Efforts to save River Rwizi from extinction

River Rwizi is the lifeline of the communities downstream where animals and families use the water. Photo by Otushabire Tibyangye

Otushabire Tibyangye

Mbarara, Uganda

River Rwizi located in southwestern Uganda is the lifeblood for millions of people and cattle for the districts of Mbarara, Isingiro, Buhweju, Mitooma, Kiruhura, Sheema and Lyantonde.

People of these districts depend on the river for both domestic and production water, fishing and recreation among others

A river described in geographical studies as in its mature stage meanders from the beautiful hills of Buhweju district in the greater Bushenyi region through Sheema, Ntungamo and Rwampara districts before entering Mbarara City on its way to Lake Mburo, Lake Kakyeera, Lake Kijanibarora before powering into Lake Victoria . It boasts of two Oxbow lakes and another one is in its formative stage.

It passes through grasslands and wetlands where sand mining, fishing, agricultural activities and grazing take place. However not all is well with this mighty river on which  an estimated population of 1 million people depend for water supply.

The water levels have drastically fallen to the level that during the dry season the water dries up to the level that at times it cannot be pumped to the satisfaction of the town’s residents.

This is as a result of the abuse of the river’s catchment areas right form the hills of Buwheju. The population has grown and people have encroached on the wetlands draining them for farmland and grazing respectfully.

The executive director National Environment Management Authority Dr Tom Okurut blames the problems facing the river directly on people who are selfish and do not look at the water use of the river and its banks at national level but what they can gain as individuals.

“Some of the water had been blocked and diverted into man-made lakes, fish ponds and farms for irrigation of their farms. Because of human activities right from the source Buhweju hills, the volumes had declined over a number of years and in some places the water disappears,” he says.

This has been brought about by encroachers on the wetlands where people made them farmland to fatten their animals and increase milk production. Others have used them for agriculture and forest enterprises upstream where grasslands are thriving were part of the river catchment areas.

The regional manager Nema Jeckonious Musingwire says the blockage of the river at some points created negative impacts upstream leading to flooding of genuine farms.

 “This was the starting point for Nema to come in after these farmers complained to us for a solution to the unusual floods. They acted as whistle blowers for Nema,” he says

As the river banks and wetlands got destroyed, the river’s capacity to capture and retain clean water has drastically reduced. According to the ministry of water and environment R. Rwizi loses 1386 million cubic metres of rain water every year.

This is manifested in one of the wetland Ruteete- Kashasha Kibingo in Rwampara County. This ecosystem was reclaimed and a eucalyptus forest was established. This wetland joins Nyakaikara Bujaga wetland in Ndaija Rwampara which was also reduced into sugarcane, beans and sweet potatoes gardens.

Sand mining has also taken its toll. Musingwire says sand mines which are scattered along the river journey have depleted the river. These are a common practice throughout the river’s journey leaving it bare, heavily polluted, silted  and depleted,” he says.

Another abuse has been brick making along the river banks in search of clay soils. A huge brick making project has existed in Mbarara municipality for the last 30 years close to the river. Whenever it rains the water from the open ponds powers into the river making the water dirty.

The water hyacinth has had its share on depleting the river waters. The weed has spread almost on the entire stretch of the river and in the near future will end up in Lake Mburo. 

Water hyacinth has colonised part of the river bank while some goes downstream Photo by Otushabire Tibyangye

The Rwizi has also succumbed to climate change vagaries of global warming, cutting of trees and unpredictable rain patterns. What used to be flood plains have turned into sand mines and brick making projects have sprung up.

Pollution.

As the river enters the urban areas like Mbarara Municipality where the population has grown over a number of years, pollution has become a problem. Factories have come up and some power their effluence in the river. People have also built houses near the river banks in the prohibited area of 100 meters. Latrines and toilets have also contributed to pollution as the municipality lacks enough lagoons to cater for the growing population’

Locals have dug trenches and put in pipes which drain into the river from pit latrines and toilets, thus the river acts as a septic tank or lagoon.

“National Water and Sewerage Corporation has found it very expensive to treat this water besides failing to have enough water to pump into the system,” the principle public relations officer Mbarara region Paul Kahigi says.

Restoration process

Dr Okurut says Nema has come up with a community engagement  action plan to bring the local community leaders on board giving them information about the importance of the health river. We are creating mass by explaining the risks involved in encroachment and what they stand to lose.

“The drivers of encroachment are the same, lack of information and misinformation have been major reasons as to why the degradation has gone on for long. The exercise is community centred where identifying the problems and looking for solutions together has largely worked,” he says.

Mr Kahiigi says NWSC has also come on board to create awareness among the locals where the river passes, about the dangers of river degradation. “As stakeholders and one of the biggest consumers of the water we are out to protect the water sources right from the source which is Buhweju. But we do not have the mandate of enforcing the law because that is the work of Nema,” he says.

In the meantime NWSC is to get water from River Kagera to supplement the Rwizi water because it has become too expensive to treat Rwizi water. A 50 million euro water project is in the offing by next year.

 Musingwire agrees and says concerted efforts are needed to restore the mighty river for the area. “We need to use all means available at our disposal to make sure we save the river,” he says.

He says it is the duty of the people living in the river catchment areas to practice better methods of farming, to prevent the soils erosion from their gardens, plant more trees on bare hills and restore the degraded wetlands.

20 families who had encroached 8sq km of land around the river upstream have since vacated and the land restored but one stubborn encroacher has remained adamant. “One of the degraders Grace Kansiime has remained intransigent but the law is soon catching up with her, he says.

The blockages have since been removed and the river water that had been diverted has since been allowed to flow naturally.

Eucalyptus trees have since been cut down to allow the wetlands to regenerate and support the river.

 On the water hyacinth menace the Mbarara community leaders have since come together in conjunction with Vision Group Local media outlet, WWF for nature and Nile Breweries among others have  launched the campaign of Save River Rwizi where the weed is being removed manually.

Dr Okutu says as a way to compensate the destroyed eucalyptus trees locals have been given eco-friendly trees. “We have also done deliberate tree planting in some areas supporting the communities to preserve the wetlands trough tree planting, grassland planting and replanting of sage grass that was there originally,” he says.

With this intervention about 1800 hectares of land in the catchment area have  been restored in Buhweju, Mbarara and Kiruhura.

Mbarara Municipality factor

Part of the river has been turned into a washing bay for taxi motorcycles commonly known as Boda Boda thus polluting water. Photo by Otushabire Tibyangye

Mbarara town still poses a challenge to the river because of pollution and constructing houses in the buffer zone. However not all hope is lost. On October 1 2019 a meeting of local leaders in the municipality resolved to demolish all the houses that are in the buffer zone regardless of the owners.

The town clerk Francis Barabanawe said it was the mandate of the council to demolish all the illegal structures in the buffer zone. “We have given the encroachers one month to have removed their structures, failure to do it themselves we shall swing into action. We are taking it as a security measure so we shall start in phases until we achieve our objectives,” he says.

The Mayor Mbarara Municipality Robert Mugabe Kacebezi says the first phase was to demolish the latrines and uproot the pipes that were draining the effluence in the river. “Our local leaders are on board and on ground doing a good job. Sooner than later we shall see our river back and healthy,” he says

Dr Okurut says where they have worked with the local communities the wetlands have been restored and the effects are there for all to see. “The once might Rwizi with these interventions is slowly regaining its glory,” he says

About Anthony Otushabire

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