How community-led conservation is boosting the local economy in Ugandan villages

by Leo Gripari, CEO, That Gorilla Brand 

Water is the world’s most precious commodity. Its abundance has the power to create and renew existence; its scarcity has the ability to destroy and extinguish. With just over 1% of all water on Earth safe for human consumption, and the UN’s recent climate report warning of an imminent water crisis that is likely to ‘spiral’ out of control, immediate action is needed to prevent further loss of life. 

The global story of water scarcity is not an untold one. Governments, NGOs and individuals are acutely aware of the impact that limited access to clean and safe water has on survival. However, a story that is less told, is the socioeconomic impact of communities with just enough water to survive. The story of school children having water as their only ‘meal’ to keep them concentrated throughout the day. The story of increased medical costs, sick leave and pregnancy-based drop-outs at school due to water shortages. The story of endangered species like the mountain gorillas under threat as local communities franticly search for water. These perspectives should be our focus when combatting this nuanced crisis. I believe thoughtful, community-led conservation is key to this change.

That Gorilla Brand is a lifestyle conservation brand that puts making a difference over making a profit. Donations from our fundraising initiatives go towards our charity partners, The Gorilla Organization and Just a Drop to implement community-led water projects in the Bwindi region in Uganda. The Bwindi Community Water Project uses collective action on the ground for long-term access to clean, safe and reliable drinking water for the people in these communities. 

So far, the project has seen the installation of water harvesting systems and storage tanks each holding 10,000-30,000 litres, shallow wells and three protected springs, as well as pumping equipment to enable their use. At the end of phase three, the project has been forecasted to provide clean water to more than 15,000 people in 30 local communities, including three primary schools, a health centre, and the Bwindi gorilla sanctuary. 474 leaders have also been trained in promoting hygiene awareness in their community so the project can be maintained in the long term without external support. 

Water plays a key part in narrowing the chasm of inequality, and opening the doors of education, empowerment and freedom currently closed to children and families in the Bwindi region. As girls are predominantly the ones tasked to walk extensive distances each morning to collect water in these communities, installing water taps in local schools increases the attendance of girls in school. An educated girl means increased earning potential which contributes to economic growth. Educated girls learn vital knowledge of nutrition, hygiene and reproductive health to reduce maternal and mortality rates, and gender equality lessons break unhealthy cycles by empowering autonomous decisions. Clean water in schools significantly reduces drop-out rates from pregnancy and miscarriages due to dehydration, and money saved from sick-related expenses (leave, medicines) can be invested into school fees to protect the economy for future generations. 

Easy and reliable access to clean drinking water also has knock-on effects on local wildlife. Just over 1,000 mountain gorillas are left in the wild, based in Uganda, Rwanda, and the Congo. Currently, only one-quarter of human communities in the areas where the mountain gorilla live has easy access to safe drinking water. Water stress in Ugandan communities is one of the biggest things that can contribute to the deforestation of gorillas’ habitats, poaching, and conflict. When waters run dry, people can’t get enough to drink, wash, or feed crops and economic decline often occurs. The Bwindi Community Water Project gives communities easy and reliable access to clean drinking water, which means they can continue to live and thrive without relying on the resources from the gorilla habitat. 

The key to these projects is that they are community-led and community-run. Collective action allows communities to work together to identify the goals that are important to them to implement these through shared action internally, with us and our charity partners, whilst building community strength and local leadership. It also means that the momentum and maintenance of these tailored water systems can continue for further generations, so communities reap the perpetual benefits that clean and safe water can offer.