By Simon Pollock
Tapping the natural power of ecosystems to counter climate change is gaining traction. This follows stark evidence that urgent action to address both is necessary. The period between 2015-2019 was the warmest on record, and on a longer timescale 47 percent of the world’s ecosystems have declined since the advent of humans.
Creating a virtuous circle, it is possible to enhance climate resilience by protecting ecosystems. But we cannot forget the place of people, especially those who are poor, in devising nature-based climate solutions. That is why the Green Climate Fund (GCF) is supporting climate action that balances land use and nature by protecting ecosystems in ways that also boost people’s livelihoods. One example is in Uganda.
Developing countries, many of them with large rural populations, are searching for ways to maintain the ecosystems which act as bulwarks against increasingly severe climate effects. But they also want to avoid impacting people’s lives by reducing their access to the land for their sustenance and incomes. This is the reason why developing countries are increasingly turning to approaches that protect both ecosystems and livelihoods.
The central importance of fortifying natural defences against climate change is not always apparent. As we often take the benefits of natural ecosystems for granted, their essential role in bolstering resilience to climate change is also often overlooked. The ecosystems on which we depend work so well that we generally only notice them when they don’t work, during times of environmental collapse. Nevertheless, it is becoming evident that the resilience of nature is essential in dealing with climate change. We now know that well-functioning natural ecosystems enhance the way our planet is dealing with the global warming we have imposed on it.
But a UN report released earlier this year shows ecosystems need help. In a stark call to action, the report found that human society is in jeopardy from the accelerating decline of natural ecosystems. It shows that nature is being destroyed at a rate tens to hundreds of times higher than the average over the past 10 million years, and that natural ecosystems have lost about half their area – with a million species now at risk of extinction. The study finds among natural habitats, wetlands have suffered the most, with 83 percent being drained across the world since 1700.
The onset of climate change has stimulated further thinking about the crucial role of ecosystems. The often underacknowledged benefits provided by ecosystems, ranging from supplying stable water supplies to cities to supporting ground vegetation that prevents flooding and landslides, also buttress communities from worsening climate effects. That is why GCF is directing climate finance flows to help communities in developing countries enhance their ability to deal with climate change by protecting and reinvigorating natural ecosystems – including natural wetlands.
Beekeeper Shildah Nabimanya, 18, who lives in Uganda’s western Sheema district, understands well the destructive ecological and social damage that followed when people moved into the local wetlands near where she lives. That is because she was one of those people, along with her family, and saw the destructive effects first-hand.
She told a visiting GCF mission: “When this wetland was drained, we faced shortages of food and water, and mothers had to fetch water from far away on hot sunny days. Children were no longer going to school, and were forced to go and fetch water.”
Ms Nabimanya said her family’s troubles began when people started to drain the wetlands to plant crops and raise cattle, which was then followed by a severe drought in 2010. Her family’s life was particularly difficult as her father died from an illness a number of years ago, leaving behind her mother and four brothers and sisters. After the draining of the wetland, an insufficiency of available water meant it became impossible to pursue any family activities beyond those directed towards sustenance alone.
But now Ms Nabimanya is more positive about her future, after joining an initiative financed by GCF, in tandem with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Government of Uganda, which is helping relocate people away from wetlands to allow these vital ecosystems to regenerate. She is part of a local agricultural cooperative, the Masheruka Environmental Restore Wetland Disaster Monitoring Committee and Cadres Association, in Sheema district. This cooperative of 76 people was formed in 2014 on the outskirts of the Rwizi Wetland to provide more productive and sustainable farming practices. Most days, Ms Nabimanya can be found tending a collection of beehives nestled in a banana tree grove where the cooperative is located near Sheema town.
Ms Nabimanya said now that people have moved out of the wetland, natural water reservoirs have been replenished, banana plantations are healthy, and many of the local children are going to school again. Others go fishing and gather grasses from the wetlands to make baskets and mats to sell. This has also reduced the local crime rate by providing young people with pocket money and reducing idle time, she added. The main goal of this cooperative is to provide people with livelihood opportunities that removes the need to encroach on the wetlands.
The cooperative is part of a broader national initiative to restore Uganda’s western and eastern wetlands, identified as key bulwarks to enhance the country’s resilience to climate change. Wetlands are areas of land that are permanently or seasonally saturated with water. In Uganda, these include marshes, swamps and bogs. Wetlands are particularly important for Uganda, since they act as natural reservoirs of the country’s water supply and help to sustain agricultural productivity. In the dry season, people living in the areas around the wetlands can still access water to grow short-term crops like vegetables and potatoes to feed their families, or use the wetland fringes as pasture for animals. They also act as breeding grounds for large-scale fisheries. Keeping the wetlands healthy is important as about 4 million Ugandans live around these marshy areas.
On a broader scale, Uganda’s wetlands are vital for the entire country’s ability to chart an uncertain ecological future in the face of rising global temperatures. GCF’s injection of a USD 24 million grant in this ecosystem initiative is strengthening wetland restorative activities already being carried out by the Government of Uganda and UNDP. This east African landlocked country has made the restoration of its wetlands a key national priority, signified by Ugandan President Yoweri K Museveni’s State of the Nation address in June this year. The President highlighted scientific analysis which showed a link between recent erratic rains in Uganda and the destruction of its forests and wetlands. During the President’s speech, he called for the stepping up of alternative livelihood measures to stop people encroaching on these natural resources.
Uganda’s wetlands are increasingly seen as an important defence against the onset of climate change. They regulate flooding and remove pollutants from storm surface runoff before the waters enters lakes and other water bodies. Consequently, they play a critical role in continuously recharging ground water sources. Uganda has lost around 30 percent of its wetlands in the last 15 years due to degradation and encroachment, which in turn has exacerbated a series of ecological problems. These include increased flooding as the wetlands lose their water catchment capacity, reduced productivity of farmers living around the wetland fringes and the silting up of water bodies. This ultimately poses a threat to national water supplies. As Vincent Barugahare, Principal Wetlands Officer with Uganda’s Ministry of Water and Environment, explains, the negative effects of degraded wetlands cascade from the local to the regional to the international.
The Rwizi Wetland near where Ms Nabimanya tends to her bees is important for local people because it is the source of fish and grasses they use as mulch for their crops, Mr Barugahare said. But wetlands have a much wider impact as they serve as underground aquifers for Mbarara, a regional central city of about 200,000 people located 50 kilometers from the agricultural cooperative.
Degraded wetlands also have wider social impacts. “Most people in Mbarara are cattle keepers,” said Mr Barugahare. “That means they depend on milk, and you can only have milk when animals have water. That means people's incomes are also affected.”
Mr Barugahare said water shortages from the degradation of the Rwizi and other wetlands could even lead to interstate conflict. As water from the wetland feeds into the catchment areas of the River Nile, parts of which are located in Uganda, the drying up of this water from wetland degradation could reduce the river’s flow. This could then lead to perceptions in downstream countries such as Sudan and Egypt that Uganda is purposely hoarding water, creating cross-border hostility.
The preservation of ecosystems also has broad implications for climate change beyond the local and nation state levels. While the GCF project in Uganda is focused on enhancing adaptive capacities, this and other wetland-focused initiatives also have a potential to counter rising greenhouse gas emissions. While there are no precise figures for the potential emission abatement of Uganda’s wetlands, what is well known is that land management has a major part to play in the climate conundrum because of its ability to both store and release greenhouse gases.
The latest report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released in August this year warns the degradation of wetlands is one of a number of land uses – along with agriculture, forestry and burning plant or animal matter – that accounts for 23 percent of the dangerous levels of greenhouse gases now being released into the atmosphere.
The report finds unsustainable land use is creating a double whammy by both exacerbating the climate crisis and reducing the ability of poor people to improve their livelihoods. This is because the degradation of the land not only decreases its ability to capture carbon from the atmosphere, but also makes it less productive, and the ecosystems which support it less resilient to increasing temperatures. Calls to adopt nature-based solutions that combine climate action with ecosystem protection are increasing.
In the case of Uganda, the case to shift national priorities to wetland protection and restoration is clear. Government figures indicate the country's wetland coverage has been reduced to about 8 percent from 13 percent of the country's land surface. That is why the government has embarked on a national mission to protect its current wetlands and rejuvenate those that have been degraded. Progress already made in wetland restoration shows what is possible. The restoration of the Limoto wetland in Uganda’s eastern Pallisa district, also being funded by GCF, is being held up as a model for the rest of the country.
Areas of the Limoto wetland have been restored, while more than 500 households have joined a farming cooperative on the outskirts of the wetland to take advantage of livelihood opportunities provided with the help of GCF. This includes five community fishponds and a variety of crops, including cabbages, onions and green peppers, supported by a solar-powered irrigation system. Proceeds from these sustainable agricultural practices are more productive and profitable than the planting of rice in reclaimed parts of the wetlands – a practice the pilot is designed to replace.
Locals say they are already seeing the positive effects of wetland restoration, including the ability of these swampy areas to retain water reserves during dry spells, in addition to the return of fish and birds. Paul Mafabi, the Ugandan Ministry of Water and Environment’s National Project Coordinator of the GCF Wetlands Restoration Project, said the key to effective restoration is the twin provision of opportunities for both protecting the environment and reducing poverty levels.
“By restoring the wetlands you actually are undertaking conservation activities,” he said. “But then you use the resources that come from the wetlands, the functions they provide to help communities like we are seeing here improve their livelihoods.” The conservation of wetlands enriches biodiversity and also helps to “increase productivity, which is the key factor in eradicating poverty,” Mr Mafabi added.
While the goal of this GCF-supported project is projected to benefit about 4 million people, the Government of Uganda has bigger plans: It aims increase the current 8 percent coverage of wetlands across the country to 12 percent. With nearly 70 percent of Uganda’s population relying on agriculture, measures to enhance their resilience to climate change is vital. Uganda is particularly prone to climate change.
The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) predicts an increase in temperature of 2.5 to 3.5 degrees in Uganda by 2050. Climate change is expected to decrease rainfall, but also make flooding worse when the rains do come. This is because rainfall distribution between seasons are changing along with increasing water evaporation rates. Mr Mafabi said climate effects are already evident with more frequent heat waves, prolonged droughts and more intense rainfall and flooding than in the past. Increasingly erratic and extreme weather patterns are reportedly behind the displacement of 8,000people from floods last year and warning calls of a future food crisis in Uganda.
While the benefits of enhanced resilience from enhancing ecosystems is increasingly understood, climate action needs to start at the grassroots. Esther Nakyesa says her life has improved since. Like many of the others engaged in agricultural work on the Limoto pilot, she moved away from draining the wetlands in order to plant rice. In the last three years since the cooperative was formed, Ms Nakyesa has joined around 500 others in the Limoto Farmers Association to grow crops as well as look after her own cow and turkeys and ducks. She now has a livelihood to support her six children all year round, unlike rice growing – which suffered from insufficient water after the wetlands were drained.
“Because of the rice growing, they could put in some channels in the swamp,” she said. “So whenever the water could come, it could just run away and the swamp becomes too dry.”
Ms Nakyesa, who is divorced, also raises another issue signifying the linkages between environmental and social effects. In the past, the cessation of income during the wait for rice harvest times – extenuated by the loss of available water after the draining of the wetlands – sometimes led to family friction.
“Us as ladies, we used to be beggars and we used to be beaten,” said Ms Nakyesa. While declining to describe her own domestic situation in detail, she said a common situation faced by local women when adversity hit because of bad harvests was that “your sweetheart will now become a bad sweetheart.”
While focused on climate change, this GCF-supported project is also introducing measures to support gender empowerment – specifically preventing gender-based violence. This accords with GCF’s role as the first dedicated climate finance fund to mainstream gender perspectives at the core of its support for developing countries. Thanks to additional funding from the Government of the Republic of Korea, the Uganda wetlands project is incorporating gender-based violence prevention in its provision of alternative livelihoods.
UNDP is currently evaluating a report conducted with the Centre for Domestic Violence Prevention (CEDOVIP) in two districts covered by the project – Pallisa and Bushenyi. The study, which included extensive meetings with people living in the wetland areas, is designed to clarify how to prevent gender-based violence while introducing climate change adaptation and livelihood strengthening measures. The aim of the study is to provide guidance on preventing gender-based violence accompanying the implementation of wetland restoration measures.
Past studies have shown that gender-based violence increases during droughts. It is common during these times for women and girls to travel greater distances and spend a longer time collecting water and firewood – which can increase the risk of harassment and sexual assault. These two culturally-allocated roles put added pressure on girls, and sometimes cause them to drop out of school.
The difficulties involved from failed harvests can also play havoc on some male’s psyches leading some to violence. As one male respondent in Bushenyi explained in the UNDP study:
“If a man anticipated that he would harvest a reasonable amount of rice in the wetland and drought sets in, all will be lost. He feels less capable of being a man because he can no longer provide for his family. He will resort to drinking alcohol, all day. And then when he returns home, he will expect to be provided with food, yet he did not leave any at home. That is when the fight will begin.”
The purpose of the UNDP intervention is not only to prevent the accentuation of social problems when introducing climate measures. It is also designed, where possible, to improve a widespread problem of gender-based violence which UN Resident Coordinator in Uganda, Rosa Malango, has described as the most shameful human rights violation.
Wetlands have a vital role in bolstering Uganda’s adaptive capacity as they recharge national water reserves.
Community dialogue is an essential part of engaging communities, especially women, to share their perceptions of what is and is not acceptable. Dialogue will help people understand that gender-based violence cannot be condoned, and that decisions over household incomes should include women. While gender-based violence intervention is based on a “do no harm” approach, the ultimate aim is to promote harmony in the home, the most sustainable social situation.
The complexity of climate change means it is not solvable by simple, singular solutions. Effective measures need to be sensitive to social, economic and environmental factors. As climate change is a global phenomenon of the current age, it also requires global thinking that goes beyond past ways of viewing development.
Severe strains on natural systems from humankind’s expanding footprint require an increasingly urgent need to protect ecosystems, but in ways that account for poverty alleviation. GCF will continue to support innovative, ecosystem-based approaches that match local livelihood needs with the global environmental imperative of overcoming the climate challenge.
This is a shortened version of an article that first appeared on the GCF's website.
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