Kajumba Godfrey, January 27, 2021

  • Lake Nakivale in Isingiro District, Uganda is under threat due to massive pollution
  • Now, refugees in Nakivale refugee camp in Isingiro district have taken the lead role in the conservation and protection of the lake, the biggest water source to the camp
  • Despite local politicians frustrating the efforts to conserve this beautiful lake, refugees have committed to planting over 100,000 trees

Lake Nakivale is one of the four small lakes that form what is known as the Koki lakes system in southern Uganda. It is 14 km long, 6 km wide, 26 km square in area and has a maximum depth of 3.5 m at high water level. 

Located in Isingiro district, Lake Nakivale serves both the refugees in Nakivale Refugee Camp and Ugandan nationals in the areas next to the lake. 

The lake has been under threat due to massive pollution from silting following massive deforestation during the setup of the camp.

Cultivation up to the lake shores, excess and illegal fishing by both the refugees and nationals just made the situation worse.

Now, refugees in Nakivale refugee camp in Isingiro district have taken the lead role in the conservation and protection of the lake, the biggest water source to the camp and the surrounding areas.

Prioritizing protection and restoration 

Enock Twagirayesu – a refugee of Rwandese origin who is the chairperson Nakivale Green Environment, a refugee environment advocacy Community-Based Organisation, says they have so far planted close to 60,000 trees away from the buffer zone (the 200-meter radius from the lake that is meant to remain human activity free). He says the trees will avail them with firewood and timber for building. 

“Before, we were planting sweet potatoes, tomatoes plus other vegetables and our gardens would stretch up to within the lakeshores. Since we started observing the buffer zone, the water levels have increased, with the lake extending its shores into the buffer zone,” Twagirayesu explains.

This year is the group’s final tree planting year, and they plan to plant 40,000 trees.

“By the end of this year, we shall have planted over 100,000 trees around Lake Nakivale, covering a radius of 5 kilometres. With income from the trees, we intend to set up a Green Environment Center in the camp. This will equip people with vocational skills like carpentry, tailoring among others to reduce their dependence on the lake for survival,”  Twagirayesu says.

The tree project is supplemented with both food and vegetable growing that the locals say give them food and money in a short period as they wait for their trees to mature after 5-10 years. 

People collect water for livestock from the Lake shores in the abandoned buffer zone

“We plant green pepper, tomatoes, onions, maize and cassava in some areas,” Twagirayesu says, further stressing that, “as we take care of the vegetables during watering and application of pesticides, the trees also benefit.”

“Since we started observing the buffer zone, the water levels have increased, with the lake extending its shores into the buffer zone.”

Enock Twagirayesu, chairperson Nakivale Green Environment, a refugee environment advocacy Community-Based Organisation

The vegetable project has helped the refugees keep away livestock that would have eaten the trees. 

The Nakivale Refugee settlement was initially established for Rwandese of Tutsi origin in 1963. But to date, it has at least seven nationalities which include people from Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya and Eritrea. 

A glance into the World Bank data on the population of refugees in Uganda shows an exponential increase from 2010, with a total population of 1,359,458 in 2019. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)’s September 2020 report, the Nakivale refugee camp had a population of 134,1999. This large population has had a stressful impact on the lake. 

A 2010 report on Lake Nakivale by the Office of the Prime Minister and the National Fisheries Resource Research Institute showed a change in quality of water over a period of 80 years. 

According to the report, the water clarity has dropped, PH has risen, and the lake is too eutrophic, which means it has a lot of minerals and nutrients which supports dense plants that kill animal life on decomposing.

Akiteng Constance, an Environment Assistant officer in Nakivale Refugee Camp, attributes the increased encroachment on the wetlands around Lake Nakivale to increased population and loss of soil fertility in most parts of the camp. 

“We have tried to restore the lake [7 kilometers so far]. Here we have planted trees, wetland restoration and demarcating the lake plus sensitizing the communities on the need to conserve the lake,” Akiteng says. 

Benefits of restoration 

Joshua Nzaaho Owimana, also a Rwandese refugee and member of Nakivare Green Environment, says government availed them with land, and Nsamizi Institute of Social Development, one of the implementing agencies in the camp, gave them seedlings for both the trees and vegetables that are now doing well. 

“When the lake started drying up due to our agriculture activities along the shores of the lake, the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) chased us away from the shores. The Government of Uganda allowed us to operate in the land that was 200 meters away from the lake,” says Nzaaho Owimana.  

Nzaaho further notes that with support from Nsamizi, they started on the vegetable project away from the lakeshores as a pilot because they were not sure it would be successful away from the lake, as the area is a bit hilly. 

“We had to hire a water pump to water our vegetables as it is too tiring to carry water to the new gardens,” notes Nzaaho.

Joshua Nzaaho Owimana with neighbors pick ripe tomatoes from their garden.

He is happy that they are now reaping the benefits of working hard. 

“We don’t regret abandoning cultivating along the lake shores. Our trees and vegetable gardens are growing well and the water levels in lake Nakivale have also increased.

—Joshua Nzaaho Owimana, a Rwandese refugee and member of Nakivare Green Environment

Jaconeous Musingwire is the regional manager of NEMA (National Environment Management Authority) in southwestern Uganda.

Musingwire says, “we had to make sure that in the 1st phase , we promoted tree planting in the buffer zone. We allowed locals to do seasoned cropping under the trees, so that they mature and we have a well vegetated  buffer zone area”. 

Challenges to restoration efforts

Akiteng Constance, the environment assistant officer, said local politicians were frustrating the efforts to conserve this beautiful lake.

“Where nationals have settled, there is a lot of encroachment and when we are implementing the activity of wetland restoration, there is resistance from the politicians,” she stresses.

Despite the efforts by implementing partners to support the refugees to save Lake Nakivale, environmentalists say this isn’t enough to save the lake.  

They want the Isingiro District leadership to spearhead the conservation of the lake, especially in areas occupied by Uganda nationals. 

Jaconeous Musingwire, the Environment Authority regional manager, says lack of funds has crippled the authority’s ability to protect Lake Nakivale. “The major challenge we have is limited funding. Our activities to protect the buffer zone depended on donor funding; when the support ended, the sustainability element becomes a challenge due to lack of funds.”

The representative of President Yoweri Museveni in Isingiro district is Herbert Muhangi.

Muhangi says the national environment agency, NEMA, demarcated the 200-meter buffer zone around the lake and all people, refugees and nationals inclusive must respect this.

“People must stay away from politicians misleading them. We shall evict them by force as we have support from the Office of the President,” he says.

If Lake Nakivale dries up, we shall be doomed to death as it’s our biggest source of water. The refugees have responded positively towards its conservation; our nationals should follow suit.”

Herbert Muhangi, RESPRESENTATIVE OF THE PRESIDENT, ISINGO DISTRICT

Muhangi insists that the people of Isingiro must do all it takes to save Lake Nakivale, stressing that “if lake Nakivale dries up, we shall be doomed to death as it’s our biggest source of water. The refugees have responded positively towards its conservation; our nationals should follow suit.”

Photo Credits: Kajumba Godfrey

This story was produced in partnership with InfoNile with support from Code for Africa and funding from the JRS Biodiversity Foundation.

This story was published by the New Vision, Uganda on 17th October 2020

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