Story by CARE Uganda and UNEP
Wetlands are unique ecosystems, home to a diversity of flora and fauna species, in addition to sustaining the livelihoods of many women and men around the world.
The Achwa River catchment in Northern Uganda, home to a dense network of seasonal and permanent riverine marshes, is no exception. Climate change, urban spread, and overuse of natural resources has taken a toll on these important biotopes. Over the past two decades, the Achwa basin lost over 680 km2 of wetlands and currently 20 percent are considered degraded. This river basin is the second in Uganda in terms of marshes decline, just behind the Lake Victoria catchment.
Women in this area are taking the lead in local governance structures to preserve their wetlands. Apio Kevin and Aol Dorcus, two women aged 30 and 27 years old respectively, are local leaders in the Te Abaala Wetland Management Committee in the Otuke district, who inspire other community members to engage collectively in wetlands preservation.
“Belonging to a Wetland Management Committee has given me the opportunity to influence decision-making at the household and sub county levels” says Apio Kevin, the secretary of the Te Abaala Wetland Management Committee. The two of them never miss an opportunity to join the wetlands sensitisation campaigns, to organise meetings, community dialogues, or demarcation exercises to protect their wetlands.
Within this committee, women are proactively engaged in leading wetland conservation as their livelihoods are highly dependent on the wetlands, from the provisioning of water for cooking to the use of plants for medicine and crafts. In addition, women are also a major stakeholder in the fishery sector. In addition, craft making is seen as a low investment eco-enterprise that contributes to household welfare as well as environmental protection. Through indigenous knowledge and harvesting techniques of selected craft materials, women sustainably use wetlands products for small-scale production of goods. For example, papyrus, and wood are used for crafting brooms and other materials.
Aol Dorcus and Apio Kevin previously benefited from a project launched by CARE International in the Partners for Resilience Alliance, with funds from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The project aimed to reduce the impact of annual floods and droughts on vulnerable communities as well as integrate risk management in policy frameworks. Now, a project funded by the European Commission and coordinated by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which aims at scaling-up nature-based solutions for climate resilience in various locations, including in the Achwa catchment, also helps these women continue to preserve their wetlands.
Working together with the communities, this project aims to restore and protect 40,000 hectares of ecosystems, including reducing wetlands degradation. Consequently, it should have a positive impact on 160,000 women and men living in the districts of Otuke, Agago, Alebtong, Abim and Kotido in Northern Uganda. Through community involvement, the project seeks to increase local capacity, especially of youth and women. Activities include backfilling the pits where clay soils are harvested, collecting only mature papyrus to allow young ones to fully develop, and harvesting mature brooms in both dry and wet seasons.
One of the main efforts so far has been the demarcation of wetlands, because their boundaries remain to a large extent unclear to the communities, which can contribute to their degradation. Indeed, the marsh biotope is under pressure, from rice cultivation expansion, and tree cutting for charcoal production, which challenge sound ecosystem management. These practices, combined with the effects of climate change, led to water scarcity in the Achwa region. This context generated insecurities, especially for women who then walk longer distances to fetch water in boreholes. As highlighted by a recent UNEP’s analysis, climate change negatively affects gender relations in Uganda.
Once the wetlands have been demarcated, communities can graze cattle and grow rice from 30 meters beyond wetlands boundaries. Initial achievements include the development of five wetland management plans and committees to sensitise communities on the values of wetlands and their role in mitigating disaster and climate risks in the Otuke district. The project managers are planning to extend this model to the Wetland Management Committees of the Alebtong district.
Apio Kevin’s and Aol Dorcus’s work within the Wetland Management Committee is essential as they continue to mobilise local political leaders and community members to save their riverine wetlands and offer more sustainable alternatives for fuel production and key crops.