A Ugandan Snapshot

Lake Mutanda
View of Muhabura Diocese looking over Lake Mutanda and on to the Virunga volcanoes – photo credit Brian Wakelin

Canon Brian Wakelin reflects on a trip to visit Muhabura diocese in Uganda and issues of environmental care, sustainability and climate change.

The Setting

The Ugandan Diocese of Muhabura borders Rwanda and DR Congo. It is based in Kisoro – perhaps best known as a base to view mountain gorillas in the nearby national parks. The diocese is rural, with highly productive volcanic soil. There is fruit and vegetable production for elsewhere in Uganda, while some villages rely on subsistence farming.

The diocese is part of the Church of Uganda whose environmental policy states that:

While Uganda contributes only around 0.099% of global carbon emissions it is highly vulnerable to climate change impacts … such as frequent and prolonged dry spells as well as erratic and poorly distributed rainfall [which] amplify the level of vulnerability [of the 68% of population] dependent on rainfed agriculture for their livelihood. To compensate [for this] farmers are forced to encroach on forests and wetlands, Hence, climate change becomes both a driver and result of environmental degradation starting a vicious cycle of vulnerability.

A Partnership

Christ Church, Winchester, has partnered with the diocese since 2010. The partnership focuses on mutual learning and sharing in mission across the 5 Marks of Mission. A key aspect has been gathering young people from both communities for Discipleship Schools in Kisoro. These involve Bible studies and practical ministry training led by a mix of UK and Ugandan leaders coupled with local outreach.

A Task

The most recent school was in summer 2023. Our Church Council asked that we discuss environmental care and the impact of climate change on the Kisoro area. One of the morning teaching sessions considered Biblical material and ministry training on creation care. We visited some specific projects in the diocese; and fed back what we found during our Creation Care Sunday services.

This post describes some of what we found. It gives a snapshot of both climate impact and mitigation in one part of Uganda. I am grateful to Rev Stephen Ruzaza, Diocesan Secretary, who enabled what we did in Kisoro, and my fellow team members.

Chibumba

In May 2023, a huge storm deluged Kisoro and surrounding areas of Rwanda and DR Congo. There were casualties in all three countries. Around Kisoro a number of people were injured by landslides; and the main road to the rest of Uganda was severed. Although this storm may have been a one-off, we constantly heard stories of the increased frequency and intensity of storms.

Photo: Group of people playing football in Chibumba – photo credit – visit team member

We met community leaders in Chibumba; one of the villages severely affected – the tents in the picture are temporary classrooms provided by UNICEF.

The village lies in a natural bowl with hills on three sides. The flood water flowed through the village at up to chest height as it sought ways of reaching nearby Lake Chahafi.

The Village Chairman noted that the hillsides once had forests on them; these had been cut down, primarily for firewood. Some people had attempted to cultivate or build on these hillsides. The impact is that nothing slows the flow of water – hence the depth of the flood and risk of landslides.

The leaders indicated their prime task was to reforest the hillsides. There is an intention to build some new drainage channels to carry the water to Lake Chahafi. We asked about building a reservoir – although a possibility, it raises the issues of cost, availability of space against current land use, and whether something could be achieved which would not itself become a flooding problem in severe storms.

Firewood is still needed as a fuel source. We talked about the possibility of solar; but had the same response as in discussions elsewhere in the diocese: ‘It’s too expensive.’ The community leadership shared that they are considering how to encourage smaller family sizes to reduce some of the pressures on land use.

Forestry and Farming

From its formation in 1990, the diocese embarked on the development of forested areas and the replacement of ‘inappropriate’ trees (e.g. water guzzlers planted on hillsides). Alongside forestation the diocese is seeking to conserve the lakes and natural wetlands.

The diocese proactively encourages villages to farm efficiently and sustainably. A key development in practice is to get the best out of the land by moulding conservation and production around the land, instead of moulding the land to get the best crops. An example is growing yams in swamps – a ‘wet’ crop in a ‘wet area.’

The part of the Diocesan Forest pictured is close to Lake Mutanda and was initially planted 30 years ago. The location is strategic, with the trees on higher ground above wetlands associated with the lake.

It is primarily eucalyptus, suited to the swampy, humid environment. Once big enough, felling takes place, and the wood is used for timber. Excess branches are pruned off and used for making things such as scaffolding and ladders. This reduces the risk of them being used for firewood with its associated carbon emissions.

Photo: Part of one of the forested areas near the lake – credit: Emma Bailey

The part of the Diocesan Forest pictured is close to Lake Mutanda and was initially planted 30 years ago. The location is strategic, with the trees on higher ground above wetlands associated with the lake.

It is primarily eucalyptus, suited to the swampy, humid environment. Once big enough, felling takes place, and the wood is used for timber. Excess branches are pruned off and used for making things such as scaffolding and ladders. This reduces the risk of them being used for firewood with its associated carbon emissions.

The way the forest is structured is intentional: by planting trees sporadically year by year the density of the forest remains consistent when timber is felled. This mitigates any impact that the mass felling of trees in one area may induce. In other parts of the diocese, pines are the main tree.

The communities are big fans and participants. There is a justifiable pride in what has been achieved. One Ugandan friend pointed out a stand of trees and said, ‘I planted those 12 years ago.’ The diocese recognises that there is a knowledge gap and are using such projects as an opportunity for education in its more rural villages.

Rev Stephen believes that future generations will reap benefits from the conservation and said that the diocese wants to extend the land used. Over the past five years the diocese has planted around 45,000 trees.

The forestry work addresses concerns expressed in the Church of Uganda in its eco-policy:

Land degradation, deforestation and decline of wetlands are identified in the top 8 of the environmental threats in the country by the Church of Uganda. Forest cover in the country has decreased from 24% in 1990 to 9% in 2018.

Population pressures, coupled with the absence of effective management structures are contributing causes for declining wetland areas.

The work in Muhabura is symbolic of what is being done across the Anglican Communion through the Communion Forest network.

Water

The increase in the frequency and intensity of storms means rainwater is lost as it is not absorbed. Another change is the growing unpredictability of the start and end dates of the wet and dry seasons which impacts planting as well as need to eke out water supplies. A long dry season also increases the risk of fires, with their carbon emissions.

In the project we visited, drinking water sources are from one of the lakes or through rainwater capture tanks such as the one pictured. Many such tanks have been installed through a past diocesan partnership with Tearfund. Children and women collect the water, never the men. This tank provides water for around 80 households, with an average of 6 people in each. There is a long-term plan to install piped water, but this is expensive and there is no specified timescale. There is reliability on rainwater for drinking water, which people have been told to boil… Another long-term project is to find ways of testing and cleaning harvested water.

Photo: Rainwater Storage – credit: Michael Weatherall.

For mitigation, there is education across the parishes near this tank and they are looking to plant fruit trees, to provide shade. For soil conservation and management, they are using a variety of methods such as crop rotation and zero tillage.

From Church of Uganda eco-policy document:

Declining water resources appears in the top 8 of environmental threats to the country. Evaporation rates are high and exceed precipitation in 90% of the country … Declining water sources are a result of erosion, deforestation … wetland degradation … The frequency of drought and the gravity of following impacts have increased.

Some Observations

  • The role of the Church of Uganda as an institution in making the best environmental use of land it owns and acting as a champion for environmentally friendly farming practices.
  • An environmental procedures document which is being actively acted on, including involvement of the wider community.
  • Many of the projects are small scale yet contribute to a much bigger whole.
  • The difference between Uganda’s carbon emissions and the effect of climate change on the country.

Some Questions

  • How to develop solar? It has been done at village level in other countries.
  • How should cash poor but fossil fuel rich countries (arguably such as Uganda) utilise such fuels? What counts as justice in this scenario?
  • How can countries like Uganda industrialise without causing the same climatic changes that they now experience?

Canon Brian Wakelin – Assistant Minister, Christ Church, Winchester