This story was supported by a grant from InfoNile and Code for Africa.
By Leonce Muvuni
The Rwandan government is working to clear developments and ban all illegal activities in wetlands in a bid to restore the ecological characteristics of the country’ wetlands.
The move to clear areas designated as wetlands of all developments has paid off thanks to government efforts, despite financial shortfalls hampering the drive. The Ministry of Environment said the move seeks to ban all illegal activities in the wetlands and fill up uncovered exhausted mines.
“We have recently rewritten to all districts to launch the exercise of restoring the wetlands, starting with filling up the exhausted mines,” said Vincent Biruta, the Minister of Environment.
Last year, the government embarked on clearing wetlands off all activities and development in wetlands amid growing pressure from poor agricultural practices, peat extraction, illegal mining and pollution, dumping of waste, construction activities and illegal infrastructure.
According to the environment protection agents, the move came at a time when developments in the wetlands were destroying environmental ecosystems and depleting water resources.
“Farming activities in the wetlands clear the vegetation and compact the soil making it incapable of retaining water and affects biodiversity,” said Remy Norbert Duhuze, the director of Environmental Regulation and Pollution Control at Rwanda Environment Management Authority (REMA).
According to official government figures, Rwanda has over 910 wetlands that cover over 392,400 hectares; however over a half of them are under threat from ecology degradation as a result of poor farming activities, encroachment and social and economic works.
The figures show the country’s wetlands make up about 14.9 per cent of the national territory, including 6.3 percent for marshes and 8.6 percent for lakes, rivers and permanent or seasonal fresh water pools.
The Rwanda Water Portal shows around 92,000 hectares of wetlands in the country are used for traditional agriculture.
Farmers usually plant sweet potatoes and corn on the borders of the wetlands.
“From the Rugezi marshland case, banning farming activities in the marshland has restored its ecology and increased the water flow for two hydroelectricity power plants to produce electricity again,” said Mr Duhuze, adding, “Rugezi marshland mainly regulates, filters, and retains water that flows into the downstream lakes of Ruhondo and Burera, from which the water for electricity production on Ntaruka and Mukungwa electrical power plants is sourced, which was not the case a decade ago.”
Rugezi marshland — the country’s biggest wetland in Northern Province — was recently recognized by environmentalists as one of the most densely populated regions. It extends to over eight administrative sectors of Cyero, Ruhunde, Kivuye, Gatebe, Burera, Butaro, Gicumbi, Miyove as well as Nyankenke.
As the population increases, the wetlands diminish.
“We used to cultivate sweet and Irish potatoes in this swamp, and its ecology was almost destroyed. Water levels reduced, causing Ntaruka power plant to run short of water for running the turbine,” said Moses Nshimiyimana, a former farmer in Rugezi marsh, in Burera district Northern Province.
The over 6,000 hectares Rugezi marshland was recently recognized by Bird Life International as being home to over 43 bird species.
“The marshlands normally give good yields. This is why barring of farming activities in Rugezi marshland was not easily embraced by the surrounding communities since we all depend on agriculture,” said Vedaste Muneza, a resident of Butaro sector in Burera district.
According to residents, despite efforts to protect Rugezi marsh, inhabitants are still sneaking into the marsh in search of fodder for their livestock. The order of clearing off all developments in wetlands followed President Paul Kagame’s warning to encroachers and public officials who gave them user permits that they would be dealt with.
As a result, Kigali City recently launched an exercise of relocating business from any area deemed a wetland. Under this initiative, at least 2,000 properties including industries, businesses establishment and residential houses have been relocated.
Government officials say the eviction exercise continues to evict encroachers from 7,700 hectares of wetlands in Kigali and will later reach out to all other parts of the country. One of the beneficiaries will be Gikondo industrial park valley, which is designated as a wetland.
It is expected to be restored to its ecological status as soon as the exercise, which started in 2013, is complete.
The study on relocation exercises in Kigali shows that there are still many activities that require funding.
In the 2018/2019 fiscal year, the government allocated Rwf9.8 billion for relocation of former industrial park where the government plans to create an artificial lake.
Vincent Munyeshyaka, the Minister of Trade and Industry, said funds allocated to this exercise are not enough as Rwf30 billion is needed.
Besides wetland encroachment and poor farming, the country’s wetlands are threatened by social and economic activities, with a common practice being coffee producers releasing untreated waste water into waterways.
According to some environmentalists, the practice directly and indirectly pollutes streams, which are used as a source of drinking water for approximately 16 percent of the rural population and which provides critical irrigation for subsistence agriculture throughout the country.