Javier Silas Omagor
The Elgon region in Uganda, which includes two sub-regions of Sebei and Bugisu, have been hit by increasingly frequent and devastating floods.
Sebei is a formation of three districts of Kween, Bukwo, and Kapchorwa, while Bugisu is made up of six; Manafwa, Sironko, Bulambuli, Namisindwa, Mbale and Bududa.
Most of the destructive floods in the Elgon area are caused by seasonal rains, which are usually above normal, particularly of late.
Climate change catastrophes in this area have ended up claiming lives, destroying properties, including farm fields, and ravaging human settlements.
This has forced the government to relocate survivors into resettlement camps in Bunambutye (Bulambuli) and Kiryandongo districts, respectively.
The majority of farmers in the Elgon region use small-scale irrigation schemes to support their farms. They want the flood water trapped so as to sink into the ground to replenish the groundwater aquifer.
They say this could guard their farms against the effects of severe droughts and in turn boost food production.
“We have observed that while fickle weather patterns continue being a big challenge (in Elgon), with the increase in high-intensity rainfall during rainy seasons causing floods, we want this excess water stored in the ground,” Joel Cherop, a youth model farmer in the region, said.
Cherop, who practices commercial farming, continued: “Though we lose lives and property to these frustrating natural catastrophes, our land benefits a lot in rainy seasons.”
Indeed, this could be one of the ways to address the issue of water scarcity and food insecurity in the Elgon sub-region.
Most farmers in this region rely on rain-water-fed agriculture, with the “long rains” coming between March and May and the “short rains” between October and December each year.
But with climate change, the rains are no longer regular, thus affecting their lives and livelihoods.
Rhoda Nyariibi, the Principal Environment Officer in Mbale City applauded the farmers for their growing interest in groundwater.
“Groundwater as a community-led climate change resilience approach is a breakthrough for all of us. Efforts to combat climate change should and must be community-inspired,” Nyariibi acknowledges.
Nyariibi revealed that groundwater coverage and its uptake was impressively going up in the region.
“The demand for groundwater by our communities in Mbale city and Elgon as a whole is surging,” Nyariibi noted.
She explained that compared to other water sources, groundwater is cheaper, particularly for the rural farmers who use it for irrigation purposes.
According to the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), groundwater is one of the most critical sources of water for people, livestock, and wildlife throughout the Nile Basin. More than 70 percent of the rural population in the Basin’s 11 countries depend on it for domestic use.
Nyariibi’s office and the Ministry of Water and Environment have assessed the depth of available groundwater across the region and found that the water table is shallow enough, making it easy to support new boreholes and other groundwater sources extracting from it.
“It’s a good thing that this water is closer to the surface, but we caution the public to take precautionary measures before using it for drinking purposes,” Nyariibi warned.
“It is purely natural water, and this is what our ancestors used to consume,” Kibet emphasized.
Kween district Woman Member of Parliament (MP) Emma Rose Cherukut is one of the farmers ripping from groundwater, but she is worried about what is going to become of it.
“We are all enjoying its benefits and reliability, but my concern is the increasing irresponsible human-induced activities on the environment could potentially affect the water table in the Elgon region,” Cherukut reasoned.
The MP points out irregular degradation of river banks, swamps, tree cutting among others as environmentally destructive practices which could affect groundwater supply.
She urged communities in the region, in both Kenya and Uganda to prioritize the protection of the environment.
“Let communities do their best at the local level, and as Members of Parliament, we shall continue to legislate and enact laws that will preserve our environment, particularly with regard to groundwater,” Cherukut vowed.
Maximo Basheija Twinomuhangi of the Ministry of Water and Environment, in charge of the Kyoga area, commended the farmers for embracing the use of groundwater but implored them to invest in environmentally friendly innovations.
“As they tap this groundwater, it is essential for farmers to creatively come up with more sustainable and reliable techniques which can help conserve the environment,” Twinomuhangi added.
To support residents of Mount Elgon region in Uganda and Kenya in their efforts towards the sustainable use and management of the groundwater aquifer, the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), is currently implementing a project to strengthen the knowledge base, capacity, and cross-border institutional mechanisms.
The project is targeting three aquifers namely Mt Elgon aquifer shared between Kenya and Uganda, Kagera Basin Aquifer shared by Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda, as well as Gedaref-Adigrat aquifer shared between Ethiopia and Sudan.
The $5.3million project – ‘Enhancing Conjunctive Management of Surface Water and Groundwater Resources in Selected Transboundary Aquifers will further build and expand on the understanding of groundwater resources through detailed mapping and assessment of the three aquifer systems.
It will also aid the national achievements and reporting of water-related Sustainable Development Goals; and will be supportive to environmental protection whilst enhancing socio-economic development of the Basin’s population.
This New Vision article was supported by InfoNile with funding from the Nile Basin Initiative.