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Livelihoods at Stake As River Agago Shrinks :: Uganda Radionetwork
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Livelihoods at Stake As River Agago Shrinks

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Rwot Kassimiro Ongom, the chief of the Patongo Clan, thinks the river is losing its life because of the poor relationship between the population and the vegetation. Ongom suggested that those who use the river should restore the old cultural practices that helped in nurturing and prolonging water sources.
30 Nov 2023 08:45
Human activities in River Agago. Internet photo

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Every year, Agago district suffers severe flooding from May to August and drought from November to March.  To escape this harsh weather, several farmers have for time immemorial been growing crops along River Agago. The river flows through Abim, Agago, and Pader districts. In Agago district alone, the river feeds 37.2 square kilometers (0.29 percent) of wetlands surrounding it. 

 

However, experts say years of environmentally dangerous human activities such as deforestation, charcoal burning, and poor waste disposal, are affecting the vitality of River Agago. Leonarda Okello Abalo, a member of Agago River Catchment Committee, a group tasked to oversee the health of Agago River, acknowledges the threats such as “filth” clogging the river, which was a habitat for catfish, tilapia, and lungfish.   

“The river was big. It was sustenance and income for many because several fish species thrived in it,” Abalo said. Besides providing water and food, the River Agago has been a source of local tourism and sport.   “Children could swim in the river which kept them healthy,” she added.  There are 227,792 people in Agago grouped in 43,376 households, according to the 2014 National Population and Housing Census. Out of these, up to 41,357 households (95.3 percent) are engaged in crop farming.   

The weather extremes have also greatly affected farming along the river banks as the levels of water in its offshoots keep reducing. Abalo, who used to get bounty harvests of potatoes, rice, tomatoes, and citrus near the river, says the yields have reduced because “the river is dwindling.” “Although there are safer water sources, we could enjoy the clean water from the river throughout the year, but it is no more,” Abalo said.     

John Opiyo, a resident of Katolit Dognam Village in Kiteny Parish, Ajali Sub-County, which neighbors River Agago, explains that in the past, they used to fetch water from the River tributaries for drinking and other domestic work throughout the year, but now the tributaries dry up in the dry season. “Whenever we receive little rainfall, the river dries up in January and February, leaving only a patch of water around the bridge. This forces people to go looking for boreholes water in distant places,” Opiyo said.   

An estimated 178,000 people in Pader district, and 17,400 in Abim district, most of whom are crop farmers also rely on the river. River Agago is a source of piped water in these districts.   As one of the ways to save the river, organizations Uganda Water & Sanitation Network, UWASNET, International Rescue Committee, IRC, Simavi, Wash SDG, and Wash Alliance are advocating for ways to conserve, protect, and manage Agago river catchment.   

Martin Watsisi, the regional Wash advisor at IRC International Water and Sanitation Center-Uganda decried the Open Defecation by the community, saying it is one of the ways water is being polluted. “A person who doesn’t appreciate sanitation and still defecates in the open should not be given water. Water becomes even more dangerous to that person because they can’t keep a safe water chain,” Watsisi said.   

Available and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all is number six (6) of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals-SDGs established by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015. Geoffrey Obong, the sub-region manager for the Acholi Sub-Region Umbrella Water Sanitation development facility suggested that leaders should involve teachers in all dialogues involving water and environment protection because they are the source of information for the young generation.  

“It is these young people who cut trees and defecate along water sources. Sensitisation needs to be done in schools so that issue of catchment protection, and planting trees are promoted because they are the future generation,” Obong said.   

Rev. Jimmy Ringishi, from Abim Archdeaconry who is a member of Agago River Sub-Catchment Committee, appealed to the concerned government agencies and departments as well as non-governmental organizations should use religious leaders to preach the message of saving the environment. According to Rev. Ringishi, religious leaders always meet the community on several platforms which are good for passing the message on the conservation of water bodies and the environment in general.   

He argues the benefits of water are known even in the religious realm, which is why Jesus mentioned water “37” times in the Bible as part of life.  “To advocate for this successfully we must deal with the mindset of the religious leaders. We think we should only preach about the spiritual, and yet you cannot separate spiritual from physical. We need this water so that it maintains us to preach the gospel,” Rev. Ringishi said.   

Rev. Ringishi said with support from Caritas, the diocese of North Karamoja started a campaign to plant trees along the Agago River Catchment area in 2017/2018, to restore it, adding that last month, the Diocese, launched a tree-planting campaign to plant trees with funds raised by the congregation.  Rwot Kassimiro Ongom, the chief of the Patongo Clan, thinks the river is losing its life because of the poor relationship between the population and the vegetation. Ongom suggested that those who use the river should restore the old cultural practices that helped in nurturing and prolonging water sources.   

Before the advent of water sources such as boreholes, pipes, and taps, the Acholi got water from natural sources such as streams, wetlands, and wells. As one of the ways to keep the water sources clear of impurities, the users were prohibited from bathing, washing clothes, entering with shows at the water source, or defecating nearby.   

Ongom says these practices have been abandoned and the current generation seems to be either unaware of or unbothered about the sources of such water bodies. “The biggest problem is the Acholi tradition emphasized how to keep water sources clean, and didn’t inform us where water comes from and how to relate with the environment near water sources. We don’t know that vegetation plays a part in the production of water,” Ongom said.   

According to Ongom, the clan chiefs started the campaign against deforestation in the district in 2021, when they noticed the effect of human activities on the river. He asked all to join the drive to prevent more adverse effects. “Fighting deforestation is like giving a child medicine. The child might bite your hand, but in the end, they will benefit,” he said.  

Cultural leaders estimate that at least 100 trees are destroyed every day to feed the booming charcoal trade.  On November 21, 2023, Kijani Forestry in partnership with Agago District Local government also gave 120 tree seedlings of Umbrella trees (Musizi) and Markhamia (Nsambya) to Patongo Primary School, which is located along the river, to plant as one of the ways to reverse the threat the river is facing.   

Emmanuel Oroma, the Agago district Water Officer appealed to the stakeholders including political, religious as well and cultural leaders to continue to sensitize the community on where water comes from and where we are going as far as water issues are concerned, saying there is already a water scarcity. “We need to know . Where we are from, where we are, and where are we heading to, otherwise, we might be caught unaware” Oroma said.   

The government of Uganda under the Ministry of Water and Environment also implemented the Enhancing Resilience of Communities to Climate Change through Catchment Based Integrated Management of Water and Related Resources in Uganda-EURECCCA project to save the river. Financed by the Adaptation Fund through Sahara and Sahel Observatory and implemented by the Ministry of Water and Environment, the project has since 2017 provided alternative sources of income-generating activities for farmers who relied on the river to farm.   

Anna Acan, a Social Development working with the EURECCA project, in the Ministry of Water Environment, under the Directorate of Water Resources Management said the demarcation of the catchment area for restoration affected the livelihood of about 700 households in the Agago River catchment area.  With about 178 million shillings from the EURECCCA project, farmers and communities who were destroying the trees near the river established a cooperative society called Agago Olupe Opong River Bank Water and Environment Cooperative Society, where women groups were trained on how to make and market cook stoves.   

“We restored about 598 households in the catchment area, with 20 percent coming from Agago district. In Agago we have about 2000 members trained with 954 cook stoves built after training,” Acan said. The level of degradation of the Agago catchment area is unknown, however, Acan revealed that the EURECCCA project has restored about 21.4 kilometers of the riverbank that had been degraded, through the planting of 174,000 trees in Adilang and Omot sub-counties, as well as Patongo Town Council.   

According to the 2021 UN World Water Development Report; Valuing Water, there will be a 40 percent shortfall of water by 2030 under an unchanging state of affairs. The same report notes that by 2050 the world will need more food, during which period, irrigated food will surge by 50 percent, yet the water for this expansion is unavailable, implying that the world will become more food secure because of water insufficiency.   

Rivers worldwide are experiencing a crisis of shrinking and declining health. According to a 2021 report by the UN, two-thirds of the world’s longest rivers have been significantly altered or depleted due to human activity such as dams and diversions, overuse of water resources, pollution, and extreme heat due to climate change. 

In Uganda, reports indicate that 30 percent of wetlands were lost between 1994 and 2008. President Yoweri Museveni in his 2023 independence message directed those living or farming within 100 meters of the riverbanks of such as Agago, Aswa, Kafu, Rwizi, Mpanga, and Mayanja among others, and their tributaries to vacate the areas within a month to save the water sources.

According to Museveni, Uganda obtains only 14 billion cubic meters of water from its water bodies annually, compared to 29 billion cubic meters from neighboring countries, saying protecting the water sources safe would “set a good example” and enable the country “have moral authority when dealing with shared rivers in the region.”  

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