We shouldn’t bury our heads in the sand – climate change is real!

By: Fred K. Businge

When we talk about the environment, we mean the physical factors of the surroundings of human beings, including: land, water, atmosphere, climate, sound, smell, taste, the biological factors of animals and plants and the social factor of aesthetics. It includes both the natural and the built environment.

The National Forestry Authority (NFA) states that, in 1990, Uganda’s forest cover was at 24%. Today it stands at 8% or 9% and more than 73 hectares of private forests are destroyed every year across the country. Several thousand hectares of protected forest reserves are destroyed annually for timber and charcoal in spite of several laws governing environmental management.

The question is, who is to blame and more importantly, what can be done?

According to the National Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy No. 13 in the Constitution of the Republic of Uganda (as amended), which was promulgated on the 8th day of October, 1995, it is the duty of the State to protect natural resources, including land, water, wetlands, minerals, oil, fauna and flora on behalf of the people of Uganda.

And according to State Policy No. 27, the State is required to promote sustainable development and public awareness of the need to manage land, air and water resources in a balanced and sustainable manner for the present and future generations.

The above State Policies task the State to ensure that natural resources of Uganda are managed in such a way as to meet the development and environmental needs of the present and future generations of Uganda; and in particular, to take all possible measures to prevent or minimize damage and destruction to land, air and water resources resulting from pollution or other causes.

The same Policies require the State and Local Governments to, among other things:

  • Promote and implement energy policies that will ensure that peoples’ basic needs and those of environmental preservation are met;
  • Ensure conservation;
  • Promote rational use of natural resources so as to safeguard and protect the biodiversity of Uganda.

In Article 245 of the Constitution of Uganda, Parliament is required to make laws to:

  • Protect and preserve the environment from abuse, pollution and degradation;
  • Manage the environment for sustainable development; and
  • Promote environmental awareness.

On the 19th day of May, 1995, prior to the coming into force of the current Constitution, Parliament enacted the National Environment Act, Cap 153 of the Laws of Uganda, which in Section 4 thereof, created the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) as the principal Agency in Uganda, for the management of the environment and to coordinate, monitor and supervise all activities in the field of the environment.

Its functions include but are not limited to:

  • Ensuring the integration of environmental concerns in overall national planning through coordination with the relevant Ministries, Departments and Agencies of the Government;
  • Liaising with the private sector, intergovernmental organisations, nongovernmental agencies and governmental agencies of other States on issues relating to the environment;
  • Promotion of public awareness through formal and informal education about environmental issues; and
  • Undertaking research and dissemination of information about the environment.

Research shows that 97% of the cities in low and middle-income countries, with more than one hundred thousand inhabitants, do not meet the World Health Organization (WHO) air quality guidelines. The Kampala air quality index, as of September, 2018 was six times higher than the World Health Organization Air Quality Guidelines. This explains why, today, approximately thirty-one thousand six hundred people in Uganda die due to diseases engendered by air pollution because of the unchecked destruction of the environment. In Kampala (the nation’s capital) alone, if one intends to use the roads, ninety minutes of exposure to fumes are enough to cause damage to one’s health. Emissions of fumes from old vehicles and industries, residential trash burning, road dust, soot from indoor biomass fueled cook stoves are some of the causes of urban air quality decline. This leads to increase in the risks of stroke, heart diseases, lung cancer and chronic, as well as acute respiratory diseases including asthma for the people who reside in towns.

I opine that, although our laws provide for sustainable development, it cannot be achieved without decisive action to adapt to and mitigate climate change. Climate change is further expected to increase internal displacements, regional and international conflicts related to scarcity of resources.

Uganda has developed a Climate Change Policy, the Adaptation Plan, the Green Growth Strategy and has even enacted a Climate Change Law; the current National Environment Act, No. 5 of 2019. We even have the National Forestry and Tree Planting Act, No. 8 of 2003 and The Water Act, Cap 152 and the Regulations made thereunder.

Despite the existence of all these laws, plans and policies, we have failed to address the escalating deforestation, wetland degradation, wildlife poaching, low investment in clean energy as well as transport and waste management. Evidently, our problem is not lack of legislation but lack of political, administrative and institutional will to implement the law, plans and policies.  

The people of Uganda, especially the Banyoro people are thrilled about the discovery of oil and gas in their home area, but research has shown that the oil and natural gas industry is a significant source of emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas with higher global warming potential than carbon dioxide. Extracting oil and mineral resources needs to be done in a balanced way to ensure environmental protection and biodiversity conservation.

To combat the negative effects of climate change, the Government ought to:

  • monitor air quality and the impact on human health and make the information available;
  • invest in renewable energy sources like solar to mitigate the impacts of air pollution to curb the use of electric generators;
  • implement the ‘Polluter pays principle’ under Ugandan law to penalize industries polluting the environment;
  • encourage the use of unleaded petrol;
  • encourage the people to green their surroundings;
  • plant forests to clean the air;
  • employ public education seminars, talk shows, newspaper supplements and television or stage dramas for sensitization, to raise awareness and make our people appreciate the urgency of the matter.

It is therefore important to protect the environment while pursuing economic and social progress so as to achieve harmony between man and nature and between man and society. Sustainable development cannot be achieved without decisive action to adapt to and mitigate climate change. Climate change has the capacity to reverse positive economic growth and development trends pushing more people into poverty, worsening the unemployment problem particularly for the youth and increasing income disparities.

You and I need to act as if our house is on fire, because it is.

Planting trees on our roads would help greatly