The Observer (Kampala)

Uganda: Industrial Pollution is Disaster in Waiting

opinion

Pollution is quickly becoming a devastating phenomenon and normally has diverse effects on people, the environment and all living creatures, both in the short and long run.

I will look at some of the pollution catastrophes that continue to wreak havoc in several countries around the world. Much of the pollution mayhem is attributed to various man-made causes, including, but not limited to, issues ranging from system failures of extraction companies, accidents caused by natural factors and poor industrial disposal mechanisms.

Poor industrial disposal features prominently; in most cases industries discharge their effluents into water bodies, such as wetlands, rivers and lakes, as well as into the air. A recent case in point are the sugar factories in Jinja and Lugazi, which are allegedly discharging effluent, especially from the molasses, and the burning of bagasse, which are polluting the water and air, respectively.

This has not gone down well with the residents in those areas as they are now developing health complications. Effluents from most industries in urban centres surrounding Lake Victoria end up in this water body, and this explains the greenish mass that forms a floating mat in some areas of the lake.

The world over, it is common practice by industries to use the cheapest ways of disposal and waste management mechanisms as a way of minimizing on operational costs. This is rather calamitous as it compromises on the deliberate efforts on environmental protection and is a precursor to serious environmental disasters.

The oil well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, in which an oil rig off the southern coast of USA developed a leak, dumping millions of gallons of crude oil into the sea, was one such catastrophe.

By the time it was finally sealed 12 weeks later, the nation had experienced the world's worst oil spill, where 205 million gallons (4.9 million barrels) of oil had spewed from the leaking well, fouling over 600 miles of beaches and wetlands spread across five states, and today, the gulf is still struggling to fix the adverse effects of the spillage.

The cost of cleaning up pollution disasters is immense. For example, the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan that exploded as a result of an earthquake in 2011 and belched out radioactive materials, is to cost the Japanese government at least one trillion yen ($13 billion) to clean up vast areas contaminated by radiation.

Japan faces the prospect of removing and disposing 29 million cubic metres of soil from a sprawling area in Fukushima, located 240 kilometres northeast of Tokyo, and four nearby prefectures. The situation would have been worse if Japan lacked a good emergency disaster management strategy and institutions in place.

Therefore, in the emerging oil and gas sector in Uganda, serious intervention measures ought to be designed to prepare for pollution that may arise from the sector, especially addressing the laxity in implementing pollution laws, which leaves the country more vulnerable to pollution.

In the recently-passed Petroleum Exploration, Development and Production Bill 2012 for Uganda, one would argue that the lawmakers played a fantastic role in legislating in the oil sector, requiring that those who pollute must clean up their mess. But the emerging limitations among the responsible government regulators to command the necessary standards of safety are hampered by lack of authority, resources and technical expertise related to oil developments.

Increasingly, neither the regulations nor the regulators are asking the tough questions or demanding the demonstration of preparedness by the actors in the sector to prove that they would ably avoid the disasters. These would include the adoption of the 'polluter pays principle,' requiring operators to prevent, or in the case of an accident, remedy the damage to water, soil and the environment in general.

As the need to develop the pollution regulatory framework becomes eminent, safety via the approval of facility-specific waste pollution emergency plans has to be fully catered for in a seemingly fragile economy dogged by weak institutions.

Nevertheless, deliberate efforts to address messes from sabotage and natural causes should not be overlooked. Before an installation is approved, it should be necessary for the operator to produce a document detailing how an effective safety management system and emergency disaster strategies have been put in place.

The author is Programme Assistant, Advocates for Natural Resources Governance and Development (ANARDE).

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