The Director General of the Rwanda Environmental Management Authority (REMA), Eng. Coletha Ruhamya, has warned wetland encroachers that they will be prosecuted.
Her remarks came after reports that Police in Gastibo District earlier this month arrested four people in connection with illegally conducting farming activities on gazetted wetlands.
The Eastern Region Police Spokesperson, Inspector of Police, Jean-Bosco Dusabe, said the suspects; Augustin Siborurema, Anastase Muganga, David Rwasibo and Sylvere Mutabaruka, will be charged once the police is done investigating.
Ruhamya said: “Wetland conservation is everyone’s business. If wetlands are encroached or misused there are many risks including flooding and negative impacts to our water resources. In short, effects on the ecological functions of the wetland affect entire efforts to conserve our environment and building resiliency to the Climate change effect.
“Wetlands have a role to play in the ecological balance; the best use is therefore their protection and preservation. There are wetlands permitted for use for activities such as agriculture for people’s livelihood”.
There are however, she explained, other fully protected wetlands where agriculture is not permitted given their high sensitivity, fragility and role in the ecological functions.
“People should therefore only do what is permitted in wetlands when they have authorization.”
According to Ruhamya, people mainly encroach on wetlands in search of additional land because wetlands do not belong to individuals and therefore people consider them as free land.
Just like any other illegal practice, she said, it is more of personal interest than common interest.
Worldwide, wetlands are ecological sites of importance as supporting bio-diversity, water purification, water storage, flow regulation, water provision, carbon sequestration and they control floods.
Ruhamya told Sunday Times that the country has a total of 935 “inventoried wetlands” including big and small wetlands, covering approximately 10% of the national territory.
According to the State of Environment Report of 2009, the wetlands in Rwanda cover a total area of 165,000 hectares, which is about 7 per cent of the total surface area.
When the report was published, it was noted that wetlands were threatened by human activities such as agricultural production and “already out of the total 165,000 hectares of wetlands, 92,000 hectares are used for agriculture.”
Wetland degradation in Rwanda has resulted in adverse economic and livelihood impacts, reads the report.
“A case in point in the degradation of the Regezi wetlands, which reduced the water levels of the two lakes that receive water from it to supply Ntaruka and Mukura hydro-power stations,” reads a section of the report.
“The upshot of this was the need for Electrogaz to incur a daily expenditure of US$ 65,000 for diesel generation in order to meet the shortfall from hydro-power generation.”
Since the enactment of the Environmental Organic Law in 2005, Ruhamya said, the rate of constructions in wetlands has drastically reduced because of enforcement activities.
Solving the problem
The severity of the problem of wetland encroachment, Ruhamya explained, differs depending on the areas and types of encroachment in addition the importance of the specific wetland. The most damaging activities being constructions, polluting activities like garages, industrial activities and dumping of soils in the wetland or disposal of wastes, she pointed out.
To solve the problem, Ruhamya notes that the first solution is respect of the recently (January) gazetted Prime Minister’s Order which draws up a list of swamp lands, their characteristics and boundaries and determines modalities of their use, development and management.
It also indicates protected wetlands, those that can be used for some specific activities such as agriculture and specifies modalities of use.
The second possible solution, she noted, is by abiding by the Master Plans, especially in Kigali City where the master plan indicates boundaries of wetlands where constructions are not permitted.
“Third, is full involvement of local government in the enforcement of the regulation and master plans. And fourth is continued sensitization and awareness rising of the public on benefits and functions of wetlands, and how they can be better managed.”
According to IP Dusabe, in May, the four suspects were warned by local authorities against doing any farming activities in Rwangingo wetland but despite several warnings from the police and local leaders, they proceeded with their faming activities.
It is reported that by the time of their arrest, the group had plowed into more than three hectares of Rwangingo wetland which covers parts of Ngarama sector, Kabarore sector and extends to Nyagatare District.
The four now risk a jail sentence of up to two years and a fine of up to Rwf3 million as stipulated by article 414 of the Penal Code.
Rwanda National Police has an Environmental Protection Unit (EPU) that operates under the Criminal Investigation Department and is mandated to protect the environment in all aspects, including air space, forestry and biodiversity, as well ensure the enforcement of different legal instruments.
RNP Spokesperson, Assistant Commissioner of Police (ACP) Theos Badege, said they “don’t have statistics for these cases” as they are very rare but noted that the Police comes in mainly to support REMA and District authorities in the enforcement.
He said the EPU specifically deals with these types of crime, including in prevention campaign, and sensitization about laws.