The livelihoods of most Ugandans intimately depend on the environment, both as a source of subsistence and as a basis for production. Environmental degradation in the country—which includes wetland encroachment and contamination of water resources—is critical: based on estimates, degradation costs represent an environmental debt of about US$ 1–4 billion today. Although the country's water resources are rich, severe water scarcity is predicted for the near future, particularly in more populated areas and in the more fragile arid and semiarid pastoral areas. The Ugandan government has formulated a number of policies to regulate land use and impacts on the environment. However, the alarming rate at which natural resources are being depleted shows that these laws and policies are not enforced effectively. Using both qualitative and quantitative research methods, the study presented here focused on water resources, assessing their status in 4 mountainous districts of Uganda and evaluating the effectiveness of government policies with regard to restoration and conservation of water catchments. The study revealed a glaring gap between the existence of laws and policies on the one hand, and the reality of implementation on the ground on the other—there is rapid depletion of water resources, and water scarcity has already led to conflicts. The paper calls for effective implementation of existing policies and laws without fear or favor and for increased budgetary allocations from the current 25.6 billion shillings (2006–2007) to 34.45 billion or more, to accommodate funding for the execution of policies and laws. It also calls for meticulous review of the existing environmental policy regime with a view to tailoring, customizing, and localizing it for practical purposes.
Land and natural resource degradation in Uganda account for over 80% of the annual costs of environmental degradation. By 1991, conservative estimates of the annual cost of environmental degradation were put at about US$ 157–480 million (Slade and Weitz 1991). Capitalized at the government's social opportunity cost of capital of 12% per annum, these environmental degradation costs represent an environmental debt of about US$ 1–4 billion today. Uganda can hardly afford to add this additional but hidden debt to its official indebtedness to external and domestic creditors.
The severity of this environmental problem is compounded by the fact that the livelihoods of many Ugandans intimately depend on the environment, both as a source of subsistence and as a basis for production. In 1999, the agricultural and environmental sectors together contributed over 90% of Uganda's exports and supplied more than 90% of Uganda's energy requirements in terms of firewood and charcoal (Moyini et al 2002). The environment and natural resource sectors contributed 55% of total gross domestic product (GDP)—a very substantial contribution to Uganda's economy (MoFPED 2000). This, therefore, means that encroachment on and depletion of resources such as wetlands, forests, pastures, fields, rivers, lakes, and swamps severely endanger human lives because of the resulting loss of water, food, and energy; but it also ultimately leads to reduced foreign exchange revenue and balancing of deficits.
Once described as the “Pearl of Africa” by Sir Winston Churchill, the environment in Uganda's pre-independence period was arguably the best in the whole of Africa. The country enjoyed an ideal weather pattern suitable for agricultural production that boosted the country's economy in the period immediately after independence. Agriculture thus was—and still is—the country's economic backbone. Land cover in Uganda today consists of 35% farmland, 21% grasslands, 20% forest/woodlands, 15% water bodies, 6% bushland, and 3% commercial farms/urban areas. Settlement patterns vary, and land ranges from densely populated to uninhabited areas; land degradation is worse in more populated areas and in the more fragile arid and semiarid pastoral areas. In such areas, soil erosion is increasing, soil fertility is decreasing, and agrochemical pollution and desertification are on the rise.
Uganda, however, is rich in water resources: annual rainfall of 600–2500 mm is the principal contributor to the surface water bodies that cover considerable areas in the country. An estimated 200,000 springs are found in the country (Syngellakis and Arudo 2006). Water withdrawal in aquifers was estimated to be below 1% of total renewable water resources.
However, estimates foresee water stress by the year 2025 (MWE–WMD 2004). One reason for this is the conversion of wetlands. These ecosystems occupy the ecotones between open water bodies and terrestrial ecosystems and perform important regulatory functions such as flood control and groundwater recharge. They are, however, under severe threat: conversion or modification takes place at very high rates for development purposes. This is considered a rightful and development-oriented activity even by policy-makers at all levels of government. For example, the hilly Jinja district has been noted as having one of the highest percentages of modified wetlands. The district has 10,325 ha of wetlands (14% of land area in the district), but almost 80% of this has been modified. As for the mountainous Kabale district, this figure is almost 74% (NEMA 2002). Between 1990 and 1992, 7.3% of the country's wetlands were converted into farmland (MWE–WMD 2004). In addition to that, population growth and increasing per capita usage have already made the demand for water a problem (Figure 1). The livestock population (4.5 million, 2002 estimate) has a freshwater demand of 81 million m3 per year, and this demand level is projected to increase to 233 million m3 by 2010 as livestock numbers increase (UNEP 2002).