Fisheries resource management and peacebuilding in Uganda and DRC

This blog was first published on the Resilience Compass.

Climate change and population increases are adding pressure to fisheries resources in a lake shared by Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), thereby intensifying intra-and inter-community conflicts in this already fragile region. Improved resource management could bring opportunities for more resilient and peaceful communities.

Lake Albert is a vast and beautiful Rift Valley lake which straddles the border of DRC and Uganda. A naturally resource-rich area, this part of the world has experienced violent conflict for some 30 years and remains not only extremely fragile, but also grapples with exceptionally low levels of development. In the fishing villages along the lake shore in Uganda, electricity lines have only been erected in the last six months. Literacy rates are very low and access to basic infrastructure such as running water and sanitation facilities, and to healthcare and education, is extremely limited.

Communities in this area are totally reliant on the lake, and on fishing, for their survival. However, the strain on Lake Albert’s finite resources is intensifying, due to increasing population pressure, which has been compounded by a recent influx of migrants following the discovery of oil in the area. Alongside this, climate change is impacting the composition of fish stocks. These pressures are having a detrimental effect on both food security and livelihoods.

Responses in contexts such as this are multifaceted – effective management of the lake’s resources is paramount, but so too is government support for diversification of livelihoods. In essence, this means building a system that is far more resilient to the unavoidable impacts of climate change. In a typical developing country with limited capacities, support for these processes, while difficult, is possible. In a fragile country with a recent history of conflict and a strained, tense relationship – driven by security concerns – with its neighbour across the water, these efforts become far more complex.

Despite two of Uganda’s national parks bordering the lake shore, the waters themselves are not protected. On the other side of the lake in DRC, they do form part of a national park, and are subject to restrictions, where all fishing is prohibited for three months of the year. As a result, Congolese fishermen will regularly head over to the Ugandan side of the lake during this three-month period to ensure their continual reliance on fish can be met. This is a source of some anger and discontent for many Ugandan fishermen, and has caused outbreaks of violence such as destruction of boats and fishing gear, physical violence and subsequent reprisal attacks. The fragile relationship between the governments of Uganda and DRC means a holistic approach to fishing restrictions across Lake Albert is unlikely to materialise in the near future. In addition, without livelihood diversification supported by both governments, friction between the two fishing communities will continue, as both lack sustainable alternatives.

Furthermore, the responsibility for the management of the lake in Uganda has been largely given over to what the locals call ‘law enforcers’. These are a team of men separate from the conventional police force and unpaid, who have been selected by the central government to police the lake. Their role is to ensure 'light fishing' (a practice which is rife across the lake, and involves floating kerosene pressure lamps on the water to attract ‘mukene’, a small species of fish) is prevented, the correct tax is paid for catches, and fishermen are using approved nets (as opposed to illegal nets which catch extremely small and young fish and are therefore a danger to the maintenance of the lake ecosystem). In practice, as testimony from our recent focus groups in the area demonstrated, the law enforcers often act with impunity and violence, and are perceived as enforcing the rules only when it is in their interests. They are disliked and distrusted by the communities, who have expressed anger that these ‘outsiders’ with no knowledge of fishing are seemingly making the rules.

Not only is this attempt at lake management exacerbating local fragility dynamics to the detriment of community-government relations, it also means unsustainable fishing practices are largely allowed to continue on Lake Albert, impacting fish numbers. Combine these dynamics with climate change impacts, and a cyclical pattern which poses potentially significant risks to security emerges.

Alongside declining fish numbers, increasing water temperatures caused by declining rainfall and increasing air temperature are the main driver of the changing composition of fish stocks, with smaller fish dominating and the size of the main species – the Nile Perch and Nile Tilapia – decreasing significantly. This finding has been reached by a number of research institutes including the World Fish Center, the National Fisheries Resources Research Institute and researchers at Uganda’s Makerere University.

The effects of this changing composition for both food security and livelihoods are significant, given that the Ugandan National Environmental Agency estimates that fish makes up between 30–50% of Ugandans’ dietary protein and the fisheries sector employs 1.2 million people in the country. Not only do smaller fish sizes mean fishermen have to fish more to provide sufficient food for their families, it also means they will need more fish to make the same money at local markets. Without support for livelihood diversification, their only option is to engage in unsustainable fishing practices to survive.

Uganda was ranked as the world’s 23rd most fragile country in the Fund for Peace Fragile States Index 2015, and 126th out of 174 in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2014. The impact of such fragility, and in particular a lack of institutional capacity and high levels of corruption among government officials, is preventing effective law enforcement and resource management in this case. This is exacerbating the effects of climate change and population increases on the dwindling supplies of fish, thereby causing further fragility by intensifying intra- and inter-community conflicts.

While this may appear to be an intractable situation, improving the way the lake’s resources are managed could have peacebuilding dividends. The current tensions present an opportunity to encourage community-centred resource management, which gives responsibility to those whose lives are inherently bound up with the sustainability of the lake. This can encourage dialogue between different social groups, provide alternatives to aggressive law enforcement and create a shared sense of ownership over future resources. Various processes, such as the formation of Beach Management Units in the fishing communities, have begun to foster a process of community organisation and involvement in management processes. This has encouraged dialogue between Congolese and Ugandan fishermen, but there is still much more to do at the local and national levels.

Locally, support for the creation of community cooperatives and associations of fish traders (who are mostly women) could improve community cohesion as well as enhancing options for accessing credit. Capacity-building support for the Beach Management Units could help them work more closely together to foster intra-community cooperation both between communities in Uganda, and between Ugandan and Congolese fishermen. At the national level, infrastructure development to improve access to markets for fish traders and government support for community-level resource management and, crucially, for livelihood diversification, will be essential to build resilience to the climate challenges ahead. This could improve the stability of these communities, reducing the likelihood of localised violence and inter-community conflict in the future.

International Alert has been working with the fishing communities of Lake Albert and with district and national government representatives in Uganda, in partnership with the Uganda Fisheries and Fish Conservation Association, to facilitate a number of dialogue processes, and is helping to set up and support the Lake Albert Management Organisation.

Alert recently published a photostory entitled Oil and water?, which highlights the feelings, thoughts and views of local communities across the lake, and suggests ways in which the oil and fishing sectors could peacefully coexist.

Photo © Andrew Pacutho for International Alert