By Celia Kenyangye|19.05.2023 | 8 Min Read
A system is a set of things interacting in a way that produces something greater than the sum of its parts. Systems can differ in complexity. Compare: a car which is relatively easy to understand and even diagnose when something goes wrong, to a tropical rainforest with so many living and non-living components that we are only just beginning to understand how they work.
Systems thinking is key while dealing with environmental management issues given the interconnection between different actors. For example, in a wetland eco-system, there are producers, consumers, local users of the wetland, and the conservation authority. This approach can be used to expand our awareness to see the relationship between these actors, which is very key in decision making because we look at parts as whole rather than in isolation.
The systems thinking approach has also been used when environmental problems are persistent despite repeated interventions. Wetlands in Uganda today are one of the ecosystems that have had persistent problems of degradation, declining soil fertility and over the years, a number of wetland interventions such as restoration, demarcation of boundaries, forceful evictions have been used to minimize wetland degradation. However, these interventions have yielded futile results and there has been a persistent increase in degradation.
This persistent degradation has been evidenced by a report from UNDP 2022, which says that; in Uganda wetlands continue to be degraded and the current area of wetlands across the country is below that recorded in the 1990s. In the urban areas, there is indiscriminate encroachment for expansion of human settlements while in the rural areas there is steady conversion of wetlands for agricultural use.
In such a scenario, the systems thinking approach is a key management tool that will provide a clear understanding of causal linkages, and feedback mechanisms within the wetland system. This is possible through stakeholder participation as it provides an opportunity for a group of people to share their insights about the causes and viable solutions of a problem which leads to relevant model outputs and a willingness by participants to implement the results.
For example, wetland users would ably better explain how changes in livelihood needs (food and economic needs), soil fertility, flooding patterns, crop yield, or wetland policies impact their individual decisions on wetland resource use including drainage, vegetation harvesting and fishing, and how their decisions/activities in turn affect the state of the wetland. The stakeholders would later build causal loop diagrams for the linkages between the wetland system and drivers.
A recent study conducted at Naigombwa wetland in Iganga district, used the systems thinking approach to conduct a survey among wetland users on the drivers of wetland degradation and its impacts on ecosystem services. Results from the survey showed that food and economic security are the major drivers of wetland encroachment.
After the survey, the study took on a participatory model approach with different stakeholders including local farmers in the wetland, local/community leaders and elders, local government, and the different ministries with a stake on wetlands, such as Ministry of Water and Environment, National Environment Management Authority, as well as actors from the Civil Society.
These stakeholders used data from the survey to generate visual representations (Causal Loop Diagrams) to illustrate the structure and feedback loops of the wetland-agricultural system in Uganda. The major feedback was the impact of long-term wetland drainage on soil fertility i.e., declining yields and reduced wetland fertility/moisture. Whereas the short-term impacts are reduction in wetland flora and fauna, reduced ability of the wetland to supplement food needs.
Feedback loops: Positive (+) means reinforcing and Negative (-) means balancing
From these discussions, the users of the wetland recommended actions to be taken for degraded wetlands such as cultivation of the wetland edges, prevent over cultivation, use appropriate fishing tools. For wetlands that are still intact, the users recommended the following: no vegetation burning, harvest mature wetland products and practice following.
In conclusion, when a system’s thinking is considered, it is easy to exploit the connectedness and spread of effects, as well as the reactions of certain decisions on different components in a system like a wetland.