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Water hostilities

Henry Lutaaya
Climate change raises tensions over food, water and other resources among a growing population in South Western Uganda.
23.02.2022  |  Kampala, Uganda
Erosion at the Mpanga River. (photo: The Niles / Henry Lutaaya)
Erosion at the Mpanga River. (photo: The Niles / Henry Lutaaya)

In the South Western Uganda region surrounding Fort Portal city, relations have become strained between three groups of people that use the Mpanga River for different purposes such as irrigation, domestic use and hydropower generation. The tensions have arisen even among people who consider themselves brothers and sisters.

The operators of the Mpanga Hydroelectric Power Station, located on the Mpanga in Kamwenge district just before it flows into Lake George, say power output has recently fallen from the dam’s capacity output of 18 megawatts to as low as three megawatts during the dry spell and only increase during the wet season.  

The dam’s operators have particularly accused farmers and stone and sand miners of degrading the river basin and its catchment, reducing the volume of water and hence hydropower generated.

Charles Mugisha, the Manager of Mpanga Hydro Power, told Uganda’s Daily Monitor newspaper a few months ago that the Rwengaju Irrigation Project was to blame for the fall in water volume reaching the dam, especially during the dry season.

On the other hand, in Fort Portal city, the Mpanga has come under increased water pressure for domestic and industrial use by the national water utility to meet the city’s growing demand for water.

Residents have been complaining of declining volume and quality of the water in the river to the extent that the water utility is sometimes forced to switch off the water treatment plant due to the muddy nature of the water.

Some blame has been directed at the government-sponsored Rwengaju model irrigation village upstream of the Mpanga. But beneficiaries of the irrigation project deny their activities are harming the river.

Engineer David Baguma, the Chairman of the Water Users Association in Rwengaju Irrigation Scheme, a UGX 27 billion (USD 7.6 million) government-funded model irrigation project, denies that irrigation activities in the scheme are having an adverse effect on the volume and quality of water that goes through Fort Portal and eventually to the Mpanga Hydroelectric Power Station.

He told The Niles: “As far as we are concerned, our water comes from Karangura, which is far away from the dam. We do not have an impact on water quality, nor are we affected by scarcity.”

The Uganda government established the irrigation scheme after the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) approved its Environmental and Social Impact Assessment survey.

But some observers have questioned the decision to establish the irrigation scheme given Fort Portal’s rapidly rising demand for water and the hydropower dam downstream.

Richard Rwabuhinja, the Chairman of Kabarole District, who doubles as the Chairman of the River Mpanga Catchment Management Committee, that was established with guidance from the Ministry of Water and Environment, says the irrigation scheme and the hydropower dam were sticky issues that bothered the committee since it embarked on the subject of addressing the challenges of the Mpanga River.

The volume of water in the Mpanga River used to be much higher.”

He said: “The feasibility of these two projects was of concern initially. Because the volume of water in the Mpanga River used to be much higher before they were established.” He notes, however, that they “chose to shift attention towards the more significant issues of restoring the catchment”.

Rwabuhinja says he is proud of his committee’s work, especially in raising awareness among the different stakeholders.

“Working with local leaders, the media, cultural leaders and the technical people in all the six districts that share river Mpanga, we have engaged the different stakeholders along the river and sensitised them on the importance of protecting the catchment of the river,” says Rwabuhinja. “Working with NGOs like the Dutch-based SNV, we have planted trees along the banks of the river to firm it and stop erosion.”

He added that they supported people to turn to fish farming as an alternative income from generating activity to replace sand mining.

But Baguma says the committee’s efforts are not yet felt on the ground. “Enforcement of the rules governing the river remains very weak. Sometimes they are violated by the very people who are supposed to enforce the rules,” he says. “Lack of awareness, especially among the farmers, is a major challenge. People don’t know the dangers of cultivating on river banks.”


Climate change impact

Less acknowledged perhaps by many in the area is the contribution of climate change, whose devastating impact has already been documented in nearby districts like Kasese.

According to Stephen Ogwete, a Director in the Ministry of Water and Environment, the Rwenzori mountain ranges face the impact of climate change.

Using the frequency of flooding events recorded since the 1910s, Ogwete said the Nyamwamba, one of the big rivers that start from the snow-peaked Rwenzoris, has been experiencing annual flooding for the past six years.

“Climate change is a relatively new phenomenon. The first major flooding event on the Nyamwamba River happened in the 1910s. The next flooding event was in the 1950s. As we moved, the frequency increased. Since 2014 to date, the river has experienced many flooding events that left people dead and lots of property destroyed,” says Ogwete.

The timing of the Nyamwamba River flooding is around April and May, and the highest water levels in the Mpanga River perhaps suggest a link to a common cause since both rivers start in the same mountain ranges.

Ogwete explains that due to high temperatures, snow on the peak of the Rwenzoris melts and combines with heavy rains that have been experienced in recent years. These twin impacts have resulted in floods during a short spell but more prolonged episodes of reduced river flow for the greater part of the year.

As temperatures rise, the snow in the Rwenzori mountains melts faster, releasing a tremendous amount of water, especially around May every year, he explains. The river’s flow is significantly increased by the rains that come around the same time, resulting in floods.


Population pressure

The rising population in the area, fanned by the influx of Congolese refugees, is another pressure point for the river.

As Baguma observes, the increase in the number of refugees in areas like Rwengoma has added to the pressure for firewood, house construction materials, land for cultivation, all of which are putting pressure on the catchment of the Mpanga River.

The Nile Basin, in general, is experiencing one of the fastest population growth rates in the world. According to the World Population Prospect (UN 2013), the Nile Basin population is likely to almost double by 2050, with the most significant increases happening in urban areas.

Collectively engaging all the stakeholders.”

As more people move into urban areas, the demand for water, food, and construction materials will grow exponentially.

Studies indicate that if nothing is done to find more efficient ways of producing food, for example, by 2050, the population of the Nile Basin will require 1.5 times the amount of water currently available in the basin.

Cooperation among member countries of the Nile Basin is urgently needed. For example, for the catchment management of rivers, joint investment projects geared towards generating hydropower or replacing biomass as the source of cooking energy.

Ogwete attests to the need for community engagement in addressing such pressing issues. “We realised that the only way we could address the challenge of degradation is by collectively engaging all the stakeholders through their representatives,” he says.


Rethinking collaboration

The challenges facing the community that depend on the Mpanga River are certainly not unique to this part of the world where climate change, rapid population growth and demands imposed by growing economies push natural resources to the brink.

The crisis faced by the community around the Mpanga River illustrates the difficult conundrum that afflicts people when they choose to compete rather than cooperate over water resources.

So far, steps taken include establishing a broad-based community-focused river catchment management committee, indicating that people have realised that cooperation over water resources is a transboundary matter and the responsibility of all.

This article is part of:
When deeds speak, words are nothing
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