Wamala: The mystic lake dying slowly

By Ronald Musoke

  • Some people here believe Lake Wamala has supernatural powers because it was born by a human being.
  • A first-time listener to the bizarre stories of fisherfolk, people in business, spiritualists, and politicians is likely to assume that Lake Wamala is well-protected thanks to its divine status.
  • Research found water quality deteriorating due to human-induced contamination from the landing sites and beyond, poor fishing methods/overfishing, encroachment on the available wetlands, deforestation, and land degradation, which intensifies siltation. 

Ali Ssekiwunga was born and raised on the northeastern shores of Lake Wamala at Katiko village, Mityana District in central Uganda.

Naturally, Ssekiwunga says, he and his family looked to the nearby lake for their livelihood. In the 1970s, Ssekiwunga remembers seeing his father—one of the first owners of a wooden canoe in his village—go to the lake to catch tilapia, catfish, lungfish, and mudfish— the most commercially available species in this lake. 

Katiko lies along the shores of the lake and is just about 7km away from Mityana. Back then, Ssekiwunga says, Katiko probably had five homesteads, all of which depended on fishing in Lake Wamala. 

Today, 53-year-old Ssekiwunga is the chairman of the Lake Wamala Beach Management Unit, a locally organized committee that runs fishing in the lake. He says the same village hosts probably 1,000 people. However, about half of the residents were not born here.

“Fishermen, farmers, landlords, Boda Boda (motorcycle taxi), bar owners and entertainment centers, and district local governments depend on this lake for revenue,” commented  Ssekiwunga, who also doubles as the national coordinator of the Association of Fishers and Lake Users of Uganda. This is easy to see when one visits Katiko, one of about 25 landing sites that dot this lake.

When we visited on a warm, soggy March morning, business seemed slow. But the youthful men who appeared to be the majority here kept rowing their wooden canoes while exchanging friendly jokes. Some were heading into the lake while others were landing with their night’s catch. There was even the odd woman dressed in a skirt and gumboots rowing the canoe to shore. She looked severe, ignoring the banter of her colleagues as she jumped out of the boat. 

Fisherman in Lake Wamala

Domestic ducks and a solitary dog waded into the shallow dirty water looking for food while women prepared breakfast in mud and wattle eateries on the edge of the landing site. We met Emmanuel Jjuuko, a pleasant 53-year-old man. He said he had been on and off the lake since 1987 when he dropped out of school. 

Jjuuko had been away for almost a decade and only returned to Katiko last July amid the COVID-19 pandemic. He told The Independent that since most people, especially the youth who reside around Katiko, are not educated, the lake is their only source of employment. 

When he returned last year, Jjuuko said he was broke. But within a day of returning to the lake, he had earned Shs 50,000 from fishing. He showed us a rickety canoe which he now used to fish. The grey nets in the canoe looked as though they had not been used for weeks, but Jjuuko said they are just old. 

About 100 meters away from the lakeshore on the drier ground under a shed, Godfrey Ssebulo and his colleague made a canoe. They would sell it for about Shs 600,000 as soon as they finished the canoe. Ssebulo said he had done this particular work for the past 20 years at this landing site. 

Godfrey Ssebulo and his colleagues making a canoe

Not far away from Katiko on the eastern shores of the lake in Mityana is the Lubajja landing site. David Tebajanga, a 47-year-old fisherman, was born here and has been fishing in the lake for the last 30 years. 

He says he has watched people “come to the lake with nothing but leave after a few years with enough capital to start new businesses” in Mityana Municipality, a booming town 70 km west of Kampala.   

Esther Ndyanabo, the outgoing Mayor of Mityana Municipality, says the town has many residents who have “really made it big” thanks to their fortunes from fishing on Lake Wamala. 

 “This lake has supported the development of Mityana town,” adds Elijah Ssenyonjo, the Mityana District Fisheries Officer. Many residents who live around the cool and breezy shores of this lake describe it as a significant source of livelihood for thousands of people.  They also say that it is part of their heritage, with some residents worshipping the lake and others holding it in awe. 

 “This lake does not entertain drunkards; it does not like immorality. If you don’t obey its rules, it can suddenly turn rough and kill fishermen and travelers,” Tebajanga told The Independent

“This lake knows how to protect itself. When we transgress it, it hides the fish (underneath the floating islands), and we have to go to Nakyegalika to ask for forgiveness,” he adds.  Nakyegalika is the name of one of several spiritual grounds on the lake’s shores.

Heap of plastic bottles on a canoe, Lake Wamala

A first-time listener to the bizarre stories of fisherfolk, people in business, spiritualists, and politicians is likely to assume that Lake Wamala is well-protected thanks to its divine status. But upon closer scrutiny, the reality is rather grim. 

Ssenyonjo, who arrived in Mityana two decades ago, says people in and around Mityana look at this lake as part of their tradition. One of the lake’s intriguing stories is in its origin. 

Lake Wamala’s origin

Geographers generally agree that Lake Wamala falls within the Lake Victoria Basin, formed around 400,000 years ago. They say Victoria and other nearby lakes were created out of a process known as down warping between two East African Rift Valley faults. 

But some people here believe Lake Wamala has supernatural powers because it was born by a human being. Ssenyonjo says he has been to the place where people claim the lake was “born.”

The journalist and his tour guide

At this spot in Katantalo in Naama parish, Busimbi sub-county in Mityana District, Ssenyonjo says, you can see permanent knees and footmarks that show a kneeling posture.  But he also points out numerous spiritual sites where “drums never stop beating,” as people pray to the spirits that dwell in this lake for life, love, health, and wealth. 

Yasin Bbira, the Mityana District Natural Resources Officer, also talks about another popular legend surrounding this lake. He says the lake’s name comes from Wamala, the last king of the vast and powerful Chwezi Dynasty, which existed over 1000 years ago. Its territory comprised present-day Uganda, western Kenya, northern Tanzania, eastern DR Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi. 

The story goes that the Bachwezi never died; they just disappeared.  So Wamala, the last king of the Bachwezi, just disappeared in this lake. His spirit dwells at a place called Nakyegalika near Lubajja landing site in Maanyi sub-county in Mityana. 

Ganda mythology

In 2013, Beth Timmers, a social scientist, researched gender relations in the Lake Wamala fishery. A fishmonger told Timmers how his grandparents recounted Lake Wamala’s birth to him. 

“The woman who gave birth to it was called Wamala (her family name). While pregnant, she was walking when her water suddenly broke and poured there. Her son, Wamala, was born as a lake. Just like that, the water flowed, and the lake grew in size. That is the story of Wamala. It was just born. Even the government does not have control over it because it is the lake of a spirit.” 

But Timmers was also told the lake’s water is considered the equivalent of Wamala’s mother’s amniotic fluid, and it is taboo for any menstruating woman to enter the lake. It is deemed disrespectful for women to engage in any activity in the lake, including bathing. 

However, this taboo is mainly connected to women’s potential to fish. The second taboo is associated with the gender of the lake; because the lake is a man, it is considered indecent for a woman to get into and out of a fishing boat. 

Women are expected to wear dresses and skirts, and the simple act of spreading one’s legs over the “male” spirit is taboo. Women engaging in activities in the lake or using fishing boats may then disrupt the spirit of Wamala, causing changes in the lake ranging from storms to declining fish stocks.

But not everyone believes these myths. Ndyanabo, the outgoing Mayor of Mityana Municipality, told The Independent that she too has grown up listening to tales of how this lake was “born.” But thanks to her evangelical religious attachment, she doubts the authenticity of the legend. 

“Of course, I don’t believe in these myths,” Ndyanabo says with a chuckle. “If the lake were born, there would be an ancestral home where the parents hailed from. But in the many years, I have lived in Mityana, I have never come across that home.” 

“I think it is a fabrication from our elders to help us value and preserve our natural resources. So they tell us that this lake is like a human being that you can’t harm,” she says, “If you hurt it, it is like hurting a fellow human being.”  

Sammy Nsereko, the headteacher of Mityana secondary school, one of the oldest schools in Mityana District, says there are different types of lakes in the country, among which include the graben lakes found in the rift valley, glacier lakes located in the mountainous areas like Rwenzori and down-warped lakes like Victoria and Wamala. 

Unlike graben and glacier lakes which usually don’t have inlet and outlet rivers, down-warped lakes are shallow and are surrounded by swamps. They also have fresh water, unlike the salty-graben lakes. 

Because they have many inlets, they fill up quickly and host many fish species and other animal life. So, where do the Baganda get ideas of the lake being born? Nsereko told The Independent that, traditionally, the Baganda had belief systems that went a long way in protecting natural resources. 

Nsereko adds that it was the duty of religious leaders in Buganda to explain every event in the community.  The traditional leaders found it necessary to say the lake had “parents” to ensure that the people valued the lakes and other resources. If anyone transgressed it, there would be repercussions from its parents. You would have to be careful whenever you went close to the lake.

Wetlands around Lake Wamala

Emily Drani, a cultural activist and former executive director of the Cross-Cultural Foundation of Uganda (CCFU), says many communities in Uganda have a special attachment to physical features such as rivers, lakes, mountains, forests, and hot springs and have often found ways of protecting such features since they consider them part of their heritage.  

Still, I am curious to see the spiritual home of Wamala. 

Jajja Bamu, the spiritual guardian of the lake 

On a cloudy mid-morning in late February, a party of five, including my photographer and a local journalist, hits the dusty Mityana-Busujju road and heads to Nakyegalika Shrine. After several kilometers of a bumpy ride down narrow and winding paths, we come face to face with the custodian of the spiritual home of Wamala.  

We quickly introduce ourselves to the custodian, a lanky 52-year-old pipe-smoking man on the edge of the shrine. A flag with green, yellow, and red colors flaps atop a thorny acacia tree that has been colonized by hundreds of weaver birds—the Ploceus cucullatus

At first, he sounds irritable and quite curious about our visit. We explained to him that we are journalists here to learn a few things about Lake Wamala. Satisfied with our explanation, he allows us to sign in his Visitor’s Book, and each of us deposits Shs 2000 in his bag. 

He introduces himself as Lubega Kato Wamala, but he prefers to be called “Jajja Bamu.” He is draped in a yellow tunic (kanzu), grey trousers, light blue headgear, and sandals made out of car tires. 

Uganda is still amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but I do not notice any Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) instituted by the government. He only picks the dark green leaves of the corn plant (Dracaena fragrans), a shrubbery species that many Ugandans use to mark the boundaries of their land in villages. He dips the leaves in a basin of water, sprinkles us as a welcoming gesture, and then beckons us to jump over a string, but only after we take off our shoes. 

The paraphernalia around the shrine spooks me out. There are dozens of fireplaces surrounded by small spears, gourds, and pots of varying sizes. A sense of unease engulfs my body, and I feel like calling off the tour, but an inner voice urges me to listen to the story of Lake Wamala. There are about 20 people already in the shrine zone singing. 

My female journalist colleague, dressed in denim pants, is ordered to find a wrapper, so she does not offend the spirits. She has not carried a shoal in her bag, so one of the motorcycle taxi riders offers her his dusty coat. 

Lubega, the custodian, says he comes from Mubende, a neighboring district southwest of Nakyegalika. He says he ended up here over a decade ago after having a dream. In the dream, the spirits asked him to come here and take care of the shrine. He is not a Muganda, but he says that in the spiritual realm, tribes don’t matter. 

He smokes tobacco from a windpipe draped with white and black beads. He then hands us over to a bubbly youthful guide named Mike Ntambi. Despite being born Catholic, Ntambi appears quite comfortable and happy being an animist. 

As we make our way into the shrine area, a young woman’s shriek jolts all of us. We are told her clan’s spirits possess her. Her family spent the previous night at the shrine praying and asking the spirits for intercession. The young woman appears dazed and possessed as she runs towards the lake shores and swiftly and effortlessly climbs a tree.

The shrine’s caretaker says she will only calm down if they bring her raw eggs because “she has a python spirit.” The eggs are not brought, but she calms down anyway. Under the big tree, the girl’s family members appear calm, eating bananas and meat, possibly a sacrificial meal.

“People come from as far as Kampala to clean around the shrines and ask for favors. Sometimes the head of the family could come along with an entire family of 50,” Lubega says. 

We continue with our tour of the shrine.  There are many fireplaces with small spears and clay pots. Under an ample tree shade, there are two rocks draped in big pieces of colorful polyester cloth. One stone, we are told, is shaped like a man lying on his back with his exposed genitalia. Opposite the “man” is a woman lying on her back. “She,” too, has “her genitalia” exposed.  But we are not allowed to see the rocky deities. 

Some of the shrines at Lake Wamala

“This is an important place for the Buganda Kingdom. Senior dignitaries from the kingdom often visit. Even the Kabaka has been here,” says Lubega, the caretaker. “All around Lake Wamala, this is the spiritual home. This is where the lake begins from.” He adds, “Visitors to this place can pray for knowledge and wisdom, life, favor, wealth, love, and good health.” 

We then descend into a cave. Inside the cave, there is another rock covered with pieces of cloth and bark cloth. On the floor are baskets where visitors place money before praying. There are also earthen bowls with dry coffee beans. We are told that behind the rock, there is a path that goes under the lake. But, we are not allowed to go behind the curtain. Our guide says that about ten adults can probably occupy this cave, but Ntambi adds that the cave can miraculously expand and hold over 100 people.  

The journalists at the cave

As we exit the cave, Ntambi gives each of us dry coffee beans to chew and pray for the favor of our choice. I eat mine, but the motorcycle rider who says he is “Born Again” refuses to eat the beans. He whispers to me, saying he does not want to be “bound by the spirits of Wamala.” I am unbothered. 

We continue moving around the Shrine area, which straddles about five acres of land. There are more huts with rocky outcrops covered in colorful pieces of cloth. Ntambi says each hut has a spirit that dwells inside. 

We sometimes interrupt the peace of weaver birds chattering while the snow-white cattle egrets and the African fish eagle glide by the shores as we stroll around. In the distance, the African fish eagle perches on a tree and interrupts the peace of a group of the Hadada Ibis birds or the Bostrychia hagedash. They fly away noisily. 

After almost three hours at these shrines, we end our tour.  I leave with the sense that the customary safeguards for centuries are no longer helping the lake. Lubega, the custodian of the shrine at Nakyegalika, told The Independent that he is at the moment embroiled in a fight with investors who want to take over the shrine’s land. He says encroachment on the lake’s shores is affecting everything around the shrine. 

For instance, all the 34 fireplaces are supposed to be lit at all times, but he says this is increasingly becoming hard because firewood is hard to find these days. He says he needs at least one trip of firewood on a medium-sized truck to keep the fireplaces burning every day.

Meanwhile, Ntambi, our guide around the Nakyegalika shrine, told The Independent that he and other children used to see a leopard and pythons come to the shrine. He thinks that because of the disappearance of the forests, the animals stopped coming. 

Cultural safeguards prove ineffective

Uganda’s population is growing rapidly and becoming more urbanized. Yet, despite the rapid urbanization, the primary means of livelihood for millions of people remain farming. This is all evident around Lake Wamala. Conservationists and fisherfolk said the lake is slowly disappearing due to rapid population growth, poor fishing practices, climate change, and local politics. 

Many say if some of the unsustainable economic activities in the lake’s buffer zones are not stopped, the lake could even dry up in the coming years. Two civil society organizations (CSOs), Kikandwa Environmental Association and the Uganda Coalition for Sustainable Development (UCSD), carried out a rapid assessment of the lake and produced a report in 2007. 

The CSOs found water quality deteriorating due to human-induced contamination from the landing sites and beyond, poor fishing methods/overfishing, encroachment on the available wetlands, deforestation, and land degradation, which intensifies siltation. 

They also found that land is being sold, and the law protecting the buffer zone around the wetland is not enforced. Landowners believe such legal provisions do not apply to private land. In 2010, residents in the Mityana, Gomba, and Kasanda districts, which share this lake, signed a compliance agreement to protect the buffer zones. However, the locals have since violated it and have continued to infringe on the lake. 

 

Ducks on Lake Wamala

The District Land Board in Mityana has issued more than 90 titles over the last ten years, and in Mubende, around 30 titles. Land conflicts over duplicate titles are on the increase. Wetland boundaries need to be demarcated so that even when water levels and wetlands vegetation coverage recede, the communities are clear on where the boundaries lie. 

Lake Wamala has several rivers, including River Wabiluko near Mityana, River Mpamujugu, River Tyabiira, River Bimbye, River Kabasuma, and River Kibimba. River Kibimba connects to the enormous River Katonga, which then empties into Lake Victoria. 

The loss of wetlands and forest cover is driven by population growth and poverty and is allowed by poor policy guidance and lack of proper land use planning. Current policies promote the transformation of wetlands into arable land and the natural forest into Eucalyptus sp. or Pinus sp. plantations.  

Conservationists say the lake could dry up due to these piling pressures. It will not be the first time the lake has shrunk or even disappeared. In the 1990s, Ssenyonjo, the fisheries officer, says Lake Wamala dried up and almost disappeared. People even parceled up plots and started cultivating in the middle of the lake zone, Ssenyonjo told The Independent. It only came back with the El Niño rains of the late 1990s, he adds.   

In the 1960s, the lake covered 250 sq km with a wetland zone of 60 sq km and a maximum depth of 4.5 meters. However, by 1999, it was reduced to half this size, partly due to climate vagaries. The lake has continuously shrunk since 1995, even though there has been minimal obstruction of the lake. 

The lake has undergone periods of alternating water levels. The area surrounding it is primarily agricultural land, which usually receives rain throughout the year, with two peaks in April-June and October-November. 

Bbira adds, “The environmental stresses surrounding Lake Wamala are causing its degradation. There is population pressure; many people have settled around the shores of Lake Wamala. This has caused land degradation.”

“This land degradation has, in turn, caused soil erosion. Whenever it rains, this silt enters the lake, accumulates, and pushes the lake farther inside. It pushes the shoreline, making the lake shrink.” 

Many forests were surrounding Lake Wamala, but these forests are no more. He mentions central forest reserves like Bulonda in Busimbi sub-county, Musamya, on the shores of the lake and within the lake’s catchment. These have been degraded, which has exacerbated the siltation. 

Bbira also told The Independent that the wetlands surrounding the lake shores where the fish breed have also been degraded in the past. Wamala has a buffer zone of about 200 meters. 

The National Fisheries Resources Research Institute (NaFIRRI) has satellite images taken by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), which show that the lake shrunk to half its size between 1984 and 1995 and increased between 1999 and 2008. It never regained its original size. 

Lake Wamala Satellite images

Naturally, the ongoing decline in freshwater biodiversity impacts the livelihoods of the rural poor in the basin, and many are worried. Tebajanga, the fisherman from Lubajja who works with Lubajja Fishers and Lake Users Group, told The Independent that fishers are increasing in number and increasingly using bad fishing methods that indiscriminately capture young fish.  

“This is our lake, and we want it to continue benefiting us, our children, and grandchildren,” he says.  Tebajanga says he sees some new faces on the lake and that they could be coming from the more giant lakes like Victoria, where law enforcement officers have chased them.  

Tebajanga told The Independent that more farmers have also descended onto the lake’s buffer zones to grow tomatoes, which need a lot of water for irrigation.  But, these tomato farmers also use pesticides, which wash off into the lake whenever it rains. “The pesticides are not good for the fish,” he says.

He blames politics, which has infiltrated the lake management committees. “When we try to implement the policies we all agreed upon, the culprits run to influential politicians citing persecution. The politicians come and say, ‘Leave my voters.’”

It is difficult to tell the exact number of anglers on this lake.  Six years ago, the last time the NaFIRRI registered fishers on the lake, there were about 1,500 fishermen. Elijah Ssenyonjo, the fisheries officer for Mityana District, told The Independent that Lake Wamala currently has about 470 fishermen, with about 340 being on the Mityana side of the lake. 

But, when you include the non-registered fishermen, this lake may have more than 1000 fishermen, Ssenyonjo told The Independent. He quickly adds that he suspects more fishers are in the lake since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the country last March. 

“We record the fish catch every day in Mityana District,” Ssenyonjo told The Independent, adding that this is both a revenue generation measure and an exercise the fisheries department uses to issue fish movement permits. Ssenyonjo says most of the fish, catfish, and lungfish are sold outside Mityana. The lungfish and catfish species are sold in Kampala. Some of the fish is sold to faraway towns in western Uganda. 

Fisherman holding catfish, fresh from Lake Wamala

Ssenyonjo says the lake has suffered as a result of ignorance and migration of people who have no regard for the lake’s heritage. 

They come here, buy pieces of land and start growing crops on the shores of the lake. This lake has a history of drying up. Ssenyonjo says that between 1994 and 1997, the lake almost dried up, and people got plots of land inside the lake and started cultivating.

According to John Obbo Okaronon, a researcher on fishing in Lake Wamala, fishing has declined since the lake was stocked in 1956 and opened to fishing during the 1960s. Surveys conducted on the lake during 1975-78 and 1988-92 to investigate the causes of declining fish catches found that the lake produced an average of 4000-6000 tonnes of fish annually from the 1960s through the 1970s. 

But total fish catches decreased from a maximum of 7100 tonnes in 1967 to less than 500 tonnes by the 1990s. Meanwhile, catch rates decreased from about 8kg in the 1960s to less than 1kg net per net night by 1975. 

Lake Wamala was stocked in 1956 with tilapia, namely Oreochromis niloticus, Oreochromis leucosticus, and tilapia zillii, and was opened to commercial fishing in 1960. However, interviews with local fishers between 1975 and 1978 revealed that subsistence fishing had been going on long before stocking was done. 

During the 1970s, the catch was dominated by Nile tilapia or Oreochromis niloticus (67 percent), followed by catfish (Clarias gariepinus-17 percent) and lungfish (Protopterus aethiopicus-15.1 percent). By the 1990s, the proportion of O.niloticus had decreased to 45.1 percent, while that of P.aethiopicus had increased to 37.6 percent. 

These changes seem to have been caused by overfishing, caused by the surge from the recommended 250 to about 1000 boats and the tactic of driving fish into the nets by beating water. 

The NaFIRRI also notes that changes in temperature on the lake contribute to the drop in the number of fish species. Temperatures around this lake varied before but have consistently increased by 0.2 to 0.3ᵒC since the 1970s, in line with global predictions.  Research shows that climate change contributes to reduced water circulation, mixing nutrients and oxygen, and affecting the fish feed plants and animals. 

Tilapia, the naturally dominant species in Lake Wamala, have declined, and the lungfish and other haplochromines have taken their place. These fish can adjust to low oxygen conditions and quickly adapt to feeding on available plant-animal materials. 

Restoration efforts

It now appears there are concerted efforts to save the lake. Bbira, the Mityana District Natural Resources Officer, told The Independent that the district is currently developing some strategies to protect Lake Wamala. Among these include the restoration of the degraded buffer zones. 

“We have tried to demarcate the wetlands which drain into Lake Wamala because this lake is like a basin. It depends on both rainwater and water from the rivers that drain into the lake.”

Bbira mentions the wetlands near the lake’s tributaries—the rivers of Nakatongoli, Mpamugujju, Wakitundu, Nyanzi, and Kabasuma—which have been restored. He says they have emphasized sections of major rivers that drain into Wamala so that the lake can still get enough water for its survival. 

“The wetland inventory last done in the early 2000s showed the species richness around Lake Wamala. Although we have not updated that inventory, it is evident that some biodiversity has been lost for good.” 

Bbira, for instance, explicitly mentions the disappearance of the hippopotamus and other animal and plant species that used to call the lake and forest reserves home. But, this is yet to be documented. 

“We have evicted encroachers on the lake’s buffer zones to reduce pressure on fish capture because we also enforce the law on fishing. We confiscate illegal fishing gear and arrest culprits and charge them in courts of law. But, we have also demarcated the fish breeding zones.”

He says this has successfully been done around the Gombe landing site. “We don’t allow any fishing to take place there. This is a peninsula where both the fishermen and the authorities identified this area as a breeding zone.” 

Bbira says they are also putting markers to show fishers where they are not supposed to fish. This was done in conjunction with the Lake Victoria Management Project (LVEMP), funded by the World Bank to save Lake Victoria by protecting satellite lakes like Wamala. 

Bbira says the project tried to give alternative livelihoods, such as poultry rearing, to fishers in an attempt to stop them from cultivating on the shores and wetlands of Lake Wamala. To reduce pollution of the lake, the LVEMP project built latrines, improved sanitation facilities at several landing sites, including Lusalira, Nkoonya, and Kyandaalo.

Landing site

“We have tried to improve water and soil conservation technologies within the lake catchment. The farmers around the Katiko landing site have constructed soil bands (boundaries) to reduce siltation of the lake.”

“We have also tried to promote agroforestry within the lake’s catchment. We gave orange trees to farmers in Bukanagga village on the shores of the lake. Trees are good at controlling soil erosion and siltation of the lake.” 

Bbira adds that other interventions have controlled stormwater by supporting people who live near the lake’s shores with water harvesting technologies. 

“Most of the surface run-off going into the lake comes from rooftops. So rainwater harvesting tanks are being adopted to reduce the levels of siltation,” he says. 

He says other farmers are being supported with irrigation technologies since some are moving closer to the shores in search of wet ground, especially during the dry seasons. In Bukanagga, the Orange Growers Association has installed underground water harvesting tanks for irrigation purposes. 

Richard Kimbowa, the Programme Manager of the Uganda Coalition for Sustainable Development (UCSD), has been doing some conservation research around Lake Wamala since 2005.

Kimbowa says population growth and climate change are important issues if you want to assess the factors that have led to the rapid decline of Lake Wamala. However, he also thinks poor policies are equally to blame. 

He says although Lake Wamala is part of the Lake Victoria catchment and has tended to benefit from the Lake Victoria Environment Management Project (LVEMP), the project has not had a substantial effect on the lake’s fortunes. 

Kimbowa says the profile of Lake Wamala should instead be scaled up. Kimbowa wants all the districts that share Lake Wamala to develop an integrated management plan to offset some of the current challenges the lake is grappling with. However, he quickly adds that the best bet would be declaring Lake Wamala a Ramsar Site, a wetland of international importance. 

This plan, he says, was first mooted during the World Wetlands Day celebrations, which took place on the lake’s shores in 2015. But, he told The Independent that the process has been painfully slow to designate the lake as a Ramsar Site.

Kimbowa says declaring Wamala as a Ramsar site would help conserve the cultural heritage and biodiversity of the lake. This would, in turn, put the lake and its numerous cultural sites onto a cultural tourism circuit.

Kimbowa explains that the lake is home to three critically endangered fish species. He adds that the Baganda also believe that some islands are home to ancestral spirits that help solve the inhabitants’ ailments and problems. Therefore, the lake is of such ecological and cultural importance. 

“Having it as a Ramsar Site would help conservationists garner international support in terms of research and financial resources,” Kimbowa told The Independent. 

“It would then be easier to work with a common vision and objective, and the lake would benefit from management plans that these Ramsar Sites get.”

Uganda already has 12 wetlands designated by the Ramsar Secretariat as “wetlands of international importance.”  They cover a surface area of about 454,300 hectares. These include the Lake Bisina wetland system, Lake George, the Lake Mburo-Nakivale wetland system, the Lake Nabugabo wetland system, and the Lake Nakuwa wetland system. Others include the Lake Opeta wetland system, Lutembe Bay wetland system, Mabamba Bay, Murchison Falls-Albert Delta wetland system, Nabajjuzi, and Rwenzori Mountains Ramsar Site, and the Sango Bay-Musambwa Island-Kagera wetland system. 

But, Dr. Tom Okurut, the executive director of the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), says designating the Lake Wamala catchment as a Ramsar Site will not work because it is not in the Ugandan law. 

Instead, Okurut told The Independent that the government considers the catchment area a particular conservation area. Section 51 of the National Environment Act 2019 says that subject to the Constitution, this act and any other applicable law on the protection of ecosystems and conservation of biological diversity, the Minister may, on the advice of the Authority or lead agency and the approval of Parliament, by statutory instrument, declare a particular conservation area under this act.   

In declaring a special conservation area, the Minister may prohibit certain activities from being undertaken in the area.  

But  Kimbowa is unimpressed by the NEMA boss’ suggestion. He insists this would be a downgrade of the Lake Wamala catchment status. 

“The situation of the lake is too bad. I wouldn’t hide behind the law. I would prefer designating it as a Ramsar Site. The more the catchment attracts international attention, the better.” Kimbowa says Lake Wamala at the moment is like a patient on a drip in hospital. 

“We can still resuscitate it,” Kimbowa says.  

This story has been produced with support from Code for Africa and funding from the JRS Biodiversity Foundation. 

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