Uganda: Government Contests Findings on Lake Victoria Pollution

26 February 2020

Government has continued to deny that Lake Victoria is polluted and that the pollution is affecting both aquatic life and humans who depend on the lake.

The denials follow growing concern over the lake pollution that is threatening human and aquatic life. Since the Nation Media Group (NMG) ran serialised findings of a scientific research on the lake's pollution two weeks ago, government officials have laboured to downplay the impact of pollution in a bid to diminish criticism from environmentalists and the general public.

The articles published in Daily Monitor, broadcast on NTV Uganda and other NMG local and regional platforms, indicated how pollution is taking toll on East Africa's largest lake. The articles, based on findings of a research done by a team of science professors from University of Nairobi led by Prof John Mbaria, indicated that Lake Victoria contained traces of heavy metals, pesticides and other chemicals. The research was carried out between October and December 2019.

The research cited presence of lead in fish samples obtained from Gaaba Landing Site in Kampala. In other spots of the lake, where samples were taken both in Uganda and Kenya, there was presence of different heavy metals, pesticides and other chemicals of varying levels.

Shortly after the series started running on the NMG platforms, the officials from Uganda's Water ministry and National Environment Management Authority (Nema), who had refused to be interviewed during the research period, went defensive and claimed bias in the findings.

After the first article ran, Dr Tom Okurut, the Nema executive director, made interviews with both NTV Uganda and Daily Monitor responding to the findings and downplayed the problem although he did not deny the existence of pollution in the lake.

He said the presence of some of the elements found in the water were unavoidable. He was later hosted on other NMG sister platforms to further present the ministry's position on the issues.

Sources in government say since the articles came out, pressure has been mounting on officials of Water and Environment ministry, its agencies and their counterparts in the Agriculture ministry to explain how the lake could be polluted without action being taken.

Another source said industry players, particularly the fish firms, have tasked government to assure the public that fish from the lake is safe, because failure to do so hurts their businesses.

Media accused

Last week officials from the Ministry of Water and Environment, during a press briefing led by the permanent secretary, Mr Alfred Okot Okidi, accused the media of not being "patriotic" and put the country's interest above their research findings.

On the team were Dr Rose Kaggwa (NWSC director of business and scientific services), Mr Johnson Amayo (deputy director for technical services at NWSC), Dr Okurut, and Lillian Idrakua (Commissioner for water quality management). They all loathed the report, describing it as biased and aimed at discrediting government and killing the vibrant fishing industry.

"You are actually killing Ugandans because if people are to believe you, the people whose livelihoods is fishing are finished because of that erroneous reporting.

"Those fishermen will not be able to send their children to school, some will not be able to afford two meals a day because of this article... ..," Mr Okidi said.

He also reiterated the position of his counterparts in the Agriculture ministry that fish from Lake Victoria is safe.

"Lake Victoria fish is very safe, the fisheries industry in Uganda is closely regulated and monitored on monthly basis by the industry and directorate of fisheries. No data so far obtained over the last four years indicated poor quality in any form from Lake Victoria or any other lake in Uganda," he said.

Mr Okidi said waste water discharge permits are issued to NWSC, town councils and industries that discharge waste water to ensure they comply with required standards.

"For the case of Kampala, we have the joint monitoring of pollution under Kampala Pollution Taskforce and this draws membership from Kampala Capital City Authority, the Environment ministry and NWSC. They do regular assessment of the industrial waste water, and they also disseminate pollution information," he said.

Agriculture ministry responds

In the latest response, Agriculture ministry insisted that fish from Lake Victoria is safe and that the handling process is strict and conforms to international standards.

Mr Vincent Ssempijja, the Minister of Agriculture, said such reports "have very large negative impact on our export market and the economy at large."

"... I take this opportunity to assure the public and all consumers of fish that Uganda's fish is fit for human consumption. The ministry will continue to maintain standards required for human consumption and will always endeavour to collaborate with other government institutions to ensure the safety of the fish and environment while fish thrives," he said.

Mr Ssempijja said the ministry has put in place robust measure to safeguard the quality of fish and the Directorate of Fisheries Resources has been implementing a monitoring plan since 2000.

Uncooperative Officials

Prior to running the series on Lake Victoria pollution, NMG sought the ministry of Water and Environment, Nema, NWSC and the Agriculture ministry for responses to the findings of the research, but some of them declined to speak.

Only NWSC and the Agriculture ministry responded and their responses were included in the published articles.

At Nema, the officials had requested a written request for an interview, but they later declined after the letter was presented to them.

By the time the articles were published, Dr Okurut was reported to be on leave. However, upon resuming office, he responded to the issues raised in the research report.

Officials from the Ministry of Water did not respond to the findings for about a month.

The State Minister for Water, Mr Ronald Kibuule, referred our reporters to the ministry's permanent secretary, Mr Okidi, who refused to respond to our calls and text requests for an interview on the matter.

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