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Restoring wetlands brings new opportunities to rural Uganda

Shildah Nabimanya is well aware of the ecological and social devastation that can occur when rural development clashes with natural protection.

Shildah Nabimanya washing her hands, using a tap outside.

Shildah Nabimanya uses a natural water source for hygiene and consumption purposes. Photo: GoU/GCF/UNDP.

When she was young, the Nyakambu wetland where Nabimanya lives in Uganda’s western Sheema district was drained to grow crops and graze cattle. But with the natural source of water depleted, the fields dried up and the cows became malnourished. Families faced shortages of food and water.

“Mothers had to fetch water from far away on hot sunny days,” recalls Nabimanya, now 21 years old. “Children were no longer going to school and were forced to go and fetch water.”

Facing an uncertain future, the local population fought back. They formed an agricultural co-operative in a project supported by Global Affairs Canada through the Green Climate Fund (GCF) and implemented by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) that is restoring and bringing new economic opportunities to Ugandan wetlands.

Today Nabimanya is part of the Masheruka Environmental Restored Wetland Disaster Monitoring Committee Cadres Association, a group of 100 people that supports conservation initiatives in Sheema. Among other activities, they produce honey from 25 beehives provided by the program. The profits from the beekeeping go into a credit facility that community members can draw on to make themselves more resilient to climate-change impacts.

Providing an alternative to degrading ecosystems

Shildah Nabimanya in a bee suit, walking through a field of tall grass to harvest honey.

Beekeeping helps fight the negative impacts of climate change while strengthening communities. Photo Credit: GoU/GCF/UNDP.

“The idea is to provide an alternative to degrading ecosystems,” says Benjamin Larroquette, technical adviser of the project for UNDP, which is assisting the Government of Uganda in managing the country’s wetlands.

Larroquette says these wetlands are drying up as a result of climate change and are also being drained for agriculture. That is risky because they often become too dry and can also flood when rains do come. The UNDP program helps people restore the water levels, regenerate the natural vegetation and find alternative sources of income, like beekeeping, poultry-raising and fish-farming.

A 2019 UN report found that among natural habitats devastated by humans, wetlands have suffered the most, with 85% of all wetlands drained around the world between 1700 and 2000.

Wetlands cover about 13% of the land area of Canada. Once abundantly distributed throughout the country, they are declining in regions such as southern Ontario, where 68% of the original wetlands have been converted from their natural state to support uses such as agriculture and housing.

In the last 15 years alone, Uganda has lost 30% of its wetlands. Meanwhile, some 4 million people, about a tenth of the country’s population, continue to live in and around wetlands and rely on them for food security. Wetlands act as vast reservoirs, regulating water flows during floods and replenishing water supplies in times of drought. Climate change, as well as other environmental stresses, increases the decline of such ecosystems. It reduces their ability to capture carbon from the atmosphere and makes the land less productive.

Shildah Nabimanya sitting, weaving a colourful basket.

Wetlands provide materials that can be used for artistic purposes, providing endless opportunities. Photo Credit: GoU/GCF/UNDP.

Improving wetlands can bring a lot of services and benefits for the local community, Larroquette says. Because they are permanently full of water, solar pumps can be used to irrigate nearby agricultural lands. These farms aren’t large commercial operations but allow people to grow crops to live on and sell locally. The program also provides for small entrepreneurial activities. For example, Nabimanya, a mother of 2, has become a tailor and artisan. She makes colourful baskets from grass and other materials harvested from the wetland. She learned about tailoring in a course paid for by the credit program set up with funds from the beekeeping enterprise.

“I have been able to borrow to buy materials for my tailoring business and meet family needs as well,” she says, noting that women are especially benefiting from the project because it allows them to sustain their households. They borrow money for staples like salt and soap as well as to buy and raise pigs and goats.

Everyone gets a chance to benefit

Julius Tumusiime standing outside, explaining the importance of restoring ecosystems.

Julius Tumusiime expresses the importance of restoring ecosystems for communities. Photo Credit: GoU/GCF/UNDP.

Julius Tumusiime, chair of the co-operative, says that everyone gets a chance to benefit from the restored ecosystem. For instance, people cut the abundant grass near the wetland and sell it to outside communities as mulch for banana plantations, in turn improving the plantations’ productivity. The community also harvests mudfish, which live in swampy areas. These are smoked and sold, and they provide a source of protein for local people.

The program is also strengthening the capacity of Uganda to manage the wetlands, Larroquette says. Automated equipment installed in the wetlands records the weather there and relays the information via a mobile network to a central server in the capital of Kampala. The country’s meteorology and disaster-management authorities can gather that data and provide climate information to local communities, issuing early warnings if a flash flood is expected, for instance.

Larroquette says if the Uganda project is successful, it could be replicated in other degraded wetlands and ecosystems in the country, elsewhere in Africa and around the world. The UNDP project may be relatively small, he notes, but its impact goes far beyond the region and the country. “If there’s deforestation in 1 spot, it influences something on the other side of the world,” he explains. “When we restore ecosystems, we are contributing to the well-being of the planet. It’s all connected.”

Nabimanya is optimistic about the future, and she hopes the Nyakambu project will become a model to show that people and wetlands can coexist.

“I want to demonstrate to other youths that as future leaders and stewards of natural resources, we can do better in ensuring the sustainable use of natural resources,” says Nabimanya, who wants to expand her tailoring business. “I want to share my skills with other youths in my community. In turn, we can dissuade many from environment degradation.”

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