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Dr. Tom Okia Okurut: The Environment, Conservation Steward :: Uganda Radionetwork

Dr. Tom Okia Okurut: The Environment, Conservation Steward

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Tom Okurut’s work at NEMA ‘was crucial in regulation and enforcement against threats to the environment and conservation. He has been credited for strong environmental regulation of the oil and gas sector in Uganda.
17 Apr 2024 16:26
Dr. Tom Okia Okurut ( 1972-2024) He was man of few words but feared not to fail in his assignments. Credit Wambi Michael
There have been many outpourings of regret and sadness at the recent passing of Dr. Tom Okia Okurut, an eminent Ugandan environmentalist and conservationist.

Tom Okurut aged 52, whom we lost this Sunday after brain surgery was the Executive Director of the National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) from 2011 to September 2021. Sadly, a man who had committed his life to the environment and conservation quickly succumbed. Tom Okurut reported to the Platinum Hospital for surgery on Friday. 

On Sunday 7 April, he underwent a medical procedure on the brain. Okurut took his last breath on Sunday 14th April, with a few days to Earth Day 2024 day Commemoration. 

Okurut always participated in Earth Day celebrations in support of environmental protection.   World Earth Day and World Environment Day were chosen as part of the efforts to put a stop to destruction and help save the planet.

What does it say to us - the only message one can take from his life and death is - that it is about time we get to act together and do our bit to save our environment and economy - because eventually, we all will succumb if we don't!

Remembering the environment and conservation giant

Andrew Otuba, a close relative of Dr.Tom Okurut said he was a perfectionist who was always afraid of failure.

“He spoke less about his successes. He was a strategic thinker who always put all his efforts into whatever he did. He never started another project before completing one he had started earlier,” said Otuba.

Otuba who followed the late Tom Okurut’s footsteps studying Environment and Natural resources degree told URN that Uganda has lost one of the renowned environmentalists and conservation stewards.

On learning about Dr.  Tom Okurut’s death, the Masaka Resident City Resident Commissioner testified, “When I was D/RDC Buikwe, this gone statesman refused to be intimidated by corrupt investors who wanted to build in a wetland. He gave me police from his office directly to stop the process. Uganda is proud of you,” he said.

Some of Tom Okurut’s former workmates have told URN that science and the law guided each of his decisions. That he, without confrontation spearheaded several changes that eventually made it to the new environmental law and policies in Uganda.

Before joining NEMA, Dr. Tom Okia Okurut served as the first Executive Secretary of the Lake Victoria Basin Commission, based in Kisumu, Kenya. The East African Community (EAC) through a negotiated Protocol had just birthed the Commission for the Sustainable Development of Lake Victoria Basin.

The coming into effect of the Commission, in May 2006, opened another important chapter of the Lake Victoria Basin. Okurut did not disappoint Uganda, which had backed his candidature for the job. He also did not disappoint East Africa as he quickly championed activities related to the Shared Vision for the Lake Victoria Basin.

With a core staff of only three individuals in May 2006, Okurut and the team embarked on the huge task of fulfilling the Mission provided for under the Protocol for Sustainable Development of Lake Victoria Basin.

Around the same time, the water hyacinth, a free-floating perennial aquatic plant native to tropical South America was almost suffocating Lake Victoria, the second-largest fresh-water lake in the world. Okurut had to be part of the scientists to fight it.

As he was leaving Lake Victoria Basin in 2011, Okurut said he was proud that he had successfully spearheaded the negotiation and conclusion of the legal and institutional framework envisaged in the Treaty.

The Commission commenced its activities with a modest annual budget of less than US$100,000, its annual budget stood tall at close to US$15 million as he ended his tour. He had also secured US$120 million in funding from the African Development Bank to finance the Lake Victoria Water and Sanitation Initiative.

His efforts were instrumental in the initiation of The Lake Victoria Civil Society Network enabling the Civil activities and programs of Lake Victoria in their respective countries.

Tom Okurut took office in 2011 as the third Executive Director of the government body charged with the responsibility of coordinating, monitoring, regulating, and supervising environmental management in the country.

Professor John Okedi and later Aryamanya Mugisha had set the bar for the young but energetic, Tom Okia Okurut. John Yakobo Okedi had for instance rejected the use of herbicides or chemicals in the control of the water hyacinth on Lake Victoria. Professor Okedi had initiated the debate about Climate change and the protection of the ozone layer.

Dr. Henry Aryamanya Mugisha succeeded Professor Okedi in 2006 who later handed the mantle to Dr. Tom Okia Okurut in 2006. As Aryamanya Mugisha was leaving office, he publically stated that politics and politicians were the greatest impediments to environmental conservation in Uganda. How differently will he deal with politicians and politics?

Besides politicians, Okurut’s other task was to ensure the finalization of regulations of Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs)  Other regulations that Aryamanya Mugisha had left in draft form included, draft regulations on wetlands, management of hilltops, riverbanks, and Lake Shores, and waste management. The number of districts had grown from 39 to 49. The increase in the number of districts was one of the challenges at NEMA under Okurut.

Like Okedi in the case of water hyacinth, Okurut advised against using the chemical pesticide known as DDT in the fight against Malaria. Some officials at the Ministry of Health had suggested that DDT should be reintroduced yet this chemical was banned in most countries.

The Wetland Challenge in Kampala Okurut had been forewarned by Aryamanya Mugisha about politics and politicians. In Kampala, the politicians had apportioned themselves land in the Nakivubo channel wetlands. The wetland challenge was like baptism for Okurut.

“When I came in, I was confronted with two things; most of the wetlands in Kampala had land titles. So I asked the staff who were involved how come NEMA had issued Environment Impact Assessments?” he said “So I took a decision that since EIA’s had been issued by my office, the first thing was the cancellation of those EIAs” Kaveera Ban under Okurut.  

Between 2007 and 2009, NEMA and the Ministry of Environment pushed for a ban on single-use of polythene bags in Uganda. The ban came into effect in 2009. 

Tom Okurut’s critics were however not satisfied with his perceived failure to stamp out the plastics that continue to choke our rivers and lakes. Should Okurut be blamed for that? Not he would say if he were to live longer. Okurut and NEMA had suggested a total ban on plastic but when the law was passed, there was an exemption on packaging materials, then a grace period was given to manufacturers.      As he left NEMA, he urged for an amendment to the NEMA Act 2019 to include carrier bags or plastic products made of polyethylene and propylene of above thirty microns. 

In one of the interviews, he said “Plastics are part of life. The cars and whatever. In other countries, plastics are used. However, the disposal and collection of waste is a regulated activity. The first guarantee of success is the people, the users of the plastics. If there is discipline there, there is discipline in managing plastics,” 

He would accept that NEMA had had not consistently conducted public education around kaveera.

“ I think the biggest person contributing to controlling this menace is the Ugandan who use the polythene.  If they have the discipline of collecting those small ones, it will be done with,” he advised. Oil, gas, and the Environment. When Okurut joined NEMA, his Miniter Maria Mutgamba(RIP) “Used to ask every day. Are we safe with oil and gas?” he shared.

Some observers of Uganda’s oil and gas sector say though under-resourced, Okurut laid a firm stand for regulating the nascent industry given the environmental and conservation concerns following the discovery of oil in Uganda's ecologically sensitive Albertine Graben which covers part of  Queen Lizabeth National Park. 

“We have put in place systems, and we have trained people. We have put the laws in place and licensing systems,” Okurut once shared with URN. A major concern was that toxic oil waste was likely to be dumped into Lake Albert and Queen Elizabeth National Park. Okurut insisted that would not happen under his stewardship. “ We have lessons from elsewhere including our neighbors South Sudan. In South Sudan, an oil company is in charge of waste,” he shared. He quickly observed that waste management was the most neglected. “If you don’t bring it to the front. It is a normal practice even in our homes here. Even in the industries, it is the same thing. But oil waste is very toxic,”

In his view, he had done a lot in oil and gas in terms of regulating the environmental aspects.

“When the law was done, we insisted that we didn't want to go the Sudan way. We said it should be split. And that was the input from NEMA. If the oil company produces waste, that is fine but you will not treat that waste, you will have to hire a third party to transport it from where you generate it to where it is treated,” he said.

 “We did this because of experience. If the oil company messes up with oil waste, the government would not accept it to be closed because it is pumping oil. We said because we can't close the oil company, we can cancel the license of the man or woman transporting oil waste,”

 Even with those safeguards, Okurut was aware that Albertine Graben with oil drilling and production was not going to be the same as Albertine Graben without oil business there.

“Therefore, if you are dreaming that it is going to be the same. No,” said Okurut as he chuckled. 

His view was that the process of extraction was going to disturb the structure.  “Our job is to say that is the extracting going to be such that it leaves the other environment in a near state as it was in the same state as it was before,” he stated.

Okurut and his team embarked on what he used to describe as a “battalion of laws and regulations” to be applied to the oil industry.

He was mindful that many Ugandans would not have the capacity to invest in drilling oil, but at the same time felt that the natural resources there have to be left for future generations. 

Many experts accept that the policy framework around oil and gas provides for environmental protection and further provides for the creation of institutions to govern and manage the petroleum sector. However, some have insisted that the legal framework has weak provisions as regards penalties to be given to the culprits.

One would agree that NEMA under Okurut did its part, the rest is for the current administration but Okurut would hasten to add that all Ugandans play their role too.  Tom Okurut also served as the Executive Director at Climate Change Action East Africa (CCAEA), a regional organization that fosters innovations and partnerships for climate change management and livelihood enhancement.

Tom Okia Okurut went to Gulu High School where he sat his UCE, and joined  Teso College Aloet for his secondary education. He was admitted to Makerere University for a degree majoring in chemistry. Because of his performance.

Makerere retained him as a teaching assistant. Ibadan Univerity in Nigeria under an exchange program offered him a scholarship for a Master’s degree in physical chemistry. He had a PhD in Environmental Science from IHE Delft/University of Wageningen from The Netherlands.

Dr. Tom Okia was married to Dr. Anna Rose Ademun Okurut, a renowned veterinarian at the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industries and Fisheries. He hailed from Kumi’s Mukongoro  Sub County where he will be laid to rest on Saturday at Akadot village.   

Tom never received any accolades in his lifetime. However, he has left behind his activism in a cadre of environmentalists, conservationists, and organizations like NEMA. His body of work will be an inspiration for generations to come.