Wetlands in Rwanda are under pressure from poor agricultural practices, peat extraction, illegal mining, pollution, dumping of waste, construction activities and illegal infrastructure, among others.
This, according to Rwanda Environment Management Authority (REMA), has resulted in wetlands being unable to effectively serve their functions.
Wetlands purify and replenish our water, serve as a natural sponge, absorbing and storing excess rainfall and reducing flooding.
During the dry season, they release the water stored, delaying the onset of droughts and reducing water shortages. They are also a vital means of storing carbon, therefore, helping in mitigation and adaptation to climate change effects, according to REMA.
The Director-General of REMA, Eng. Coletha Ruhamya, said this situation calls for promotion of sustainable practices that support healthy wetlands for disaster risk reduction.
Ruhamya was speaking to journalists in Kigali as Rwanda, yesterday, joined the rest of the world to mark the World Wetlands Day (WWD), celebrated worldwide to raise public awareness of the importance of wetlands to human life.
For Rwanda, she said, this is a good opportunity to build on the achievements made in environmental conservation, especially in the effort to restore wetlands that had been downgraded mainly due to human activity.
The theme for this year’s WWD celebrations is “Wetlands for Disaster Risk Reduction,” which calls on governments, NGOs and communities to consider the function of wetlands in reducing the impact of diverse weather induced disasters such as floods, droughts and cyclones.
The frequency of natural hazards has more than doubled and the majority are climate and weather related. According to UN-Water, 90 per cent of all natural hazards are water-related.
REMA said Rwanda also experienced a growing number of disasters in recent decades, causing loss of lives, displacement of people, as well as damaging of infrastructure, and crops and environmental degradation.
Figures from the Ministry of Disaster Management and Refugee Affairs (MIDIMAR) show that between January and September, 2016, damages from various disasters, largely winds, torrential rains and drought, amounted to over Rwf27 billion.
A MIDIMAR drought hazard assessment, REMA said, indicated that disasters (floods, landslides and droughts) could cost Rwanda a staggering Rwf100 billion loss annually.
Proper marshland use
According to REMA, there are about 278,536 hectares of wetlands in the country, accounting for about 10 per cent of Rwanda’s land surface area.
She said about 20 per cent of all the marshlands are protected because of their critical importance on ecosystem, while the wetlands under conditional use for agriculture take up 74 per cent of the marshland area.
The rest of the wetlands (6 per cent), consisting mainly of small marshlands in valleys, are under non-condition category, according to REMA, meaning that they can be used for farming activities by people without necessitating consultative meetings between organs with environment or natural resources management in their responsibilities.
“In fact, we cannot protect all the marshlands we have in our country as a large proportion of the arable land in the country is wetlands. But, we can ensure their proper use and management to benefit people’s food needs at the same time avoid blocking their systems owing to construction of infrastructures like houses there,” Ruhamya said.
“The challenge we still have is people who want to construct houses in wetlands. Building in a wetland damages it and blocks its capacity to receive water, which results in drought,” she said.
The acting director of risk reduction and preparedness at MIDIMAR, Alphonse Hishamunda, said that when properly managed, marshlands help mitigate disasters mainly induced by floods and droughts as they have vegetation that help store water, generate rain, control flooding mainly where there is a proper drainage system.
In 2004, the Rugezi Marshland was almost decimated due to various exploitation activities, which reduced the water levels of Burera and Ruhondo lakes and the electricity that was generated (from Ntaruka hydropower dam).
“When wetlands are well managed and people do not carry out unplanned activities there, it prevents disasters including drought and floods,” he said.
REMA says Rwanda has initiated the process of designating three new Ramsar site, namely Rweru-Mugesera complex, Kamiranzovu, and Akagera Complex.