We have no Capacity to kick out encroachers on Wetlands -NEMA boss tells Parliament

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NEMA Executive Director Dr Barirega Akankwasa before parliament on Tuesday; Courtesy Photo

National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) currently has no capacity to effectively enforce environmental standards in the country including eviction and prosecution of encroachers on wetlands -Dr Akankwasa Barirega, the Executive Director NEMA said.

While appearing before a parliamentary committee on Tuesday, Dr Akankwasa Barirega, said while the law provides for facilitation and government support for NEMA, the authority has suffered “chronic and gross underfunding,” human resource challenges, a limited legal mandate and several others issues that have kept the authority incapacitated and not able to fulfil it’s mandate.

Without addressing these issues, Dr Akankwasa said Ugandans are bound to continue to experiencing disasters resulting from wetland degradation since almost every wetland in the country is at risk.

Dr Akankwasa was appearing before the Presidential Affairs Committee to answer a series of concerns from MPs pointing to failure by NEMA to protect the environment as the country continues to experience environment-related hazards like floods resulting to continued encroachment on wetlands and cutting of forests. MPs expressed disappointment over NEMA’s inaction as individuals put up buildings, farms and businesses while others acquire titles on wetlands.

“NEMA’s current budget is 13BN, 10BN of which goes into wage and other wage-related statutory obligations leaving about 3BN to conduct operations for NEMA operations for the whole year. This is less than 30 percent of expected funding levels of NDPIII. So, whereas we acknowledge and apologize for failure to meet the needs of Ugandans, its not our intention but we are fundamentally handicapped.” Dr Akankwasa said.

He said, even the National Environment Fund established by parliament and provided for in the National Environment Act of 1994/2019 and is supposed to supplement the authority funding through levies and collections, was taken over by the Ministry of Finance with all monies going directly to URA leaving NEMA starved.

As a consequence, Akankwasa said on top of staffing gaps, the authority has no functional vehicles for it’s personnel to timely respond to emergencies or inspect wetlands. “With only 128 staff and only 17 inspectors to mange the whole country, it is a very big task for NEMA to execute the environment management role.”

He also stressed need for an environment protection force under NEMA contrary to the current environmental protection police unit which he said is easily compromised. The force, he says, will be able to investigate, undertake operations and arrest degraders, and prosecute offenders which the authority lacks, leaving environmental encroachers and degraders to enjoy a field day.

“Environment Police Unit is under the Uganda police force -over which we have no direct control. What we are demanding for is NEMA to have an inhouse environmental protection force under our direct command, where we have ability to sanction, deploy and ability to sack the officer found compromised. We need that force to be able to make meaningful change in environment management in Uganda.” He said.

Dr Akankwasa said government should also consider creating a special court division -an Environment Division of the High Court, dedicated only to fast-track prosecution of cases of environment degraders.

He said government must stand firm and chase encroachers from wetlands and enforce a sustainable wetland restoration program in order to save the environment.

MPs were shocked to learn that the Uganda government is yet to map, demarcate and gazette wetlands in the country, leaving unscrupulous individuals to acquire land titles on wetlands including Lwera -one of the biggest wetlands in central region, which he said has made it impossible for NEMA to enforce control since most of it is private land.

“Unless government compensates the title holders in Lwera, there is no way you can stop development on a private property. We as NEMA we can only monitor the operations in Lwera to ensure they comply with the environmental sustainability standards but we are careful not to make mistakes and attract civil litigation” Akankwasa said.

Through the Ministry of Water and Environment, government is developing a 10-year restoration program for the environment in which wetlands will be marked and gazetted for protection. Under the program, Dr Akankwasa says, all land titles on wetlands obtained after the promulgation of the 1995 Constitution will be cancelled but encroachers with titles acquired before 1995 will be compensated.

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