Population growth is scapegoat for Uganda’s damaged environment

Radio Munansi English program Sunday February 10, 2013

This is Eric Kashambuzi communicating from New York.

Greetings: fellow Ugandans at home and abroad, friends and well-wishers. Welcome to the program. We look forward to your active participation in this interactive conversation.

Since Amin time, population growth has been blamed for Uganda’s problems including environmental degradation in rural and urban areas. There is a rumor that NRM government is about to introduce to parliament a bill limiting family size to three children. This is a blatant violation of human right of couples to decide how many children they wish to have when to have them and how to space them. What the government can do is to facilitate and create conditions to enable Ugandans take informed decisions but not to force them especially by some leaders who have more than three children. It doesn’t make sense to force Ugandans to limit their family size when the government wants to eliminate Uganda borders so that other people from East Africa and beyond come is as they like. These are contradictions and one wonders what the overall goal is as far as Uganda population is concerned. Many countries are protecting their borders to eliminate or limit immigrants but in Uganda and Rwanda they want to abolish national borders. Uganda isn’t going to solve other people’s problems to its detriment. Uganda hasn’t benefited from the East African community in terms of trade, labor and population mobility as we discussed yesterday.

As we discuss this topic today, I am asking all listeners to look at your urban and rural areas and see whether or not the environment has been damaged by population growth per se and by Uganda population alone. Even if this were true, population growth impact must be seen in a wider context including poverty and competition for land for growing export crops and urbanization.

As we know, Uganda has been a magnet attracting people from our neighbors and beyond. Many have come with their cattle and both have multiplied putting pressure on the carrying capacity of resources and services. While Uganda’s natural population growth has impacted the environment, greater pressure has come from other factors.

So, let me tell you what I know and what I said some years back when I led a mission of Ugandans and international staff to prepare a country program for Uganda for support by the United Nations.

In Rujumbura of Rukungiri district where I come from colonial authorities designated the area a labor reserve, to supply cheap labor to Buganda and to some extent Busoga that had been designated economic poles growing export commodities of cotton and later coffee. So in Rujumbura land was used only to produce food for domestic consumption. The people in Rujumbura or should I say in my village cleared vegetation to grow food of annual crops such as millet, beans, potatoes and to plant perennial bananas. When the soil got exhausted, subsistence farmers moved to a new plot and the old one was allowed to regenerate and restore soil fertility. Fuel wood was collected from dead branches or a dead tree. Trees were not felled to produce firewood. The fertile and well drained soils were therefore devoted to food cultivation for domestic consumption and selling food was rare because the town was very small and many workers lived in rural areas and walked to work every morning. Colonial authorities discouraged cultivation on steep slopes, water catchment areas and draining wetlands. Therefore population growth didn’t damage the environment in rural and urban areas.

After the Second World War, the situation changed. Rujumbura was allowed to grow export crops. Coffee and tobacco were introduced. In my area we grew coffee which was planted in fertile areas where food crops were grown including in banana plantations. As coffee trees grew and spread their branches, they replaced food crops and bananas were reduced to give coffee space to spread.

The cultivation of food crops was then shifted to other areas where vegetation was cleared and most of these areas were marginal in soil fertility and on steep gradients. The fertility got exhausted quickly requiring moving on to another plot. To get the same amount of food as before, more land was cleared than in areas of fertile soils. So, rapid de-vegetation was accelerated not because of population growth but because of the introduction of export crop of coffee which forced growing food crops in marginal areas with low productivity which in turn meant clearing large pieces of land to produce the same amount of food as was produced on smaller but fertile soils that coffee took over. Thus even if population didn’t grow, de-vegetation accelerated because of the introduction of coffee that drove cultivation of food crops onto marginal soils.

Then, I went to study at Butobere Senior Secondary School in Kabale. There was plenty of wetland and trees that stretched over ten miles. These wetlands regulated temperatures and the place was foggy and cool. I left for further studies when the place was still intact.

When I visited the place in 1980, I could not believe what I saw. The wetlands were all gone and so were the trees. The place was all cattle ranches with imported exotic animals. The local climate became warmer allowing the invasion of the area by mosquitoes spreading malaria to people especially children without immunity, turning Kabale into an emergency area.

So, again population growth had nothing to do with wetland clearance. In fact a population resettlement program in Ankole, north Kigezi and other places in Uganda had reduced pressure on the carrying capacity of the land in Kabale. Therefore, as in Rujumbura, population growth was not the cause of clearing the wetland. It was an economic policy decision by Amin regime that called on Ugandans to use every piece of land to increase agricultural production.

In those days travelling between Mbarara and Masaka one saw thick vegetation on both sides of the road. This vegetation was called Miombo woodland. Traditional cattle grazed in the area without causing much damage.

Then the authorities decided to turn the area into modern ranches. The miombo woodland was cleared, exposing bare soils to strong winds and torrential rainfall that washed away the soil. Water runoff reduced the amount that filtered into the ground to maintain a high water table. With water table down, vegetation with short roots dried and died. The remaining grass was eaten and trampled by cows, contributing to the formation of semi-desert conditions in the Nyabushozi area where the ranches were developed.

On dry and windy days there are thick clouds of dust that sometimes obstruct visibility on the road. At one time I had to stop the car because visibility was very poor as a dusty cloud – what we call akasorora – crossed the road.

Traditional cattle that grazed in the area was replaced and concentrated on reduced space outside the ranches and overstocking resulted in environmental damage.

Then in 1959 there was a social revolution in Rwanda that chased away Tutsi with their cattle into Kigezi and Ankole where pressure on natural resources was already high, contributing to further degradation of the environment. More vegetation was cleared to eliminate tsetse fly and make room for more cattle that was coming in from Rwanda. De-vegetation changed local climate and the result was drought. It caused refugees and Ankole pastoralists to migrate with their cattle out of the area and spread to all parts of Uganda including in Rakai, Masaka, West Nile, Acholi, Lango and Teso among other areas. The multiplication of livestock and areal expansion of cultivated land for export and food crops put the carrying capacity of the land under tremendous pressure and damaged the environment. The cattle corridor has been particularly damaged, contributing to semi-desert conditions.

Uganda has also attracted many refugees from several countries including Sudan, Kenya and DRC. They have damaged the environment as they cleared bushes and woods for camps, building materials and fuel wood.

Apart from clearing vegetation for export crop cultivation, some exports like tea and tobacco require a lot of wood used in drying tea and curing tobacco adding to deforestation. In Kebison area growing tobacco was terminated because there wasn’t enough wood for curing the leaves.

In 1987, NRM government launched a structural adjustment program calling inter alia on increasing and diversifying exports, removing subsidies on electricity and kerosene or paraffin and retrenching public servants. This policy decision has had serious environmental consequences.

Increasing cultivation of traditional crops of tea, coffee, cotton and tobacco and non-traditional crops of cut flowers, beans and maize and increasing timber and livestock exports have resulted in extensive de-vegetation. Let us look at growing cut flowers as an example. The production of cut flowers has damaged the environment around Kampala where vegetation has been cleared and chemicals are draining into the soils polluting water that is discharged into rivers and Lake Victoria. Increased export of timber has also resulted in large scale deforestation.

The retrenchment of public servants created a class of the “new poor” and the removal of subsidies on education, healthcare and fuel and paraffin or kerosene raised domestic expenses so high that they couldn’t afford electricity and kerosene. They resorted to fuel wood and charcoal, causing more deforestation.

Let us now shift to the urban areas where the environment has also been damaged not so much because of population growth per se. Air pollution from burning garbage that isn’t collected by municipal authorities and traffic fumes has become a serious problem. Garbage on the streets is a problem: it stinks and spoils the beauty and obstructs sidewalks. Noise from traffic congestion is another problem. For security reasons many households have dogs that bark all night. Sprawling slums is a problem. Government policy has been to attract people to urban areas in search of development opportunities.

NRM believes that Uganda will not develop until the country is highly urbanized. So, urban population has grown faster than the national average. If you add on illegal immigrants and refugees in town you have an idea about the magnitude of the problem, bearing in mind that infrastructure such as roads are more or less the same as inherited at independence in 1962.

For example, the streets of Kampala are still about the same as we inherited them from Britain. They should have been adjusted to accommodate increased population and traffic. Population and traffic congestion on the streets is therefore largely a function of poor planning.

Second hand vehicles that have been imported in large numbers since NRM came to power produce more pollution than new ones. Used vehicles also tend to be noisy than new ones.

Foul air is posing a serious challenge. The standard of hygiene in some slaughter houses leaves much room for improvement. I abandoned a petrol station in Kampala on Jinja road because the foul air from a nearby butchery was too much.

Reckless construction in drainage channels has caused Kampala to flood every time it rains, bringing garbage with it and leaving it behind when the water drains away. Standing water creates breeding ground for mosquitoes that spread malaria creating a health hazard.

It has been reported that residents near Hima cement factory were experiencing burning sensation in their eyes. It turned out that the burning sensation was caused by fumes from the factory.

As poverty has remained high, poor people have tended to damage the environment as they try to make ends meet. They use fuel wood or charcoal instead of electricity. They grow food in unsuitable places such as on hill slopes, contributing to soil erosion and landslides. They build shelters that turn into slums damaging the scenic beauty of towns.

The point being made is that even without population growing, Uganda’s environment would still continue to be damaged. Thus indigenous population growth from natural causes of births exceeding deaths can’t alone be held fully responsible for environmental damage in rural and urban areas.

Addressing Uganda’s deteriorating environment in rural and urban areas therefore requires a multi-disciplinary approach rather than focusing on birth control alone or leave Uganda to the market forces. Since NRM came to power, it left responsibility for Uganda’s economy and society in the hands of market forces and trickle down mechanism which have serious imperfections that have manifested in environmental damage in rural and urban areas among other ills.

The government needs to step in. Increasing agricultural productivity per unit of land by using high yielding seeds, a combination of organic and inorganic fertilizers and small-scale irrigation facilities and reduction of food losses will reduce land under cultivation and de-vegetation.

Reducing poverty will also go a long way in easing pressure on resources. Industrialization will add value to exports and reduce pressure on felling trees for timber exports and clear less vegetation for export crop production. Zero grazing should replace environmentally destructive nomadic herding. Industries and services associated with them will create jobs, raise incomes with which Ugandans will improve their standard of living and in the end reduce family size and slow population growth.

Environmental programs such as reforestation of degraded lands should be undertaken through government supported public works and wetlands should be restored as well as undertaking better urban planning and management. These efforts will go a long way in reducing environmental degradation in Uganda. Population decline alone won’t make a dent because degradation is caused by many factors as mentioned above.

Thank you for your attention. Eric

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