to adopt and establish small scale irrigation systems to boost crop production for small-scale farmers in rural areas of the country.

Mr. Haji, a farmer in his farm.

Mr. Haji, a farmer in his farm.

The National Irrigation Policy states that Tanzania needs to take advantage of utilising the identified irrigation potential area amounting to 29.4 million hectares for sustainable irrigation development.  

The Minister of Agriculture, Japhet Hasunga, said that model irrigation schemes will be developed across the country to show local farmers how they can adopt such technologies to improve their agricultural productivity.

“We will develop an irrigation scheme in each and every municipality to serve as a demonstration irrigation land for small scale farmers in the respective areas,” he said.

Mlimani farming areas for local farmers in Morogoro region Tanzania.

Mlimani farming areas for local farmers in Morogoro region Tanzania.

The ministry’s strategies include promoting small-scale irrigation through low cost water harvesting technology irrigation plans. Water harvesting technologies enable farmers to collect rainwater and utilize it in small-scale irrigation systems such as drip irrigation, where water is supplied slowly and directly to the roots of plants.

Such technologies are an option for smallholder farmers such as Mussa to improve and increase their production of traditional crops even when rains are unpredictable.

The ministry is also reviewing the National Irrigation Commission (NIRC) to create a new system that will facilitate the management of irrigation schemes at the district level.

This will entail recruiting irrigation officers at the district level and forming irrigation secretariats at a regional level to ensure efficiency of the schemes.

“The review will also lead to identification and utilization of irrigation potential areas for sustainable irrigation development in the country,” he said.  

The government is currently soliciting funds from donors and development partners to be able to implement the plans, Hasunga said.

Radical terrace cultivation to build a resilient watershed

In Uganda’s neighboring country of Rwanda, a local cooperative for young farmers called Abishyizehamwe is safeguarding the Nyabarongo river catchment through building terraces, promoting agro-forestry and planting trees especially along the river bank. 

Abishyizehamwe, which means ‘those who come together,’ was formed in 2015 to mobilize local farmers in southwestern Rwanda’s Nyamagabe district to retain soil and water that is carried away along Nyabarongo River.

“Through the project, we learnt a lot of improved farming techniques using various conservation practices,” said Alphonsine Mukangarambe, head of the organization, which targets 1.9 million farmers in the Nyabarongo River basin. 

Nyabarongo River

Nyabarongo River

The initiative targets the rural youth and young farmers, who are encouraged to take advantage of terrace farming as a move to reduce soil loss through erosion. Terraces look like large flat steps on a mountain, allowing farmers to conserve soil and plant more effectively even on steep slopes. In Rwanda, the “land of a thousand hills,” such measures are crucial.

Nyabarongo River, which is part of the upper headwaters of the Nile River, flows northward for 85 kilometers (53 miles), and forms the border between the western and southern provinces of Rwanda. Its catchment is known as the water tower of Rwanda, taking up 3,348 square kilometers and serving as the source of tributaries including the rivers of Mwogo, Rukarara River, Mbirurume, Mashiga River, Kiryango River, Munzanga, Miguramo and Satinsyi.

The water tower of Rwanda

The water tower of Rwanda

The Nyabarongo River catchment project jointly funded by the Rwanda government and other stakeholders was introduced in 2010 after Rwanda ratified the Nile Basin Co-operative Framework Agreement to ensure enough water for agricultural irrigation projects, water processing industries and suppliers, hydropower projects and other projects that need water use permits. 

Play to see the Nyabarongo river catchment change over the years

It is the first project on landscape restoration and protection of the hydropower plant introduced in Rwanda, according to Ebel Smidt, Team Leader at Water for Growth Rwanda.

The project is targeting youth in various economic activities such as farming in districts across the country including Muhanga, Ngororero, Ruhango, Nyamagabe, and Gakenke to protect the Nyabarongo watershed by reducing soil erosion and improving water quality.

As of August 2019, about 138,452 hectares of the upper Nyabarongo River catchment area had been maintained by landowners, according to official estimates.

About 912 hectares have been rehabilitated so far in Muhanga (central) and Ngororero (west) districts through applying terraces, agro-forestry and afforestation as well as promoting sustainable mining, according to official reports. 

Hundreds of young farmers in Nyamagabe have been able to grow major productive crops including cassava, potatoes, sweet potatoes, maize and beans. According to Mukangarambe, these efforts have led to changes in how young farmers “cultivate their land on steep slopes to prevent erosion.” He said communities engaged in this project have been able to access “food and secure incomes in a sustainable manner.”

The head of Integrated Rain Water Management at the Rwanda Natural Resources Authority, Francois Xavier Tetero, explained that by making concrete catchment plans involving youth among local farming community, “Rwanda’s water resources” are being “utilized efficiently and effectively for the future generations.”

Youth as the key toward a sustainable future

The economies and wellbeing of the people of Uganda along with the rest of East Africa are tightly bound to climate. 

Human-driven climate change in the coming century has the potential to halt or reverse the development trajectory of Uganda and all of the region.

In this critical era, positive youth-led and youth-targeted initiatives must serve as examples to be developed and expanded to combat climate change and help people adapt to its worst effects, according to conservation experts.

“Politicians and top businessmen must join this fight,” said Rhoda Nyariibi, a Ugandan environmentalist. “You can’t savage a whole planet and its people, enslave them to mine it, drill and till it and hope to build a lasting global economy on that. Your wealthy planet will die, wither, erode and collapse.”

But the time to act is now, and the youth and people on the frontlines will be the ones to lead the change, according to Musa Mandu, the founder of the BECOMAP tree planting project in Manafwa, Uganda.

“I think now everyone has seen how seasons are changing, with the heat levels skyrocketing and water levels drastically reducing,” he said. “It means we need to act now. We do not necessarily need to wait for government intervention.”