The Lwera wetland, situated just 20 kilometers from Mpigi to Kalungu district in Central Uganda, was once a pristine natural area. It held great ecological importance and served as a haven for biodiversity. Unfortunately, this once-thriving ecosystem is now under serious threat due to the relentless activities of sand miners and large-scale Chinese rice growers. This exploitation has led to environmental degradation and climate disruptions, affecting the Kampala-Masaka highway, a vital transportation route to neighboring countries.
The highway’s condition has deteriorated significantly, with potholes and craters making travel challenging. Sand miners use powerful dredging machines to extract sand from the wetland, compromising the road’s foundation and infrastructure. An investigation conducted by a local newspaper has unveiled the hazardous human activities jeopardizing the wetland’s existence and posing an environmental crisis in Uganda.
The inquiry revealed a complex network of conspiracy, widespread fraud, corruption, and impunity allegedly involving high-ranking government officials. According to current regulations, the National Environment Management Authority (Nema) has the authority to permit environmentally friendly activities in the wetland. This has attracted various investors, including companies and individuals, involved in activities such as sand mining, fish farming, and crop cultivation. Nema has issued renewable certificates to several companies for operations within the wetland, though officially recognizing only three sanctioned operators.
Environmentalists have raised concerns about the ecological impact of sand mining and rice cultivation in the wetland. Additionally, some portions of the land in the area fall under Mailo land tenure, with individuals holding valid titles. Investigations have uncovered instances where government officials conspired to sell sections of the wetland.
One significant case involves the sale of a square mile of wetland in Lwera by the then Minister of Agriculture, Vincent Bamulangaki Ssempijja, to John Ssebalamu. Ssebalamu reported that he had purchased two square miles of wetland in 2010 from the late Mayanja Nkangi, the former chairman of the Uganda Land Commission (ULC), and Ssempijja, respectively.
The encroachment on Lwera wetland not only weakens its resilience but also exacerbates climate change issues, such as flooding. The destruction of the wetland’s natural habitat further threatens bird species and negatively impacts tourism.
Prominent environmentalist Achilles Byaruhanga emphasized that the wetland’s degradation negatively affects the local climate and poses a significant threat to Uganda’s tourism industry. He pointed out that it is challenging to promote tourism in Lwera when the very elements attracting tourists are being destroyed.
The use of chemicals in rice plantations has inadvertently harmed aquatic life and polluted the water, endangering the ecosystem. Byaruhanga also linked the flooding of the Katonga river to sand mining and rice cultivation, which disrupt the natural flow of water.
To address the situation sustainably, experts like Prof. Frank Kansiime from Makerere University advocate for responsible wetland farming practices and ecologically sustainable approaches, such as fish farming. The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) recommends adopting integrated agricultural practices to protect wetland ecosystems.
Local leaders expressed frustration with the government’s inadequate efforts to protect the wetland. They alleged that influential Chinese sand miners bribed government figures for protection. Despite local authorities’ attempts to intervene, these operations continued due to the influence wielded by sand mining companies.
According to Ssempala Kigozi, the resident district commissioner (RDC) for Mpigi, Nema’s issuance of operating licenses to sand miners limits local authorities’ ability to enforce regulations. Matia Lwanga Bwanika also attributed the encroachment on Lwera wetland to a governance crisis, characterized by a lack of political will, corruption, and indifference to environmental concerns.
Doreen Nakirya, an environmental consultant, stressed the importance of impartial impact assessments that consider the potential harm to wetland ecosystems. Questions have arisen about the thoroughness of the studies conducted before approving activities in the wetlands.
William Lubuulwa, the senior public relations officer for Nema, stated that the agency stopped issuing new licenses for wetland operations in September 2021 and would not renew most existing licenses. District-level officials noted the challenges in monitoring wetland activities and called for increased compliance monitoring to address the issue of encroachment.
Despite the challenges and resistance, efforts to protect Lwera wetland continue, highlighting the commitment of those dedicated to its preservation amid stories of deception and destruction. The battle for Lwera’s survival stands as a testament to this commitment.