Enhancing co-benefits from joint forest and water management in Mt. Elgon ecosystem in Uganda

“There are various restoration initiatives and projects by stakeholders in the Mount Elgon region in Uganda, which is recognized as a hotspot area. However, if we still have degradation challenges, the question is, where is the problem despite having these conservation initiatives by various stakeholders?”

These were the remarks of Bob Kazungu, from Uganda’s Ministry of Water and Environment, during the official opening of an inception workshop for the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) project, The Water Towers of East Africa: Policies and practices for enhancing co-benefits from joint forest and water conservation, held in Mbale, Uganda, on 21 September, 2017.

This three-year project aims to strengthen local forest and water resource governance regimes to enable equitable management of linked forest and water systems and to minimize forest degradation in the Mau and Mount Elgon forests spread across the border of Kenya and Uganda.

The project builds on a previous project in Kenya’s Mau forest, which examined the impact of various land uses on water quality. The results showed a correlation between forest health and water quality. The current project adds a governance component to understand how forest and water associations function independently as well as jointly, and what their effects are on forests and water health.

A mountain forest ecosystem

The Mount Elgon forest is a transboundary resource, crossing the borders of Kenya and Uganda. In addition to being home to a wide range of wildlife, the forest contributes to the livelihoods of a large proportion of communities in the two countries.

This mountain ecosystem is one of the five ‘water towers’ of Kenya, including a catchment of rivers that feed into lakes Turkana, Victoria and Kioga in Uganda. Despite its importance, the ecosystem has been threatened with deforestation and degradation. The question now is, what is the best approach to manage the forest ecosystem and its water resources to ensure livelihood benefits for local people? 

An issue of governance

Forest and water management stakeholders gathered for the inception of the Uganda Water Towers project, which followed similar workshops held in Kenya in May 2017. Participants were drawn from forest and water committees, local governments, catchment management organizations, the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), the National Forestry Authority (NFA), the Ministry of Water and Environment, NGOs and donor agencies.

Speakers noted existing policies and initiatives aiding conservation of the Mt. Elgon ecosystem, such as Adaptive Collaborative Management (ACM) techniques of community-based resource management. They also discussed gaps in implementing conservation initiatives, and how to address such gaps in the Mt. Elgon forest area.

While giving his welcome remarks, Professor Banana Abwoli of Makerere University highlighted a gap in linking forest and water management.

“Despite the various policies and practices, there is often a gap in joint management of water and forests – and yet activities in the mountains affect the quality and quantity of water,” said Abwoli. “How can we merge policies and practices to ensure joint management of forests and water, to ensure continued provision of quality and quantity of water?”

The Water Towers project seeks to address such aspects of governance through research and capacity development with the project partners in Uganda.

Community participation and gender consideration

A key challenge raised – especially by representatives from the water sector – was lack of motivation for communities to participate in water monitoring. Building on what was learned in Kenya’s Mau forest, where communities proved able to collect quality data, speakers said that Ugandan communities need to be actively involved in resource management and decision-making – through mechanisms such as ACM and others – rather than simply told what activities they will undertake.

Raising the question of what incentives should be provided to enhance community participation Louis Mugisha, from Uganda’s Directorate of Water Resources Development, said: “We are still grappling with participation of communities in water monitoring, therefore the aspect of incentives should not be overlooked.”

The Directorate of Water has so far been trying to motivate communities through giving small “honoraria” tokens to community members who read gauges installed in rivers.

The issue of community motivation to engage in conservation efforts was also addressed, through activities such as tree nurseries, agroforestry, and developing value chains for preferred tree species.

To enhance participation among women in particular, the Uganda Professional Women in Agriculture and Environment (AUPWAE) will be using ACM in the project’s capacity development efforts.


Sustainability is important not only to the Water Towers project, but also to other conservation initiatives in the Mt. Elgon ecosystem. To this end, the project is working extensively with local partners to harmonize efforts.

The Water Towers project has instituted a Project Advisory Committee (PAC), which will play a key role in providing recommendations for project implementation and opportunities for collaboration. On-the-ground capacity-building activities will also target water and forest associations, with the standpoint that these local associations are ultimately the greatest beneficiaries.

Concerning other conservation activities such as afforestation, participants agreed that the focus should shift from ‘tree planting’ to ‘tree growing’ to enhance their sustainability. This entails establishing mechanisms to protect the trees – as well as a mindset-change within local communities.

What Next?

The discussions provided the Water Towers project team with many recommendations to consider when implementing the project in Uganda. Regarding project partners, AUPWAE has started capacity building activities in the Ugandan project sites of Bududa and Kapchorwa. The objective of the activities is to build the capacity of forest user groups and water user committees in joint water and forest management. Data collection in the two sites began in April 2018, to understand how forest and water user associations function both independently and jointly, and their effects on forest and water health.