Interview: How ESPA science can inform Uganda's development decisions

Revocatus Twinomuhangi with Liz Carlile
December 7, 2017

Liz Carlile, ESPA’s Communications Advisor, caught up with Revocatus Twinomuhangi of Makerere University at the ESPA Science Conference 2017. Revocatus shared his views on how ESPA science can be relevant to Uganda’s pressing poverty and development challenges.

Is Uganda measuring its ecosystem services and their effect on poverty alleviation?

The concept of ecosystems is well known: it is recognised and used by academics and policy-makers in Uganda.  The most important ecosystems for Uganda are: forests, soils, water sources and so on. People recognise carbon sinks as important in regulating the climate. They also recognise the importance of ecosystems in providing food, fibre, medicines and other essential goods.

The issue of ecosystem services, however, is relatively new.  The benefits are known in principle, but  they are not properly quantified.  This always makes it a big problem – when explaining to policy-makers or communities why ecosystem services should be protected.   

One good example is wetlands.  If people have drained wetlands to build up industries or clear forests, they believe they have created jobs therefore supporting income and growth, which translates into revenue.

Uganda needs increased efforts to reduce poverty by introducing piped fresh water, and other water services to communities, but must do this without negatively impacting the sources of the water.  Otherwise, we are left with the infrastructure but no water! As water sources dry up, people are starting to see the links between the water and the ecosystem from where it comes.  But we are not measuring this in real quantitative terms.

It’s a challenge to get people to understand the real economic value of ecosytems vis a vis the value of modifying them for other economic benefits.  You can quantify the business very readily but not the wealth or value of the wetland or clearing.  But it has been like this for a long time.  People can’t understand this until they start seeing the benefits – or costs – for themselves.

Another example is clearing of forests.  After forest clearance, the temperatures start rising, the land degrades, and soil fertility is reduced.  As this plays out, people can start to see the links between the ecosystems and the services they provide and then realise that the actions they have taken have undermined them.

Some studies have been conducted in Uganda to make the links between the value of ecosystems and GDP, but these are pitched at very high level. Mapping has been done of the key ecosystems and the areas that are lost, but we still need the details of how to quantify the value of each specific ecosystem service.

How can ESPA science help Ugandan decision-makers to manage ecosystems services for poverty alleviation?

ESPA science provides us with a number of frameworks and models that can be used to map and model the benefits and to help model them against the other actions that are also threatening them.  Some of these models, guides and frameworks can be quite applicable and can be piloted in Uganda.  For example, the issue of Payments for Ecosystem Services or ‘PES’ is very important – it has been tried in some communities in Uganda. If it can be tailored further to our situations and the communities protecting the ecosystems around them, that would be very good.   

ESPA science could also be well packaged for policy-makers.  This could work in two ways: providing information for those who are champions to further the cause, and for those who still need convincing and need to have a clear understanding of the issues and benefits etc. 

There is a real gap here for those trying to share ESPA's learning! Communities and politicians want to be convinced and need evidence.  ESPA outputs would help with this, especially the forthcoming guide (to be published in 2018), Ecosytem Modelling: a guide for policy makers in sub Saharan Africa by James Bullock and Helen Ding. It will be a crucial document: I hope we can test and use the recommendations in Uganda.

What are the big policy opportunities coming up in the future that we can leverage?

There are lots of big opportunities in Uganda currently.  The government has prioritised wetland restoration. Funds from the Green Climate Fund have been provided to Uganda through UNDP to map the boundaries of ecosystems.  This is the moment to capitalise on this conversation – as Uganda is actively planning ecosystem restoration, in the context of the UNDP programme.

Another opportunity is around reforestation.  The desire in Uganda is to increase the forest cover to 1990 levels again. We want to increase forest cover from the current 11% to 20%.

Uganda is also promoting water catchment management and protection of rivers and water towers.  The intention is to involve communities in this protection process. Watershed zones have been mapped and it is now going ahead: it is a clear priority right now. Meanwhile, ecosystem based adaptation to climate change is one of the priorities of Uganda’s National Development Plan and its Nationally Determined Contribution  (its commitment to the United Nations under the Paris climate change agreement) and more.  There are lots of opportunities to feed into this.

We have a strong civil society advocating for robust environmental protection.  There are lots of NGOs in Uganda – key players like Conservation International, IUCN and the University of Makerere’s Centre for Climate Change Research and Innovations (MUCCRI).

There is a desire in the country to create climate-resilient communities and a resilient economy. Ecosystems can play a big role, so ESPA research would be valuable.  Oil and gas exploration and extraction is a current challenge but also an opportunity. If we don’t address our energy and export revenue needs properly we will get this wrong – so the time is right for this discussion on sustainability.

Find more news and analysis from ESPA's Annual Science Conference 2017 on our event page.