By Sam Stewart Mutabazi
High population increase doesn’t necessarily mean environmental degradation. Environment can only be destroyed when dangerous human activity continues unabated for so large thus in the long run leading to serious environmental damage that is difficult to reverse.
Most of The solutions espoused by the Western World may not be applicable to Uganda. Uganda faces serious energy shortfalls right from the small household in the village up to the national level. Whereas the global north has already solved most of her energy needs, Uganda and Africa in general have not graduated to the bare minimum of providing reliable energy sources.
The West has been urging Africa to keep her fossil fuels in the ground. They argue that these are the major polluters of the environment yet this is not true. Fossil fuels are not the main cause of environmental degradation in Africa. And they are not likely to be for many years to come. Africa needs to harness her resources. It needs to use her oil to graduate to the next level of development where it shall be capable of switching to other sources. Uganda in particular needs well-defined interventions to protect her environment and also use her resources to move its people from poverty to prosperity. The question officials of government in Uganda ought to ask themselves is: what is Uganda’s problem in as far as the environmental degradation is concerned? By answering this, they will have come closer to finding a solution on how the country can manage its environment sustainably. Here are the most prominent challenges affecting the environment in Uganda today:
- Lack of fuel (including cooking and lighting) to use in homes
- Unguided human settlements and human activities in urban areas
- Stone quarrying and marram removal on top of the hills
- Open and bare land in most urban areas leading to pollution
- Lack of urban forests and green belts to help clean the air in urban areas.
Cutting down of trees for charcoal in villages is not a very big problem. The big problem is in towns which are swelling with big numbers of people and who continue to clear all the green areas in order to build houses and carry out other forms of activities. Environmental degradation is much more rampant in towns than in rural areas. And that’s where government should focus. It is surprising that today, most government efforts are directed at rural areas yet this is not where the problem is.
A city like Kampala and Wakiso Mukono, Mbarara, and Gulu are environmental disasters waiting to happen. They keep receiving hundreds of people every year who are carrying out all forms of activities in all places including wetlands and water catchment areas. Government must move fast to protect these fragile spaces. A keen observer will notice that most rural regions in Uganda are almost intact. Apart from a few landslides in hilly places, the environment there remains in better shape with a lot of greenery. This is because the people are fewer and hardly have any impact on the environment. The problem is within cities and towns where the population is quite high. This is not to say that we should discourage rural urban migration. To the contrary, we are in full support of people leaving rural areas to cities to tap into but also contribute to urban development.
Cities are the engines of growth and they are likely to remain so for a very long time. If this is the case, then our focus on environmental protection should be on cities and not rural areas. We should make our cities ready to receive large masses of people and ensure that they live and work according to set guidelines as far as protecting the environment is concerned. Cities can hold millions of people who should at the same time enjoy better environment as long as the cities are designed and planned well. Cities need not be turned into concentration camps. The quality of life in a city is largely determined by the general set up and the kind of environment within that city. Good and productive cities have enough green within them.
Cities should be places of welfare and good living. Cities should be green and not dusty. Cities should be more like modern villages with enough vegetation to allow nature and human co-existence. Cities should not be defined by large pieces of concrete and open ground that turn muddy when it rains and dusty when it shines. Cities should have a great ambiance where people live harmoniously together with an amity of mind that spurs creativity and critical thinking.
Without managing the environment in urban areas, while choosing to focus on rural areas, government is holding the stick the wrong way. Rural areas are self-sustaining when it comes to environmental protection and management. Their actions are too insignificant on the environment that they cannot cause great damage as cities would. The population in rural areas is scattered and small in number. They don’t have large earth moving equipment for instance that flatten hills. They use small instruments like Axes and machetes to cut a few trees which sprout back to life in a few months’ time. They also cultivate a few crops using hand hoes. Their damage is very minimum compared to the damage done by large populations in big urban centers. Besides, most of the actions that are carried out in the villages are driven by demand from the cities. Most of the trees cut down in the rural areas are destined to cities. We therefore propose the following interventions for government of Uganda to implement if we are to sustainably manage our environment as a country.
The Ministry of Water and Environment needs to get more practical than it has been. The same applies to the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) and Uganda the National Forestry Authority (NFA). These three government agencies should work as champions by rallying relevant government agencies on their side to harmonize positions on how they can tackle the challenge. They should, as a matter of urgency create a six member team whose terms of reference includes coming up with practical actions that can be taken in the short term to work on urban environment.
The purpose of this team is not to draft voluminous documents which hardly any one reads but to jumpstart a deliberate campaign geared at awakening the country to the challenge at hand. The committee should come up with a water tight policy brief on what exactly ought to be done and how it can be implemented. The committee should reduce on paperwork but focus more on field work. One of the first task of the committee for instance should be to come up with a plan on haw to engage urban areas in the country to carry out massive tree planting exercise. It should be a requirement for all urban authorities to gazette areas in their localities where trees can be planted.
Planting trees does not require someone to first study a lot of books. It’s a practical activity. The more we delay to plant trees today, the longer it shall take for those trees to grow and the harsher the consequences of climate effect on our country. The Committee can also advise on how government entities can acquire land within cities for purposes of creating urban forests and green belts. It should also guide on how to ensure that orderly environmental protection within towns and cities. This is the minimum the country needs before we can then expand the debate to talk about fossil fuels and carbon emissions