June 11, 2020 / 8:44 AM / a month ago

Uganda wants people to leave flooded wetlands - and not come back

ENTEBBE, Uganda (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - For the last decade, Silus Musasizi has lived on a wetland on the shores of Lake Victoria. For most of that time, Uganda’s government has been trying to chase him away.

Now, it is the water itself that has driven him from his small house on the edge of Entebbe, a Ugandan town that juts into Africa’s largest lake.

Thousands have been displaced from their homes along the shoreline by the worst flooding since records began more than a century ago. Musasizi, who works as a truck driver, is renting a room on higher ground until the waters recede.

“Homes have been destroyed,” said Musasizi, whose family came here originally seeking cheap land. “My friends are now on the streets.”

The Ugandan government has said people like Musasizi are partly to blame for the floods, and wants them to leave the wetlands for good.

It plans to start evicting people without compensation this month - in the middle of a coronavirus lockdown that has hit the poor hardest.

‘RICH WILL REMAIN’

Alfred Okot Okidi, the top civil servant at the ministry of water and environment, said 700,000 Ugandans had been affected by flooding nationwide, almost all of whom live illegally in the protected zones around lakes and rivers.

Settlement, cultivation and industry were destroying the wetlands, which act as “natural sponges” to absorb excess rainfall, Okidi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The evictions are in line with a directive issued by President Yoweri Museveni, who warned in an address last week that the floods “should be an eternal lesson to all of us”.

That is a message heard with scepticism in the swamps of Entebbe, where houses crumble into the water and men fish in flooded gardens.

Peter Kisakye Zzimula, the pastor of a church on the wetlands, argued that people only build there because they cannot afford to rent property elsewhere.

“Nobody would wish to be here but people are oppressed,” he said. “If you evict them, where will they go?”

The rains over east Africa have been unusually heavy since last year and climate scientists have predicted more such weather in future.

But the flooding is exacerbated by local factors including the destruction of forests and wetlands, said Frank Muramuzi, executive director of the National Association of Professional Environmentalists, a civil society group.

Muramuzi said wealthy investors were snapping up land to grow rice or flowers for sale, and set up hotels and resorts.

“All those establishments are being done by rich people and some them have connections in government,” he said.

“The poor people will be evicted, but the rich people will remain.”

‘GOD HAS COME’

Last year, wetlands covered just 8.4% of Uganda, down from 15.5% in 1994, according to the environment ministry.

In 2014 the government ordered the cancellation of all land titles there, issued illegally by local officials because the law prohibits private ownership of wetlands.

A subsequent survey of four central districts identified 1,700 titles in wetlands, said Collins Oloya, the acting director of environmental affairs at the environment ministry.

But the process has become bogged down in lengthy court proceedings and only 300 titles have so far been cancelled.

Now the rising waters are forcing people out of the wetlands, doing Oloya’s work for him.

“I’m very happy that God has come,” he said.

But the political pressures that have stymied past threats of eviction may do so again, with elections scheduled for next year.

Police fired teargas at protesting vendors last month as they shut down a flooded market on another stretch of shoreline.

“We need to conserve the environment, but at the same time we need to be conscious that we are dealing with human beings,” said Kayanja Vincent de Paul, the mayor of Entebbe.

“It is a hotcake. If you handle it badly, it can burn you up.”

SUSPICION

Tensions are heightened by popular suspicion. Musasizi, the truck driver, believes governments have engineered the floods to grab land from the poor.

“After this water has chased these poor people, more hotels are going to be built here,” he said.

Meanwhile Judith Amojong, another resident, is hoping for divine intervention.

She used to sleep in the local church with a few other homeless worshippers.

One day she foresaw a great flood. “I got a dream where the world was full of water,” she recalled.

Soon after, the waters started seeping under the corrugated iron walls, bringing coldness and snakes.

Amojong, who is now sheltering at the house of a fellow churchgoer, hopes that she will not have to return.

“We are praying God gives us money in order to leave this place because we cannot fight nature, this is fighting God.”

Reporting by Liam Taylor, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org

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