Environmental Livelihoods in Rwanda

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Rusumo Waterfalls thunder their presence with majestic dignity. Although a mere stone throw away from the bridge that joins Tanzania and Rwanda, these waterfalls are in a world of their own. A beautiful world full of the white watery spray and swoosh of the falls, which are perched at a meeting point of the Akagera and Ruvubu rivers.

The Akagera River journeys through Burundi, Rwanda and part of Uganda. It is the single largest river flowing into Lake Victoria, contributing about 7 per cent of the total inflow. Just a few hundred metres away from this mighty river, within the Akagera river basin, is the Kagasa Water Reservoir, a small water body with a long history and big impact. It is the size of five football pitches even though back in the mid 90s, it was five times as small.

Kagasa’s size ballooned after the 1998 El Nino rains caused the nearby Akagera River to flood. Within less than a year, Kagasa had grown from 2 hectares into ten hectares. This growth led to increased agricultural practices as more and more farmers planted crops in the fertile lands by the reservoir. Due to ensuing long, dry spells, the wetland around the reservoir was the only place that local farmers could plant their crops with a measure of certainty that these crops would make it to maturity.  

Because of the increased agricultural activity around Kagasa, soil erosion increased even as an increasing amount of debris found its way into the reservoir. In addition, water weeds that included water hyacinth found their way into the reservoir, partly as a result of the El Nino flooding. As if that was not enough, the reservoir reduced in size from 10 hectares in 1998 to six hectares in 2006.

As it reduced in size, the reservoir remained under heavy attack from alien species like water hyacinths and concentrated human activity. In 2003, the Rwandan government provided the surrounding community with agricultural plots so that they could stop cultivating in the reservoir’s immediate vicinity and hence conserve it plus the entire wetland.

Four years later in 2007, ARAMA came on the scene and found a reservoir that had become an eyesore, having been overrun with weeds. ARAMA immediately formed a working partnership with a local fish farming cooperative known as Coopérative des Pisciculteurs de Rusumo (COOPIRU). It had been formed in 2002 with the goal of ensuring local ownership of Kagasa conservation efforts and local benefits from these conservation efforts.

ARAMA held a series of meetings with the local community and unearthed a litany of problems. Unsustainable agricultural practices were still rampant and the water hyacinths had already covered a third of the reservoir. Due to this alien species invasion, fish had all but disappeared from the reservoir, leaving it with seemingly no use for the local community besides basic provision of water that wasn’t even potable.

The challenge that stood before ARAMA was both mental and physical. Physically, the pervasive water weeds had to be cleared from the reservoir not just for aesthetic reasons, but also for fish farming to be possible. Mentally, the community’s perception of the reservoir had to be appreciative of the fact that it was a highly beneficial natural resource.

According to the United Nations Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, ‘wetlands constitute a resource of great economic, cultural, scientific, and recreational value, the loss of which would be irreparable.’

Wetlands in all the four corners of the globe are like earth kidneys due to the role they play in conserving and filtering water resources. They filter pollutants from water that flows through them. In coastal areas, they also provide buffers to storms and extreme wave events.

Humans too, are major recipients of profound wetland benefits that include food, tourism, recreation and health. Crucially, wetland soils can be quite fertile thus contributing greatly to food security. Even as they confer these benefits, wetlands also ensure groundwater recharge.

As part of the Akagera River wetland, Kagasa Water reservoir has been of immense value to the local community over the years. However, its reduced size, the alien species invasion and over-exploitation of adjacent land threatened to seriously undermine the livelihoods that depended on it.

How can we restore this reservoir to its former glory and ensure that local livelihoods are enhanced through this restored glory? This is the question that ARAMA researched on in the many meetings that they had with the community.

It became evident in these meetings that the community needed a lot of institutional and organisational support to enable them be better organized, to have more skills on environmental protection, integrated fish farming techniques, technical and management abilities to run and sustain the project.

Armed with funding from the Dutch Embassy in Rwanda, ARAMA rolled out a project whose overall objective was to protect Kagasa water reservoir ecosystem and develop intensive fish farming, together with pig farming.

By 2009, ARAMA had mobilized the local community to clear silt and water weeds away from the reservoir. Community members were paid for their labour and this helped in shaping their perceptions of the reservoir as a natural resource that could vastly enhance their livelihoods. After hundreds of hours of intensive labour, an official from the Ministry of Agriculture certified that the reservoir was finally ready for optimal fish farming.

All through this manual labour ARAMA partnered with the government to provide training to the local community on integrated fish farming techniques, bamboo cultivation and river banks ecosystem protection. Through this training, the community has been duly equipped to earn decent livelihoods through conservation of Kagasa water reservoir ecosystem.  

These environmental livelihoods have potentially huge economic benefits. The fish price being approximately 1 US dollar per kilogramme, it is expected that after one year, the production will be 2000 kilogramme of fish per hectare per year. Consequently, Kagasa’s 10 hectares will translate to 20,000kg of fish per year, which will mean a potential revenue of 20,000 US Dollars per year.


Indeed, the restored Kagasa Water reservoir is now ready to create new and sustainable environmental livelihoods for the local community.

DJ Bwakali

Words can inspire action and change the world

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