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Ramsar site on Katonga River under serious threat by Chinese investors

A Ramsar site on the Katonga River in Uganda is under serious threat by investors who are reclaiming this stretch of wetland for the construction of a factory to be built by a Chinese company.

A Ramsar site is a wetland site designated to be of international importance under the Ramsar Convention. The Convention on Wetlands, known as the Ramsar Convention, is an intergovernmental environmental treaty established in 1971 by UNESCO in the city of Ramsar located in Iran.

Located in the catchment area of Lake Victoria, this wetland is listed in the River Information System (RIS) as of 2006 as site number 1640. It has a long narrow stretch of swamp from the periphery of Masaka, Nabajjuzi Wetland System, to the major Katonga River system.

It provides a spawning ground for mudfish and lungfish, as well as supports globally-threatened bird species and the endangered Sitatunga. This Ramsar site lies in the traditional Buddu county of the Buganda Kingdom, and some of the flora and fauna are closely associated with cultural norms and traditions, especially totems.

The disturbing discovery of the construction of a factory was brought to the attention of the public following a tirade on social media by Jude Mbabali who is the District Chairman of the Masaka district where the wetland system is partially located.

The Chairman stated: “I have been shocked this morning while driving to Kampala (along Masaka Road) to see a section of this river near the bridge at Kayabwe filled up with earth to reclaim land for the construction of a factory. This is not in my district, and, therefore, I have no jurisdiction, but I felt concerned, stopped, walked around to see exactly what is going on.

“When asked  the policemen assigned to guard the site said the property belonged to a Chinese firm and that they were simply deployed to guard it.”

A clearly flabbergasted Chairman lamented: “Parliament has just passed the National Environment Act 2019 to specifically under section 52(a) provide for emerging environmental issues including protection of riverbanks and lakeshores from human activities likely to adversely affect the rivers, lakes, and the living organisms therein. The Act also created enhanced penalties for offenses relating to vice. But the concerned authorities still don’t want to do their work despite this good law that even offers stringent punishments.

Since then, the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) – the government parastatal  mandated to protect and manage the environment – issued a statement on September 29 in response  to the post making rounds on social media.

They acknowledge that a Chinese company acquired 40 acres of land in Kayabwe, Mpigi district, from one Mwebasa and applied to use the land to develop warehousing units. A team of inspectors from NEMA visited the site and discovered that only 6 acres of the land was dry while the rest was not. NEMA issued a user permit and approval to the company restricting activities to only the 6 acres of dry land.

Following an alert from the whistleblower (the Chairman), NEMA inspected the premises and discovered that the developer was undertaking activities beyond the approved 6 acres of dry land. NEMA then issued an improvement notice to the developer, instructed them formally to remove the dumped soil, and to stop all activities taking place outside the approved area.

A team from NEMA has since visited the site and discovered that the warning and improvement notice was ignored. The company has continued to pursue the use of more than 40 acres of land by encroaching on the wetland.

“Given the previous caution…,” the statement reads in part: “…we have now initiated a process to cause punitive actions against the company, including cancellation of the user permit, arrest of the owners, prosecution in courts of law, and restoration of the degraded area at their cost.”

The public remains skeptical questioning why it always takes a whistleblower before action is taken. Lweera swamp for instance has been reclaimed for rice growing by yet another Chinese investor under the nose of NEMA and several other swamps in Nsangi, Kyengeera, and Lubigi all within the same catchment area that have been encroached.

Chairman Mbabali has been hailed for his action by both NEMA, environmentalists, and the public in general for his actions.

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