By Dr. Abdulkarim Seid
At a glance, wetlands – large expanses of swamps – seem like public nuisances, a waste of space; occupying prime land which could otherwise be turned into sprawling shopping malls, hotels or theme parks devoid of any green.
Indeed, several wetlands in the Nile Basin have undergone degradation due to multiple contributing factors; settlements and urbanization by an ever growing population, reclamation and conversion for agriculture. Other factors are upstream infrastructural development, over-exploitation by local communities and climate change.
Wetlands represent about five percent of the total basin area and are concentrated in two areas: the Equatorial Lakes region and the Sudd area in South Sudan. The Sudd wetlands – the most extensive wetland system in the Nile Basin – are highly variable in size, averaging roughly 30,000 square kilometres, but extending up to as large as 130,000 square kilometres during the wet seasons. The Nile Delta north of Egypt, once an area of lush natural wetlands, has now been almost entirely converted into agricultural land.
The majority of these transgressions have gone largely unpunished while encroachment on wetlands continues to flourish. However, this ‘honeymoon’ usually ends at the onset of the rainy seasons when nature fights back. The difference here is that the dry season is often characterised by light showers, which hardly pose a threat to populations settled in the lowlands. It is a different story when the heavy rains begin, though.
With the advent of climate change and variable weather patterns, there has been a noticeable increase in floods in the Nile Basin. Kenya, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda have all witnessed El Nino rains in recent months that swept chunks of property and lives with their deadly force. It is perhaps at such times that many people realise the advantages of wetlands in absorbing excess water in the environment.
These factors threaten the intrinsic hydrological and ecological link between these wetlands and River Nile including its overall health and life. This is exacerbated by inadequate knowledge and experience for mainstreaming wetland conservation and for making full use of ecosystem services in the planning process.
Wetlands are crucial mainly because they act as a buffer for floods. They absorb the excess water or run off in the environment and release it systematically while causing no harm to the neighbourhood. However, when these wetlands are threatened, they implode with no escape route for the large amounts of water. Hence, floods run riot and cause destruction of the surroundings. Wetlands are also valuable ecosystems that play an important role in maintaining environmental quality, sustaining livelihoods and supporting biodiversity.
The wide range of animal and plant species wetlands support, provide an ecosystem that services in the form of fisheries, fuel-wood, timber, medicines, providing high ecological, cultural and economic value through recreation and tourism. Wetlands also exert significant influence on the hydrological cycle, altering flood flows, maintaining low flows and ground water recharge.
In light of these challenges, the Nile Basin Initiative Secretariat is spearheading a wetlands project and forum whose focus is on strengthening the technical and institutional capacities of the riparian States for sustainable management of trans-boundary wetlands and wetlands of trans-boundary relevance in the Nile Basin such as the Sudd, whose extensive network affects annual flows of the Nile in downstream countries.
Interventions include building strategic and demand-driven knowledgebase on trans-boundary wetlands for informed planning and development of river basins; facilitating wetlands management planning for sustainability of the Nile Basin trans-boundary wetlands and wetlands of regional significance.
The expected benefits cannot be overemphasised; improved water security through tapping on restoration and conservation of wetlands ecosystem services; enhanced livelihoods security for largely local population groups whose livelihoods heavily depend on wetlands ecosystems. Let us all remember to save wetlands.
The author is head of water resources management at Nile Basin Initiative Secretariat.