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Uganda and DRC are making big strides to resolve conflicts over fish in shared waters

Henry Lutaaya
A spike in killings and arrests among fishing communities from Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been eased by a new bid to bring the countries together.
25.08.2022  |  Kampala, Uganda
Lakes in the Western Rift of the Great Rift Valley: Lake Victoria, visible in the top centre, Kyoga, the lake above Victoria, Tanganyika, the oblong-shaped lake visible in the bottom left, Lake Albert, visible in the top left, Lake Edward, beneath Albert  (photo: European Space Agency / Envisat)
Lakes in the Western Rift of the Great Rift Valley: Lake Victoria, visible in the top centre, Kyoga, the lake above Victoria, Tanganyika, the oblong-shaped lake visible in the bottom left, Lake Albert, visible in the top left, Lake Edward, beneath Albert (photo: European Space Agency / Envisat)

About three years ago, there was a steady flow of fishermen arrested and some even killed on Lake Albert and Lake Edward – lakes with rich fish stocks shared by Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Fishers, sometimes with the backing of security forces of their respective countries, engaged in bloody and quite often deadly fights over the sharing of fish from the transboundary lakes.

In 2018, for example, some 12 Ugandans, including soldiers and civilians, were shot dead by Congolese militia operating on Lake Albert. Reports indicate that the deadly attacks were in retaliation for the crackdown and arrests made by Ugandan security officers against illegal fishing on the lake by Congolese fishermen.

An investigation conducted in 2018 found that over 200 Congolese fishermen had been detained in Ugandan prisons for illegal fishing or illegally crossing into Uganda’s territory.

Today, however, members of the two fishing communities tell a different story. It is one of peace, cooperation, and improved trade and collaboration at the highest levels of government and among the fishing communities.
High ranking officials from either side of the Rift Valley’s Western Branch have invested their energy, time and money into ending the causes of earlier clashes. They have also sought to ensure that the temporary peace holds.

A lot of the credit is being given to a project that has helped build bridges between the two countries using several initiatives, including providing platforms for dialogue between leaders from both countries.

Dubbed the Multinational Lakes Edward Albert Integrated Fisheries and Water Resources Management Project (LEAF II) project, the USD 24 million investment was the brainchild of the Nile Equatorial Lakes Subsidiary Action Programme (NELSAP), a subsidiary of the regional body the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) which brings together ten countries that host the Nile River and its catchment.

The pilot version of the project started in 2016, and it ran between 2018 and 2021.

The move was inspired by the need to end the rampant exploitation of fish resources in both lakes by competing communities from both countries. Fisheries experts from Uganda’s government and NELSAP insist that the overexploitation of the fish from both lakes was the main driver of the insecurity.

“Because of the rampant use of illegal and indiscriminate fishing methods, fish stocks became depleted in both Edward and Albert. Fewer and fewer fish, coupled with so many people depending on the lakes for food and livelihood, meant competition over fish was always bound to trigger more conflict,” said Stephen Ogwete, the former Uganda Country Coordinator of LEAF II.

We needed to
have uniform
standards in the
policies and laws.

He notes that the project was designed to halt illegal fishing practices by, first of all, harmonising the policies and laws governing the sector in both countries.

“We realised that what we considered illegal in Uganda was not necessarily illegal in DRC and vice versa. So in order to stamp out illegalities, we needed to have uniform standards in the policies and laws,” recalls Ogwete.

With an estimated 10 million people living around both lakes, with 70 percent of that population depending on fish for survival, the project sought to ease pressure on the lakes by giving people alternative sources of livelihood.

“Most of the landing sites had inadequate fish handling facilities. And many didn’t have access roads. This meant that they were getting a fraction of the estimated value of the fish they were catching from the lakes,” says Ogwete.
The project sought to boost the industry by improving fish handling at nine sites in both countries to raise the value of the fish and hence the incomes of the people who depended on them.

A 2019 Catch Assessment Survey jointly conducted by Ugandan and DRC officials revealed that fishers from both countries had caught as much as 440,000 tonnes of fish in one year. This was equivalent to more than USD 400 million.

“This shows that, even with the decline in fish stocks, the industry was very lucrative and hence a source of conflict,” says Ogwete.

With a combination of loan and grant funding from the African Development Bank and the Global Environment Facility, LEAF II tackled the differences in the laws and policies by gathering officials from both countries around the discussion table.

The talks involved the fisheries protection enforcement agencies from both countries, as well as technocrats from the ministries responsible.

After several discussions and lobbying by NELSAP and the LEAF II implementing experts, relevant government officials from DRC and Uganda finally met in Munyonyo, Kampala, on October 20, 2018, and signed a bilateral agreement for the sustainable management of fisheries and water resources of Lakes Edward and Albert.

The agreement recognised the right of each country to equitable access and utilisation of the water and aquaculture resources sustainably. This agreement formed the first step towards harmonising policies and laws that experts wanted to use to stamp out illegal fishing practices that had sparked conflict.

Some of the pillars of the bilateral agreement included joint fisheries monitoring, control and surveillance activities supported through the deployment of patrol boats (two for each country), as well as the construction of surveillance stations on both lakes.

The bilateral agreement further provided for the harmonisation of fisheries and aquaculture policies and laws. It included creating a joint fisheries data collection and information management system to ensure decisions on conservation and development are taken based on accurate information.

Most importantly, perhaps, the agreement provided for establishing a Transboundary Lakes Edward and Albert Basin Organisation.


A new regional body is born

According to Joyce Ikwaput Nyeko, the Acting Director of Fisheries in Uganda’s Ministry of Agriculture, creating a permanent institution was a milestone in safeguarding progress and a tool to help resolve outstanding or new challenges.

Expressing joy at the outcomes of LEAF II, Nyeko says: “We agreed that even after this project (LEAF) has ended, we shall continue working together because we saw that by working together, you can address these issues of illegalities that were the main causes of insecurity.”

Nyeko told The Niles about outstanding discrepancies in the laws and policies that need to be harmonised to bring uniformity in the implementation of laws. She says, in January 2022, both Uganda and DRC leaders invoked the relevant articles of the bilateral agreement to enable the organisation to start work.

Nyeko further says that the organisation is set to start work in the first half of 2022, a time when Ugandan authorities are expected to have provided office space in Entebbe – where it will be based. DRC will name the first Executive Director of the organisation.

Besides establishing an institutional framework for greater cooperation and addressing policies and legal frameworks, LEAF II recorded several achievements on the ground that have improved the lives of ordinary people.

Ogwete says that before the project commenced, the fishing industry in both countries was on the verge of collapse due to excessive competition. “We discovered that before the advent of the project, three factories had closed in the space of three years due to dwindling fish in Lake Albert resulting largely from the use of inappropriate gear.”

Now we’re able
to get a good
price because
traders find the
fish is clean.

Besides the waning size of the catch and the insecurity, conditions surrounding fish handling as well as the livelihoods of the fishers were also deplorable.

“Before the project started, only 11 percent of the 120 fish landing sites had a modern handling facility. Only 21 percent had a public toilet. Twenty-four percent had portable water, and only 70 percent were accessible by road. The rest didn’t have market access,” Ogwete quotes a 2018 survey carried out across both lakes.

At the end of the project, nine landing sites from both countries (five in Uganda and four in DRC) had been modernised. The landing sites were equipped with portable water for washing fish and use by the community. Women, who previously dried their fish on the bare ground, were provided with fish drying racks. The project further built fish smoking kilns and built 21 kilometres of feeder roads to improve market access.

Kyansi Henry, the village chairman of the Rwenshama fish landing site in Rukungiri District of South Western Uganda, commended the project for improving the lives and access to the market for their fish.

“This was a good project. We were using water directly from the lake. And we didn’t have places to wash or dry our fish. This negatively affected the marketing of the fish. Now we’re able to get a good price because traders find the fish is clean,” says Kyansi.  

Ogwete adds that an evaluation study found that the project had led to a 21 percent increase in processed fish on Lake Edward and a four percent increase in processed fish on Lake Albert.


Alternative livelihoods created

Besides boosting the fishing industry by providing water and access to roads for greater access to the market, the project created alternative sources of livelihood, mainly targeting women and youth.

From aquaculture to goat rearing, beekeeping, soap making, chalk making and several other income-generating ventures, the alternative livelihoods programme touched over 100,000 lives, helping to provide 45,000 jobs.

The introduction of aquaculture or fish-rearing in the lakes and empowerment of communities through training and provision of start-up capital was particularly central to saving the lake from the pressure facing the lake in search of fish.

As Ogwete remarks: “Cage farming on both lakes has the potential to produce up to 41,000 tonnes of fish. Because it is a capital intensive undertaking, it means that if commercial investors went into this business, the ordinary man can be assured of getting a fish with a hook.”

The project didn’t stop at demarcating potential areas for aquaculture; it supported communities from both countries to pilot aquaculture by providing cages, start-up capital and know-how of aquaculture.

Experts from the Jinja-based National Fisheries Resources Research Institute (NaFIRRI), which evaluated the aquaculture venture, found out that those initiated to the business were successful and wanted to take it forward.


Praise from youth and women

The youth and women introduced to alternative livelihoods like chalk-making and goat rearing reported being happy with their new opportunities.

Akiiki Apollo, a 23-year-old university student who sells smoked fish at Bwera market on the Uganda-DRC border, says the construction of fish smoking kilns and fish drying racks has contributed to better fish prices.

Akiiki further points to the provision of financial literacy training amongst youth and women groups as having improved their businesses.

“The project gave us saving boxes, counter books and trained us in financial management affairs. The children and wives of fishermen no longer eat all the money as they used to,” says Akiiki.

Chamim Sarah, one of the women who dry and sell Muziiri (a small but very nutritious type of fish) at the Mbegu fish landing site in Hoima District of Western Uganda, says: “Nowadays we have a lot of customers and the prices of Muziiri are better because it is dried on racks and remain whitish and clean while those dried on the bare ground are brown and full of sand.”


The way forward

It is anticipated that the spirit of cooperation and goodwill exhibited by leaders of both countries will create a conducive environment for the smooth operation of the Transboundary Lakes Edward and Albert Basin Organisation.

This comes when the two countries are enjoying unprecedentedly cordial relations, as shown by an ongoing military hunt for the Allied Defence Forces (ADF) jointly conducted by the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) and the Congolese military.

The government of Uganda is also funding the construction of three roads with a combined length of 223 kilometres inside DRC territory.

President Yoweri Museveni’s government has rebuffed criticism from his opponents that he ignores national priorities by investing in another country. Museveni has argued poor roads undermined the considerable market potential in Eastern DRC that Uganda seeks to explore.

We shall start by
harmonising our
policies and legal
framework on

Other initiatives, such as the ongoing construction of high-voltage power lines by NELSAP that will dispatch electricity from Uganda to Eastern DRC towns such as Bunia and Butembo, are further signs of improved relations between the two neighbouring countries.

The acquisition of a modern research vessel by Uganda and the promise to set up research stations in both countries promise to improve decision making based on scientific data to ensure sustainability.

It is the view of Nyeko that things can only get better. “When the permanent Lakes Edward and Albert Basin Organisation kicks off, we shall start by harmonising our policies and legal framework on fisheries. It is also my hope that when this is done, we shall discuss other things such as how to develop our navigation.”

This article is part of:
Trouble Don’t Last Always.
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