Dealing with flood against the tide of urbanisation in central Uganda

Contributor: ‘Bob’ Munubi Abdallah

‘Bob’ Munubi Abdallah, shows how rapid population growth and urbanization can undermine resilience in spite of a good knowledge of the risks. The urban poor in some of the major urban areas in Uganda have been forced to reclaim land at the cities edge. As Bob explains, life in the margins is not easy and knowing the risks is not enough to ensure resilience when people are faced with the pressures of population and poverty.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), attribute rapid urbanization to the natural growth of urban populations and migration of population from rural areas to urban centres owing to declining agricultural productivity and the search for better employment opportunities and better income.

In Uganda, the situation is not any different. The country’s urban areas are growing at a rate of 5.5% each year. Kampala, Uganda’s capital and largest city, is expanding even faster growing at nearly 6% per year. With this growth rate, Kampala now accounts for 40% of the country’s urban population and 4.9% of the national population. Many young people of working age see no future in agriculture and have moved to urban centres in search of jobs; many of them now constitute the ‘urban poor’.

The population in these urban areas is predominantly employed in the informal sector, mostly in small businesses on a subsistence basis like street and market vending. These enterprises are easy to start and from them, quick incomes are earned. They play an important role in contributing to household incomes and providing some level of social protection. Unfortunately, wages for such work in informal settlements are low, intermittent and uncertain. 80% of those employed in such activities are in the poorest 10% of the urban population. The available housing in these urban centres cannot accommodate the current urban population.

In recent years, the price of land in Kampala and the urban areas around has risen exponentially, making it unaffordable to the urban poor. The situation has been further worsened by the multiple complex land tenure systems in the city and the urban areas. Due to insufficient accommodation in the city, individuals working in Kampala and Wakiso opt to live in its suburbs and other neighbouring towns greatly increasing its day-time population. These populations have been forced to reclaim marginal lands, including forest reserves, hills and wetlands. As these marginal lands are sought for survival, it is becoming increasingly difficult for urban authorities to enforce environmental regulations.

Wetlands, which were mainly covered by papyrus, have been reduced from 20.6% to 1.9% of the total land area in some urban centres. The basic need for all low-income earners is affordable land to construct dwellings that can accommodate a family. Many end up buying patches of wetland as small as 30 square meters pieces of land to construct shelter, a pit latrine with rest set aside for backyard farming to provide food to the family. These wetlands are reclaimed by infilling using all available materials including; solid wastes and earth to enable house construction. Unfortunately, a study done by Mukiibi revealed that about 80% of these households lack pit latrines. More than 70% of the dwelling units in the slum areas were built out of temporary building materials like mud and wattle and other semi-permanent materials that could not maintain their stability for more than three years.

There is no planned housing system in most of these slum areas.  The 2005/6 National Household Survey showed that these dwellings accounted for 64.3% of the dwelling units in Kampala, while a large proportion of households lived in single rooms, in crowded environment, and had irregular and low incomes. The tenure for many of these people is insecure, with the majority living in dwelling units whose tenure is unclear.

Flooding and coping strategies adopted by the urban poor

Kampala like many other areas near the shores of Lake Victoria experiences two rainy seasons with the first season occurring between March and May and the second season from August to November. Most of the wetlands in Kampala and the surrounding areas that drain into Lake Victoria are being encroached upon and reclaimed for settlement, compromising the capacity of the wetlands to function normally. After the heavy downpour, these formerly wetland areas experience floods as a result of the impaired wetlands ability to regulate or control floods which have forced the communities in these flood-prone areas to devise coping mechanisms to control these floods because access to these homesteads is practically impossible and transport in such areas is a serious problem.

Life for the inhabitants of the reclaimed lands is difficult. When the rains come inhabitants are forced to deal with flooding which causes dramatic problems. Some people are forced to remain awake in order to avoid drowning in stormwater and to protect household materials from being damaged by the water. The roads frequently become impassable. When the rains come people are forced from their beds to make emergency repairs, move sandbags and protect their homes. Keeping the water at bay dominates life. This is not unexpected. Building on wetlands means that flooding is likely. Resilience here is not undermined by a lack of knowledge; it is eroded by the pressures of population and poverty.

Munubi Abdallah a.k.a Bob is an Environmental Practitioner in Uganda, he holds a BSc and an MSc in Environmental Management

If you would like to write an article, about any aspect of resilience, to be considered for publication on then please visit our ‘Contribute’ page.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.