This post is dedicated to my friend, David Cook, who said I was starting to depress him with the environmental news out of Uganda. He was right to call me on it – when I started writing this blog, my goal was to have a good balance between challenges and hope, but somehow the balance has been tipped in favor of the challenges. It has been hard to be hopeful with oil drilling happening in the national parks, and the corruption of the recently disbanded Uganda Wildlife Authority board (who are still trying to get payments out of the UWA accounts!).
However, as is so often the case in Africa (and elsewhere, I guess), the problems are often at the higher levels, and the hope comes from the grassroots. I honestly have very little faith that the Ugandan government has the will to protect the environment in this country in any way. I have a personal policy here, though – whenever I get discouraged about the future of Uganda, I try to spend more time with individual Ugandans. That’s what reignites my hope and reminds me why I am here.
I had that opportunity this week at the St. John the Baptist Primary Teachers College here in Kampala. It is one of the leading teacher colleges in East Africa, and about 2,000 students attend each year from the five countries in the EAC. The college has a very active environmental club that has partnered with Tusk Trust, Uganda Conservation Foundation and Siren Conservation Education to implement some model sustainability projects that the newly trained teachers can implement in the schools where they are ultimately placed. With 2,000 teachers being exposed to this every year, you can imagine how many children will be taught the importance of environmentally sustainable practices.
The project looked at some of the main environmental challenges confronting the college, which also happen to be some of the biggest challenges facing Africa as a whole:
Below are some pictures of what they have put in place in each of these areas:
Rainwater Catchment System:
Harvesting rainwater has multiple benefits wherever it is used. In many parts of Africa, women still walk for miles to gather water from streams or lakes. This exposes them and their families to diseases from water that is often shared by livestock, it takes a lot of time and energy to retrieve it and carry the 20+ kilogram jerry cans, and in conflict zones like eastern Congo, exposes them to attack while walking along paths early in the morning. Directing rainwater into barrels rather than letting it flow freely off the roof also prevents the erosion that frequently undermines the walls or foundations of buildings. In urban areas, it can also save families or schools quite a bit of money if they are able to use less of the municipal water supply. During the rainy season, the Teachers College expects to save over 50% on their water bill.
Everybody poops, right? Human waste management is a challenge everywhere in the world. Eco-san toilets provide a way to use that waste rather than “wasting” it (sorry – couldn’t resist). In these toilets, the solid waste is separated from the liquid waste. Many people don’t realize that urine has a very high nitrogen content, and that if it is diluted with water (harvested in the rain barrels), it is an incredible fertilizer for crops. The solid waste goes into a compartment below, and in six months (if mixed regularly with wood ash), it becomes usable as compost for gardens or landscaping.
They are just getting started on this aspect of the project, but in time it will be a very important piece of the puzzle in this largely agricultural country. Most agricultural leftovers here, like banana leaves, maize stalks, etc, are just piled up and burned. The soil in Uganda is so fertile that nobody has ever really had to worry about replenishing it. Composting is probably the cheapest thing that Uganda can do to ensure its future food security.
Fuel-efficient stoves are another simple technology that has far-reaching and many-pronged implications. Deforestation is believed by many to be the most pressing environmental threat to Uganda. 93% of the population uses wood or charcoal for cooking, and the forest are disappearing at an alarming rate. In addition to the environmental devastation, there are also the same impacts on women that are seen with water collection. As sources of firewood or water get more scarce, women and children are having to go farther to collect these resources. There are also respiratory issues that come with the traditional indoor “3-rock” open fireplace. Fuel-efficient stoves can reduce firewood use dramatically.
But there are cultural issues to overcome and old habits to break. Some people like cooking over the old, familiar, 3-stone fireplace. Check out the picture below to see where the cooks at the school, despite the money and effort that was put into building the fuel-efficient stoves and their obvious benefits, have set up an open fire pit to cook.
There are also supply-chain issues. The picture below shows a recent delivery of firewood to the school. Look at the size of the logs. First of all, this was a mature tree cut down rather than more sustainable saplings and, second, there is NO WAY these are going to fit in the stoves. Is somebody really supposed to cut these down to size with a machete or a hand-saw? This school does not have chainsaws or a mechanical log-splitter. It takes time to shift behaviors in a more sustainable direction.
The environmental club has started raising chickens to fund some of the club activities, like trips to the national parks for club members. The chickens in this pen are expected to nearly pay for an entire group of 30 students to visit Queen Elizabeth National Park.
I left inspired by the work of the environmental club at St. John’s, and will be going back in January to do a training for their in-service teachers. The school would also like to become a model site, and will soon be welcoming visiting groups who might be interested in implementing similar projects at their own sites.
And David – thanks for the reminder!
Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala