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Elgon Farmers Want Flood Waters Trapped For Irrigation

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By Javier Omagor

In recent times, the Elgon region in Uganda, which includes the two sub-regions of Sebei and Bugisu, has been hit by increasingly frequent and devastating floods.

Sebei is a formation of three districts — 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.

Groundwater pipe network in Bukwo district. Photos by Javier Omagor

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.

The majority of farmers in the Elgon region use small-scale irrigation schemes to support their farms. They want the flood water trapped so that it sinks into the ground and replenishes the groundwater aquifer.

They say this could guard their farms against the effects of severe dry spells and, in turn, boost food production.

“We have observed that while fickle weather patterns continue being a big challenge in the Elgon area, 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.

At some commercial farms, farmers use generators to pump water up from the ground.

Cherop, who practices commercial farming, added: “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 subregion.

Most farmers in this region rely on rain-water-fed agriculture, with the “long rains” coming between March and May and the short ones 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, lauded 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 acknowledged.

She said groundwater coverage and its uptake was impressively going up in the region.

“The demand for groundwater by our communities in Mbale city and the Elgon region 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.

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% of the rural population in the basin’s 11 countries depend on it for domestic use.

Nyariibi said they 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 drinking it,” she warned.

“It is purely natural water, and this is what our ancestors used to consume,” Kibet emphasised. Kween district Woman MP Emma Rose Cherukut is one of the farmers reaping from ground water, but she is worried about what will 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 said.

The MP pointed out irregular degradation of river banks, swamps and 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 prioritise 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 protect our environment, particularly with regard to groundwater,” Cherukut said.

Fadil Twalla, another MP in Kapchorwa district, appealed to residents to create environment wise approaches while interacting with nature.

“Today, more than ever before, we need communities that are cognizant of environmental complexity and the mitigative methods,” Twalla said.

He said: “as parliamentarians, we are willing to support local innovations aimed at improving our environment and its habitats.”

Maximo Basheija Twinomuhangi of the water ministry, 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 said.

Support project

To support residents of the Mount Elgon region in Uganda and Kenya in their efforts towards the sustainable use and management of the groundwater aquifer, the NBI is currently implementing a project to strengthen the knowledge base, capacity, and cross-border institutional mechanisms.

The project is targeting three aquifers — Mt Elgon aquifer shared between Kenya and Uganda, Kagera Basin aquifer shared by Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda, as well as GedarefAdigrat aquifer shared between Ethiopia and Sudan.

The $5.3m Enhancing Conjunctive Management of Surface Water and Groundwater Resources in Selected Transboundary Aquifers project 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 while enhancing the socio-economic development of the basin’s population. The five-year (2020–2025) project is funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), implemented by United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and executed by NBI.

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