By Kimbowa Richard, Uganda Coalition for Sustainable Development | East African Sustainability Watch Network
For many millennia, humans have been cultivating land for food production. Initially, human settlements primarily occurred in fertile areas along rivers. In the floodplains of Mesopotamia, such settlements were the very cradle of human civilization 6000 years ago (J.T. A. Verhoeven & T. L. Setter, 2009). From the early beginning of agricultural activities, such riverine wetlands have been recognized as valuable land areas for food and fodder production, because they have fertile soils as a result of regular sediment deposition during flood events. However, increase in human population and extensive farming over time has changed the situation as wetlands, forests and other natural habitats become stressed.
The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands - the only global environmental treaty that deals with a particular ecosystem, defines wetlands as “areas of marsh, fen, peatland or water, whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is static or flowing, fresh, brackish or salty, including areas of marine water, the depth of which does not exceed six metres". In line with the UN’s designation of 2014 as the UN International Year of Family Farming, the Ramsar Convention chose Wetlands & Agriculture as the World Wetlands Day theme for 2014. Although wetland protection is officially a priority for the 168 nations (as of 2013) under this convention, wetlands continue to be under threat of being drained and reclaimed.
In East Africa, the theme triggers varied discussions and standpoints in line with the current situation of wetlands. This is because wetlands have remained to be seen as reclaimable land for growing crops even in the dry spells, can be a source of water for irrigation and watering animals, but also as a moderator of climate, crop and animal diseases as well as a source of medicine for both humans and domestic animals. This is in light of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands' main pillars of wise use, designating and managing more Wetlands of International Importance (Ramsar Sites), and international cooperation to which all the 5 East African Countries (Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda) are signatory.
Wetlands and agriculture link?
Agriculture has been carried out in several types of (former) wetlands for millennia, with crop fields on river floodplain soils and rice fields as major examples. However, intensive agricultural use of drained/reclaimed peat lands has been shown to lead to major problems because of the oxidation and subsidence of the peat soil (J.T. A. Verhoeven & T. L. Setter, 2009). This does not only lead to severe carbon dioxide emissions, but also results in low-lying land which needs to be protected against flooding. Developments in South-East Asia, where vast areas of tropical peatlands are being converted into oil palm plantations, are of great concern in this respect. Although more flood-tolerant cultivars of commercial crop species are being developed, these are certainly not suitable for cultivation in wetlands with prolonged flooding periods, but rather will survive relatively short periods of waterlogging in normally improved agricultural soils. Extensive use of wetlands without drastic reclamation measures and without fertilizer and pesticides might result in combinations of food production with other wetland services, with biodiversity remaining more or less intact. But there is a need for research by agronomists and environmental scientists to optimize such solutions.
Wetlands coverage and challenges in East Africa
There are serious threats to wetlands in East Africa arising from the need to meet the growing water, food, energy and other livelihood needs.
In Burundi – the second most densely populated country in Africa, soil fertility is steadily declining because land is over-exploited, marginal lands are being used and farmers no longer leave fields fallow (New Agriculturalist, 2013). Diminishing soil fertility is compounded by shrinking farm sizes, which is forcing people to clear forested land and drain wetlands. These practices are accelerating soil erosion on steep slopes, flooding in lowlands, depletion of water sources, sedimentation of lakes, drying of wetlands and biodiversity loss. Burundi possesses extensive wetlands. The total area of marshland is more than 120,000 ha, almost 5 % of the area of the country. However, a large part of these marshlands has already been drained for agriculture. While land is also heavily grazed by livestock, hillside farming in highly erodible soils and frequent heavy rains has combined to create some of the worst soil-erosion problems in the world.
In Kenya, the main agricultural-related challenges facing wetlands include over-extraction of water; eutrophication (the process when a body of water receives excessive nutrients, resulting in excessive plant growth and less oxygen in the water) from domestic, agricultural and industrial runoff; fragmentation of land; deforestation of major water catchment areas; overgrazing; invasive species; over-exploitation of wetlands goods, such as fish and plants; drainage for infrastructure; and climate change (UNEP, 2013). For example, Lake Victoria North Basin Wetlands-Located to the north of Lake Victoria, the world's second-largest freshwater lake, these wetlands provides many services including fishing, farming and forestry. However, they face threats from inappropriate land use, mining, conversion of wetlands to agricultural use and unsustainable exploitation of resources. About 6,900 hectares in the Yala Swamp, part of the wetlands, have been leased to private companies for intensive agricultural activities, leading to water extraction and the flow of pesticides and fertilizers into the ecosystem (UNEP, 2013).
In Rwanda, the conversion of wetlands (that cover 10.6 per cent of the country surface area) to agricultural production has increased rapidly over the last two decades due the acute scarcity of agricultural land (REMA, 2009). The biggest marshlands are associated with and clustered around the rivers. Rugezi and Kamiranzovu are high altitude wetlands, most of the others are low altitude. However, enormous pressure, over the recent years, has been exerted on the water and wetlands resources through various emerging and increasing uses driven by the growing population. Some of these threats include agricultural intensification, pollution, invasive species, overuse and an inadequate institutional framework to manage the wetlands. Some of these threats, in the case of water, have affected both the quantity and quality of water available. Climate change is also contributing to degradation of swamps. With decreasing amounts of rainfall, the hydrological regime of wetlands is being threatened.
In Tanzania, wetlands are mostly utilized for crop production and grazing. Out of 43 million ha suitable for agricultural production, only 6.3 million ha are under agricultural production of which 0.45 million ha are under wetland cultivation. The principal livestock keepers are the Sukuma and the Masai (FAO, 1995). The Sukuma are the northwest of the country, south and east of Lake Victoria. They make extensive use of wetlands in the northern part of the country, for dry season grazing. Due to population pressure they have already moved to the south to the Usangu plains through the Chunya corridor. The Masai extend from the Kenya border to the Morogoro region in central Tanzania. Their traditional grazing lands were in the north but population pressure has forced them further south into Kilombero valley and now they utilise Mkata plains and Usangu plains for dry season grazing.
At present, conflicts arise between pastoralists and small holder farmers who grow crops in the wetlands. Policies governing the utilization of wetlands will help to resolve conflicts and conserve the land.
In Uganda, wetlands cover, as estimated in 2005, has now been reduced to 26,308 square kilometres, or 11% of the total land area. Wetlands in Uganda have come under considerable pressure and most them are on the brink of total degradation due to the uneven nature of activities there. Ahead of the World Wetlands Day (February 2013), Minister of State for Water – Betty Bigombe highlighted a number of challenges that Uganda is facing in wetland management including enforcement of the wetland policy and related legislation. The downward spiral in wetlands loss is appalling – NEMA’s State of Environment Report (2008) estimated that Jinja district has lost over 80% of its original wetland area. On one hand, communities that access these wetlands and use them for agriculture and extraction of various raw materials and fishing have greatly contributed to their degradation. The limited wetland areas of Uganda are under considerable pressure from a growing population and industrial development. Poor natural resource management, coupled with poorly planned or executed development activities have, and are continuing to deplete the limited renewable natural resource base of the country. On the other hand, mega projects have greatly contributed to the decimation of wetlands. For instance in Kampala, an increased number of Industrial establishments that have encroached on the wetlands have affected the ecological functions of Kinawataka and Nakivubo swamps. Similarly, increased private agricultural interests in the stressed wetlands are threatening their existence. For example, Rosebud flower farm is reportedly illegally re-claiming Lutembe Ramsar site for expansion of flower growing.
Five main action areas to sustainably manage East African Wetlands
For wetlands management to co-exist harmoniously with agriculture in East Africa, a lot of actions (from local to global levels) involving a multitude of actors need to be taken up. At the East African Community level, four main ones below for the attention of the 5 Partner states and development partners.
First of all, it is urgent that regional and international cooperation in management of wetlands and other natural resources be of high priority through domesticating related international commitments and joint regional actions (for example through the East African Community) in order to realise a more efficient implementation of the Ramsar and other related conventions
Secondly, scaling up wetlands management becomes an action to be flagged out in East Africa as part of the Post 2015 development Agenda. In this regard, clear customised targets and measurable indicators under either environmental sustainability or water resources management should be part of this framework to reverse wetlands loss, deterioration of water quality and improvement in management of watersheds.
Thirdly, East African countries need to address their respective national institutional weaknesses related to wetlands management. For example monitoring capacity at the local government level, review of management options that involve communities so as to cut down costs and sustain this role in the long-term
Fourthly, agriculture (agri-business), water, fisheries, and other sectors need to have a common vision (including respecting related national and international policies, laws and plans) towards conservation of the declining wetland cover. This will reduce cost, conflict and sustain this important resource.
Fifthly, In order to secure wetlands continuity, alternatives to wetland products and wetlands use will need to be promoted in East Africa. One example is constructed wetlands that can provide waste water management function.