4 August 2009

Uganda: Vanishing Wetlands Put Country at Risk of Ecological Disasters


Once a town that had numerous wetlands to show for it, Kampala's wetlands now count for only 16 per cent of the total cover. Al-mahdi Ssenkabirwa writes about the dangers that await us as a consequence.

Wetlands are a vital resource because they serve as sponges and water filters. They also prevent destructive flooding along lakes or rivers. But this resource is considerably disappearing by the day. Reason - excessive pollution and encroachment.

The growing industrialisation, particularly in Kampala, has seen several informal and formal factories crop up to take advantage of the increasing demand for products. These industries are set up in almost every corner of the city.

Whereas the factories have created jobs for thousands of Ugandans, poor disposal of industrial waste has put the health and livelihood of thousands of city dwellers at risk. At this rate, if the degradation of wetlands is not checked, the country is headed for a vast ecological disaster that may lead to persistent clean water shortages, according to Dr Gerald Musoke, the deputy executive Director of National Environment Management Authority.

"We have tried to do our work but some industries are reluctant to comply on the issue of untreated wastes. And if we discover that one industry is simply releasing untreated water into wetlands, we shall automatically penalise them," he said in an interview last week.

Dr Musoke says some wetlands where a variety of staple food crops are illegally grown in the city have of recent been converted into dumping sites for industrial wastes and oily substances from garages. Consequently, many of these effluents end up in water bodies and infiltrate water wherever it rains. Kampala has several wetlands covering about 16 percent of the district. But what is perplexing is that there is no statistical data on the existing wetland area. The last national land cover with detailed wetland information was produced in 1996.

Massive contamination

It is estimated that about 5.3 tonnes of faecal waste with concentrations of 430mg/litres of chemicals pour into the Lake Victoria via city channels daily. According to the recent survey done by National Water and Sewerage Corporation (NWSC), the concentration of organic waste matter transported to the lake is comparable with that received at Bugolobi Sewage Treatment plant. Some of the wetlands include Nakivubo, Lusaze-Kosovo, Nsooba Nalukolongo, Kirombe and Lubigi swamp system.

Some people in Kampala have gone to the extent of growing crops in wetlands like the Murchison Bay wetland system near Luzira Prisons that are used as effluent treatment centres. Dr Musoke says the waste usually contains toxic chemicals, metals and oils. When they get into wetlands where crops are grown, they are extracted and absorbed by the crops.

Danger to health

He explains that even if these effluents are dumped into a water source or on a dry land, they will still end up in the food and a person who takes water contaminated by these chemicals may end up getting cancer and other skin diseases, adding that a recent study conducted by the Department of zoology and Botany of Makerere University proved it. "Some of these wetlands absorb a lot of effluent and I don't encourage anyone to grow crops in such areas because the crops will be contaminated," he says.

Urban farming has taken the city by storm and the residents here offer ready market for the farm products including yams, maize and a variety of vegetables. Agriculture in Kampala is practiced mainly in valley slums where the impoverished live in informal settlements. Nema however says urban farmers should be organised and desist from growing crops in wetlands especially those that act as effluent treating centres. Consumers assume that whatever is grown in the city is contaminated with either faecal matter or chemicals.

"I have never bought vegetables from Kampala because they are grown in areas where garages and factories are emptying untreated wastes, which are then absorbed by the crops and when you eat them, you definitely end up getting health complications," says City Mayor Nasser Ntege Sebaggala, adding that it has been cumbersome for city council to protect city dwellers from consuming contaminated foodstuffs due to influence from some powerful quarters he declined to mention.

"Whenever we attempt to close industries that are emptying raw effluent into the wetlands and those that are unhygienic, you get endless calls from different people.

We have attempted to evict encroachers from wetlands and close unhygienic abattoirs but our efforts end up being frustrated by those above," Sebaggala says. If people were respecting the law, they would not be encroaching on wetlands as it is the case today under the pretext of practicing urban farming, he adds. "We don't discourage urban farming, but let it be done in a proper manner. We have opened up a well organised area in Kyanja where such activities can take place," he says.

On the issue of garages, Dr Musoke admits that whereas Nema has tried to encourage factories and petrol stations to establish waste management systems, it has not done much for the garages. "We have left the issue of garages to the city planning authority but as the industry takes root, we shall concentrate on this issue. This is a land-use matter which I must admit that we have not handled. Garages should be away from water sources and wetlands and they should be able to effectively manage their waste," he says.

Musoke says Nema will not continue creating awareness to change the current situation. The major sources of environmental degradation and pollution in the city include solid waste, abattoir waste, sewage, industrial pollution, traffic pollution, atmospheric pollution, urban agriculture, rapid urbanisation and washing bays.

Oil from vehicles especially those that are washed along the river and lakeshores also contaminate the water. The ever-increasing population in the city has exerted pressure on land and forced some people to reside or farm in wetlands . Currently, Kampala's population stands at about three million people.

According to a United Nations Human Settlements report, four out of 10 city residents live in unplanned and under-serviced slums around Kampala, while less than six out of 10 Kampala residents have access to clean water.

Also according to a study conducted by Chemiphar in 2007, 90 per cent of the natural springs are contaminated especially during rain seasons. This puts residents at higher risk of contracting water-borne diseases like cholera, typhoid and dysentery.

Despite the significant importance of water, the percentage of the total national budget going to the water and sanitation sector has been dwindling over the years from 4.8 per cent in 2004/05 to 1.8 per cent last financial year.

A survey conducted by the Anti Corruption Coalition -Uganda (ACCU) in October last year revealed that the trend in rural water coverage shows a progressive increase to 63 per cent by June 2008, there is need for concerted efforts among stakeholders to avert corruption so that the targeted 77 per cent coverage in rural and 100 per cent in urban areas are achieved.

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