New Vision (Kampala)

29 November 2012

Uganda: Poor Waste Disposal an Open Grave for Masese Communities

Masese 3 is a poverty-stricken locality of about 10,000 people on the periphery of Jinja town whose lives have been steadily devastated by forces largely beyond their control.

The area inhabited by the Karimojong ethnic group that migrated from Karamoja. With no defined economic plan, one would say this community is plunged into infinite disillusionment.

Worse still, the community is gradually getting enmeshed by the worst forms of capitalism - both new and old industrial establishments have been erected in the vicinity, emitting all forms of fumes and generating continuous noise.

Additionally, there's a garbage dumping site, comprising both industrial and home-generated waste collected from Jinja Municipality, in the this community's backyard.

Threatened eviction:

Due to rapid industrial expansion, an eviction guillotine hangs over the heads of the residents, whom Jinja Municipal council considers squatters.

Lucy Eyimu, the area LC1 finance secretary who has lived in the area for the last 19 years, says although eviction is imminent, they will not relent. "We are bona fide occupants, but they are trying to chase us. We will have to die before they can succeed in evicting us from this land," she says.

To force the community off the land, Eyimu says the council has continually dumped garbage near them, including health-threatening wastes from industries. "The stench is too much and has caused numerous problems such as stomach upsets," she laments.

"For instance, they dump dead chicken from farms in hundreds. They also dump waste from tanneries. We feel abused and increasingly pushed to the wall," Eyimu adds. She adds that the stench worsens when it rains.

"Dangerous chemicals are also dumped there, for example, at one time a man and a child who were scavenging, got their feet terribly burnt for scrap," Eyimu recalls.

Although there is a waste management plant at the site, the amount of garbage generated from town is much higher than what the plant, can handle.

Subsequently, garbage is dumped and is not covered up as it should be done. Notably, the garbage comprises non-biodegradable elements such as plastics, glasses, metals and medical waste, which over time secrete water (leachate) which flows into the nearby water bodies.

Health implications:

According to Dr. John Sempebwa of the department of disease control and environmental health at the Makerere University School of Public Health, the population in Masese 3 and the surrounding areas is in grave danger.

He says the community is susceptible to diseases carried by the vermin that survive on the garbage since it is not covered with murram. The effect of the leachate, Sempebwa observes, is determined by the amount of industrial waste and other non-biodegradable elements dumped at the site.

Stagnant water collected in a garbage site. This is a breeding place for mosquitoes

"Some chemical elements leach out of dumped plastic into water, which can cause cancer," he warns. Sempebwa observes that if run-off leachate gets into a water body, the fish population usually also gets affected.

"Male fish will start behaving like females, thus mating is significantly reduced. Additionally, it does not only affect the reproductive abilities of fish, but also of wild life such as birds and alligators," he says. He adds that industrial wastes such as metals, batteries and especially lead have severe effects.

He says lead, depending on the level of exposure, has severe effects. "Over time, it affects the nervous system, manifesting through symptoms such as being irritable, forgetfulness, headache, fatigue and reduced libido," he explains, adding:

"The immediate effects of exposure to lead include vomiting, visual impairment, stomach cramps and a shaky body. Chromium, too, has almost similar effects like lead."

On the other hand, he observes, the metals deter decomposition of organic waste since they are dangerous to the micro-organisms that induce rotting.

"Wastes comprise antibiotics, antibacterials and antifungal drugs, which kill all the micro-organisms in the garbage, affecting decomposition," he explains. Other industrial wastes such as hydrogen sulphide have a terrible smell, resulting in fatigue, increased palpitations, shortness of breath and headaches.

By the time one senses the presence of hydrogen sulphide, it means, according to Sempebwa, it is already in higher concentration than the body can withstand.

And if one ceases to sense hydrogen sulphide in an area where it is present, he warns that the next stage for such a person is death. In areas that depend on borehole water, Leachate has the potential to contaminate underground water.

Threat to community moderated:

Jinja municipal council environment officer Ernest Nabihamba, however, downplays the likely environment and health effects of leachate to the community.

"Leachate secreted at the waste management plant is controlled and collected. We have ensured that the one generated from the land fill does not flow into the community," he says.

He adds that soil is a filter so leachate is filtered down and there is no threat to the underground water because the water table in the area is about 20 metres down. He adds that leachate produced at the garbage site does not have the potential to pollute Lake Victoria.

"Lake Victoria is 4km away. So by the time rain water reaches the lake, it is has been filtered through the wetlands. So nothing dangerous goes into the lake," he urges.

On the complaints of the Karimojong community, Nabihamba says the site was gazetted before the community settled there as squatters. He, however, says the stench and other related problems can be controlled if the normal processes of waste management and compositing are followed.

"Communities in developed countries live near dumping sites because of efficient waste management processes," Nabihamba says, adding that having the garbage site a distance away from points of generation such as towns would be costly in terms of transportation.

Nabihamba observes that proper waste management processes are not being followed due to lack of money to fuel bulldozers that push the garbage into the processing plant. He adds that the community in Jinja town has to be sensitised on proper garbage disposal.

"Ideally people should sort the rubbish before taking it to the skips in town, Jinja Municipal Council is not properly handling garbage rejected at the waste management site hence it is just dumped and the actual land filling is not done.

"The garbage is supposed to be covered with murram, but they are not doing that - so the stench will continue," Nabihamba explains. Sempebwa states, that poor waste management is a big problem in low-income countries because they do not prioritise proper waste disposal.

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