WEST NILE. Ms Zamzam Maturu (in her 30s) hails from Yapi village, Olua parish in Terego West constituency, Arua district. She often has to travel close to 10km to the border with Maracha district in Nadule forest to collect firewood.
This is the daily life of the people here because most of the trees have been cut down, the population has soared and yet firewood is the only energy source for cooking.
Her Husband, Mr Amin Acema says the lack of firewood has greatly affected their family activities since more time is spent in the search of firewood.
“You can’t eat in time, sometimes you have to wait for breakfast at 11 am, lunch at three or four o’clock and you end up missing supper because firewood is really a problem”, Acema narrates.
Further away from Katrini to Omugo Sub County where a considerable proportion of the population was served by the river Oru for their water needs, the tale has changed especially during the dry season.
“At my younger age, this river Oru was very big and it would not dry but I think it’s now the climatic change that has been caused by the people around here, they have cut down all the trees and cultivated up to the river reservoirs and water can’t be retained, that’s why it easily dries off during the dry season”, Mr Henry Ondoma, a resident of Kubala in Omugo sub-county narrates.
River Oru passes through the districts of Koboko, Maracha, Arua before joining with river Enyau and finally into river Nile.
Some of the people in the Kubala neighbourhood do not only travel long distances but have to cue to access the small remaining pools of water during dry spells.
“The way the weather has changed is very scary, many more water bodies’ have dried and the river Enyau levels have drastically reduced, ten years from now we may live without water bodies which is very dangerous to our survival”, Mr Geoffrey Niku, the sub-county chief of Aii-vu in Arua district says.
Terego county (now comprises Terego East and West) has traditionally been known for the growth of the wood intensive Tobacco cash crop, for decades, the forest cover has been removed for this purpose without any adequate replacement.
The dominating replacement, the Eucalyptus tree that has largely been planted because of its easy maturity has adverse effects on the soils and has failed to fit in the void of the natural trees indigenous to this setting.
Due to population pressure and a rapidly changing climate, communities have been forced to cultivate at the river banks destroying important water shades in the process.
Poor community attitudes towards forest cover restoration, the adaptation of energy-saving technologies and bush burning among a list of other ‘evils’ further complicates the situation.
“Our people have been concentrating on tree planting alone but not the responsibility of owning and managing the trees by taking care of them”, Mr Robert Asiku, Arua district forest officer acknowledges.
“That’s what we want to take forward, first giving the seedlings should be demand-driven to see how many of the trees planted have survived not the numbers of planted trees anymore as has been the case”.
Just between April and June 2019 alone, the district received over 600,000 seedlings that were distributed to different groups and individuals; Asiku fears that if the old approach is used, the same mortality story will be recycled.
In the refugee settlements that have been seriously depleted, the case of seedling mortality has been the same.
“We appreciate that seedlings have been given to beneficiaries and they park them under the verandas to dry there, this year the approach is that our team does verification to see how prepared you are before the seedlings are given”, Mr Pax Sakari, the executive director of Rural initiate for community Empowerment West Nile (RICE-WN) says.
His organization is just one among others contracted by the United Nations high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) to carry environmental activities in the refugee-hosting areas that have seen worse degradation.
Mr Musa Ecweru, the state minister for disaster preparedness and refugees in a recent visit to the 250sqkm Bidi Bidi settlement in Yumbe district said more than 58% of the environment cover had been destroyed in just two years.
According to statistics from the Ministry of Water and Environment, the forest cover in Uganda declined from 24 per cent in 1990 to 9 per cent in 2015.
Relevant laws lie in ruins
In 2016, Arua district council slapped a ban on the commercial dealing in Charcoal after the realisation that loads of traders from Kampala had flooded the district thereby necessitating the red flag.
The ban was a short term solution as the district embarked on a Charcoal and wood fuel ordinance.
“The district council did its part and forwarded the draft to the ministry of local government and the solicitor general”, Asiku says.
“What is remaining is the regulations to operationalize the ordinance because most times ordinances don’t work well because they just remain approved without guiding principles in terms of regulations”.
“This time we were strongly advised to get the regulations and I was informed they are out awaiting approval which I know will be out in the middle of September 2019”, he further says of the process that began in 2016.
However, Asiku says another hindrance remains the funds for distribution even if the ordinance is finally approved.
“We are on the look for resources because it is one thing getting a book and another letting someone open and read the book, we may not have the capacity to reach all the people of Arua and we call upon the partners to come to our aid to help disseminate the ordinance”, he pleads.
The situation of environmental degradation is a time bomb that keeps ticking by the day, the alarms raised need quick concerted actions.
Ecweru, having seen the beauty of environmentally friendly technologies like the use of solar at Bidi Bidi settlement advised all implementing partners to adopt such as long term solutions to the problem.
At the district, Asiku says the focus has mainly been on sensitization so that the communities get to understand the scope of the problem.
“Our struggle should not be to chase people around with police in enforcement but to have an all-round mind change,” he says.