Friday, May 23, 2014

Upstream in a social learning process

Social learning: A change in understanding that goes beyond the individual and spreads within communities or groups through social interactions between people1”. The process sounds benign in this simple definition of a multifaceted process but often Social Learning reveals or generates tensions as conflicting interests emerge. We’re tracking such a process as part of the Climate Change and Social Learning project that is supporting the initial phase of a project in Hoima-Uganda. The project aims to link Integrated Watershed Management (IWM) tools with social learning approaches as part of an effort to enhance the adaptive capacity of communities to climate change in Hoima-Uganda. The Albertine Zone in Uganda in which Hoima lies has been identified as one of the areas to be most impacted by climate change in Uganda.

Social Learning group
The story that is emerging from the initial participatory research illustrates the inadequacy of our sector categorisations in framing the complexity of people’s lives as well as the power of participatory approaches focusing on addressing issues across a large scale. The context and process so far are summarized in these extracts from an interview with the team leader, Prof. Dr Moses Tenywa2 about this early phase. Dr Gerd Foerch3 and Alex Zixinga, a project assistant, also contributed to the interview.

What you have learnt from the process so far, including if there were things which came up that you didn’t expect?
Discharge in river Kiiha
When we went out we were trying to go and do Integrated Watershed Management but also use a Social Learning approach. The stakeholder meeting .... yielded a lot of information we had not expected. The reason for that was that at no time in history had the communities organised around the river stream to be able to recognize the factors that affect them, and especially the importance of water and how it is affected. We invited stakeholders from upstream, downstream and the middle-stream of river Kiiha and by bringing them together for the first time they were able to reflect on issues pertaining to their stream water, its use and even land management and even socio-economic activities that are impacting negatively on the environment and their lives. They were also able to recognize some of the implications, for example they do distillation and many of them take that alcohol and there is a lot of domestic violence and sexual abuse and many of those things. So when we brought them together they were able to reflect on those things and bring them up. It was more like an eye-opener

Initially, because they had never been organized around that theme, when they came they were ‘innocent’…. They came expecting the usual kind of meeting that they have with people from agriculture or development or regional development people. They were expecting the usual discussions, but when we engaged with them asking questions about issues pertaining to upstream, downstream, mid-stream, that’s when they began really reflecting and recognizing that they belong to the same unit which is affected by issues which perhaps in the past they took lightly, just observing some activities or felt that they could not do anything much. But then they realized they are a group together, that they have a voice that they can be able to take some form of action. They say, “we have learned that water is life even in the meeting we have taken water” and “this pollution of the stream has been has been killing our wildlife and flocks and in the future it will kill them”. That kind of realization was the first time and it came through the meeting.

What does that learning mean for your plans: are you changing any of your plans following the outcomes of the first, consultative phase, and if so how and why?
Yes, we are going to change the phase in that we are going to allow in-depth sharing of the social groups so that they can be able to learn more from each other

The process brought out tensions between distillers and other users, a deep seated opposition of interest. Can this be addressed in a small project like this or is it out of scope?
Distillers - photo from New Vision
 (Note that news of the same issue in the same area has reached the national press, as illustrated opposite)

I think it is possible to bring out, to improve the understanding especially considering that they have been working as individuals and those who distill in bushes have no major contacts with community as such and many come from outside the community. People fear that because they are from outside they worry less about the pollution and exploit the community. That they (the distillers) will see that it has reached a level where everyone is now concerned, that there is now an outcry that they will run back to their areas. At the same time there is a possibility that some of the leaders and community members have conflicting interests, that they may also be investors … (only now) … realizing how dangerous it is to the water and their lives.

The major issue now is that the quality of the water has deteriorated and they can’t use it so even the leaders who may have been benefiting from the activities through some social learning may begin changing their attitudes. So however small the impact I think it can help profound change that can take place.

Dr Gerd Foerch, who is working with the project team, added:
After learning about this experience we’re thinking about how to initiate a process where the SL will lead to better planning within the watershed. We have to adjust in the second phase which will come up in August how to get this question into our programme and how to get a better involvement from the water management zone management for that bigger basin. The most interesting thing is to get involved in a process that is not only happening in this watershed but is happening in one way or another in whole country. So … the challenge we would like to take up is to bring science and Development together.


  1. Social learning for adaptation: a descriptive handbook for practitioners and action researchers
  2. Prof. Dr. Moses M. Tenywa, Makerere University, College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences (CAES), Director of the MSc Programme Integrated Watershed Management, Member of IWMNet.
  3. Prof.Dr.-Ing. Gerd Förch, Makerere University, CAES, Visiting Professor for Integrated Watershed Management, Initiator of IWM postgraduate training in East Africa, retired from Siegen University, Founding Member of CICD – Centre for International Capacity Development, and IWMNet
  4. Pictures from Hoima by from the project team