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Professorial inaugural lecture unlocks wealth of Environmental Science

The field of Environmental Science plays a very important and yet not often talked about role in society today. For example, did you know that Lake Nabugabo is scientifically considered very safe for recreation by WHO, US-EPA (World Health Organisation, United States-Environmental Protection Agency) standards owing to its natural inability sustain snails; the intermediate hosts for bilharzia? Thanks to research by Environmental Scientist; Prof. James Okot-Okumu, we have access to such information, as well as more worrying trends. This world Ramsar Site could easily be destroyed within the next ten years unless the rapid development of recreation centres along its banks is regulated.

However, did you know that one of nature’s own Phytolacca Dodecandra also locally known as Luwooko in Central Uganda produces chemicals that can kill fresh water snails; the intermediary hosts of bilharzia? Research by other Environmental Scientists in Ethiopia has gone on to prove that Phytolacca Dodecandra is best stored in powder and not in seed form for maximum potency. All this and more came to light as Prof. Okot-Okumu delivered the Professorial Inaugural Lecture before friends, family and students in the Main Hall, Makerere University on 25th October 2019.

Congratulating Prof. Okot-Okumu upon reaching his milestone, the Acting Vice Chancellor and Deputy Vice Chancellor (Academic Affairs), Dr. Umar Kakumba noted that Professorial Inaugural Lectures mark the apex of the scholarly journey of University academics the world over.

“Professors are appointed to this rank following a scholarly journey of searching for new knowledge in their areas of expertise. It is therefore important that they should make this information accessible to the public, by way of contribution to society” added Dr. Kakumba.

The Acting Vice Chancellor also paid tribute to the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (CAES), and the Department of Environmental Management; the academic home of Prof. James Okot-Okumu in particular, for its contributions to research, and added “your outgoing Department Chair is both challenging and inspiring you today.”

Earlier on, the Chairperson of the Professorial Inaugural Lectures Organising Committee, Prof. Elly Sabiiti had introduced the theme of the Lecture; “Evolution of Environmental Science: The Science of Integration”. He shared that this was an important subject concerned with the relationship between the environment, man and society, which is more relevant today as the world contends with the effects of climate change.

Prof. Sabiiti noted that although Professorial Inaugural Lectures are meant to be given following appointment to the rank, Professors may present them at different points in their career.

“I therefore wish to take this opportunity to encourage both recently appointed and the longstanding Professors to make use of this unique opportunity to showcase their expertise as intellectuals, by demonstrating the value and worth of being Professor” urged Prof. Sabiiti.

It was a moment of pride for CAES as the Principal Prof. Bernard Bashaasha took to the podium to read the citation in honour of Prof. James Okot-Okumu.

“This afternoon as it is in the tradition of this great university; Makerere University, we have a presentation of the Professorial Inaugural Lecture that follows the conferring of the rank of full professor on an academic by the university. This is a tradition that has been practiced by universities the world over, to celebrate the professional achievements, scholarship and the contributions of a Professor to the university, social and economic development of the nation” beamed Prof. Bashaasha.

Prof. Bashaasha shared that Prof. Okot-Okumu joined Makerere University as a Lecturer in 1990 and gradually grew through the ranks of Senior Lecturer, Associate Professor to full Professor. Since then, he has taught courses such as: Water Resources Management, Cleaner Production, Solid Waste Management, Pollution Analysis, Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) and Environmental Audit.

Prof. Okot-Okumu has conducted research on water quality, water pollution and solid waste management and shared his findings through publications in scientific journals and book chapters. He has also supervised graduate students of Environmental Science and Natural Resources at Makerere University as well as students of Waste Management at Wageningen University in the Netherlands and Kenyatta University, Kenya.

Before delving into his presentation, Prof. James Okot-Okumu paid tribute to his wife; Mrs. Judith Achen Okot, his children, other members of the family present and colleagues. The family man could not hide his love and appreciation for his family, whose support had seen him scale the academic ladder. He equally thanked his colleagues for the encouragement and mentorship over the years.

It was clear from the presentation that Prof. Okot-Okumu takes great inspiration from quotes. Right from Ernest Haeckel (1834-1919) who coined the term ecology, to George Washington Carver (1865-1943) who introduced modern day farming in the USA, the Professorial Inaugural Lecture deliverer took the audience on a journey of appreciating science in the context of history its contribution to current body of knowledge.

For example, Prof. Okot-Okumu shared that Forest Rivers near Kampala City specifically in Mabira, Kitubulu, Zika and Mpanga have historically apart from sustaining the forest hydrology, also carried along water with nutrients and other materials obtained from the forests that feed the downstream ecosystems. This, he noted, is however being threatened by the continued encroachment on these forests as human activity increases.

“With the rapid degradation of these forests mainly from illegal felling of trees, the evapotranspiration and infiltration components of the hydrological cycle are reduced while runoff water losses are increased in these locations within the Lake Victoria basin and are putting stress on environmental maintenance requirements of the rivers” warned Prof. Okot-Okumu.

He also made reference to the increasing cost of piped water supplied by the National Water and Sewerage Corporation as another effect of human and industrial activity polluting the Murchison bay of Lake Victoria.

“Water treatment at this utility is now gradually replacing Aluminium sulphate with synthetic polymers as coagulant at an added cost to consumers. There is therefore need to think about innovative cheaper way to treat water especially for the sector of the community who cannot afford the current costs of water” he explained.

Thankfully, Prof. Okot-Okumu and fellow researchers in 2015 conducted research on the use of alternative solutions readily available in nature to treat water.

“Having seen drawbacks in some of the conventional methods, we have tested some readily available plant materials that required simple preparation methods and were cheap to use. These are seed powders from Java plum, Jackfruit and Moringa that worked very well as coagulates to clarify water from community wells” shared Prof. Okot-Okumu.

He added that the same seed powders, when used in certain concentrations were able to remove turbidity (matter suspended in water) by more than 95% as well as the bacterial effects of agents like E. coli, P. aeruginosa, S. Typhii, S .dysenteriae, S. aureus and S. faecalis within the range of 98 -100% hence making the water safe for drinking.

As the urban centres continue to expand, increasing amounts of solid waste are being generated and poorly disposed of in the environment. Prof. Okot-Okumu therefore advocated for the application of approaches of Integrated Solid Waste Management (ISWM), which he said would help prolong the lifespans of landfills such as Kiteezi owned by the Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA).

“Applying approaches of ISWM such as Cleaner Production (CP), Lean Production (LP), Industrial Ecology (EC), Circular Economy (CE) and Sustainable Consumption and Production (SCP) that are Green Development Strategies can mitigate the impacts of solid wastes” advised Prof. Okot-Okumu.

He proposed that science needs to copy more from nature whereby the waste from one organism or system becomes a raw material or input for another. This, he further shared, would create a very efficient system for sustainability and mitigate damage to the environment caused by poorly disposed of solid waste.

Whereas Prof. Okot-Okumu admitted that Makerere University through the Department of Environmental Management (DEM) plays a leading role in training the best Environmental Science graduates in Uganda, he his concluded his Professorial Inaugural Lecture with a call to action.

“The university can still do better by allowing the training programs at DEM to evolve together with the national and global challenges of environmental management.  By working in collaboration with other Departments in Science and Social Sciences at the university, DEM can improve on the training and research in environmental science to support Uganda’s sustainable development efforts” Prof. Okot-Okumu concluded

About Yusuf Mwesigwa

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