The importance of natural wetlands in a changing climate!

By Anthony Kadoma, PhD Student, University of Glasgow

I am writing this when the Conference of Parties commonly known as COP 26 is taking place in the United Kingdom in Glasgow. Having spent a better part of 2021 in Uganda conducting field research activities on a topic very close to my heart and passion – conservation of wetlands in Wakiso district, Uganda I have come to appreciate how vital natural wetlands are. I will use the analogy of natural wetlands as human kidneys to write about something that we are all very familiar with. The human body has four major internal organs including the heart, the lungs, the liver and the kidneys. These are known as sensitive organs and are thus protected by the skeletal system.  If any of the four is not safe, it will be difficult or impossible for one to live a normal and healthy life.

Back to the kidneys, if you don’t take good care of them, they will get sick and you will be warned to stop or reduce what is causing the problem to them.  If you do not listen, your kidneys will continue getting sick and one of the kidneys may be removed, and you will continue surviving and in worst-case scenario, you may need a total kidney transplant where all the two may be replaced. To get a transplant you have two options either to get a willing donor or to buy both options are not cheap leave alone the process of transplanting and as a matter of fact not afforded by the majority. Also, the chances of success are 50/50. That is how bad the situation can be!

Relating the above to our physical world, we have four key sensitive and fragile ecosystems as Lakes, Rivers, Wetlands and Forests. These four support life on earth for fauna and flora. I will focus on the wetlands which serve as the kidneys in our bodies. Our wetlands play many key roles including absorption of carbon dioxide, collecting and storing flood and muddy water and releasing it fresh for our consumption and acting as breeding places for the fish which the majority of us do enjoy.

Sadly, our wetlands are under serious attack from encroachers and degraders and the warning signs are clear to us but we are proving to be adamant and not listening or observing the signs. Hence, slowly and steadily we are heading to the kidney transplant level. Considering the fact that Uganda is one of the fast-growing country population-wise, it is also a country with a fast-changing climate which has resulted into many hazards such as flooding, long dry spells and food insecurities causing loss of lives and properties. Indeed, wetlands in the country are degraded 70 times more than they are conserved. The country loses wetlands three times more than forests yet we don’t have the capacity to afford the cost of creating artificial wetlands.

Preaching adaptation and mitigation to climate alone is not the only solution as rightly observed by one of the young Ugandan climate change activist – Vanessa Nakate who noted that, “You cannot adapt to a lost culture, you cannot adapt to a lost tradition, a lost history and starvation or extinction”. It is time now for all concerned stakeholders to focus on the care of the vulnerable individuals and communities through making every effort to conserve the remaining natural wetlands, deliberately come up with a communication strategy that will send a clear message to all the citizens in a language that they understand and through a mode that is accessible to them be it televisions, radios, social media platforms, use of billboards, word of mouth as well as traditional institutions to pass on the wetland conservation and restoration message. All our educational institutions should incorporate the element of environment conservation because without it we will all be challenged to live healthy lives. It should also be our responsibility as citizens to resist and discourage all wetland degraders at all cost because their actions directly affect our lives as well as that of our children and their children.

Cooking up a Sustainable Solution to Malawi’s Energy Crisis

By Deepa Pullanikkatil and Dave Gerow

Cooking is one of the key contributors to Malawi’s significant energy crisis. At present, nearly the entire population uses firewood or charcoal to cook their meals. This has resulted in rapid deforestation, damaging agricultural activities and ultimately intensifying poverty. It’s also linked to serious health problems because of air quality issues associated with burning wood and charcoal indoors.

Malawi’s dependence on charcoal and firewood as fuel has only grown with the effects of climate change. Frequent droughts have resulted in the loss of thousands of fishing jobs and hurt the country’s ability to produce hydroelectric power, all of which increases the people’s dependence on coal and firewood for both fuel and employment. The result is that Malawi has the highest deforestation rate in southern Africa, with children and women engaged in the difficult labour of firewood collection. Now more than ever, there is a vital need for sustainable and clean cooking technologies in Malawi.

To address this need, the Scottish government announced a competition in October 2019. The winners of the Climate Justice Innovation Fund were a consortium including the University of Glasgow and several partners in Malawi: Lead Southern and Eastern Africa, Abundance, FAB Engineering and Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR). The project, which builds on earlier research on energy fuel conducted in Malawi by the University of Glasgow in collaboration with Abundance, will last 16 months with a total grant of £122,583. The team consists of engineers, industrialists, entrepreneurs, environmental scientists and local activists, and is led by Principal Investigator Dr. Nader Karimi of the Engineering Faculty at the University of Glasgow. The team members met through the Sustainable Futures in Africa (SFA) Network and previous collaborations.

This project aims to create a solution to Malawi’s cooking problem by using agricultural and municipal waste to produce bio-fuels which are then burned in a novel gas cooker. The key objectives are:

1- To deliver a ‘Bioenergy Kit’: a sustainable biofuel production (biogas and biosyngas) and utilization unit for clean and efficient cooking.

2- To manufacture and maintain this Bioenergy Kit in Malawi and attract attention from local businesses.

This innovative project combines two methods of biofuel generation to widen the range of biomass that can be used for fuel production. It further introduces a novel, robust cooker technology that can greatly reduce the cost of fuel processing, making the technology economically viable. Local manufacturing, maintenance, operation and marketing of the Bioenergy Kit will create local jobs, contributing to the empowerment of communities and the alleviation of poverty.

The Bioenergy Kit will be created at the University of Glasgow in close collaboration with the Malawian partners and will be engineered specifically for the Malawian situation. In line with Malawi’s waste availability, both dry waste and wet waste can both be used as fuel. The technology will be completely smoke-free, with a chimney that will be adapted based on users’ input. It will be piloted at a lunch kitchen in a primary school in Mbando village, where Abundance has been working since 2016. With this technology, the team hopes to collaborate on a sustainable solution to Malawi’s pressing energy crisis.

You can see the announcement of the grant here: