The Sugar Corporation of Uganda Limited (SCOUL) factory in Lugazi is dotted with a lush terraced sugarcane vegetation and meandering streams of fresh water providing breathtaking beauty. For 90 years, this firm, run by the Mehta family, has fanned the appetites of those with a sweet tooth and uplifted Uganda’s nascent economy.
In April 2007, President Museveni proposed to give SCOUL part of Mabira forest to expand their sugar plantation after the Mehta family claimed they lacked enough cane. This resulted in a public backlash, with violent protests rocking Kampala. The plan to give away the forest was thereafter shelved.
About five years ago, the company opened a distillery which produces alcoholic spirits from sugar molasses, a byproduct in sugar production. The distillery set off a litany of complaints from regard in regard to air and water pollution.
As the skies opened in a fit of ever-consuming rage early in the morning, we drove to Lugazi Municipality in Buikwe District to investigate the allegations. The municipality is growing at a snail-pace and the major economic activity here is sugarcane growing and subsistence farming.
Across the valley adjacent to Kawolo Hospital lies a sugarcane plantation which provides peerless beauty on Jinja Highway. Inside the plantation, flows various streams. On another side of the plantation flows streams that form rivers Mubeya and Kayirira, which spill into other water bodies.
All these rivers spewing pale-brown waters as a result of contamination join river Musamya and Sezibwa.
On our second day, we go to the plantation using ravel roads at about 3am. Not far from the location of the bio-composite plant, which makes fertilisers from the distillery effluents, there is an open gutter brimming with untreated effluents from the distillery. The brown effluents flow largely at night to the composite plant. Some of them, which are not utilised, are diverted elsewhere. The effluents contain acids and other chemicals that are dangerous to the environment and residents if consumed in streams. They also sip into the soils and gradually join the water table that serves as a source of water for the locals and streams.
On the third day, we locate where the effluents are diverted to. At sunrise, we hide to avoid being noticed by security and other workers on the plantation. We remain alert, suspicious of any movement by persons and vehicles. It is not long before we unravel the point of pollution at a place called Wambwa, in the middle of the plantation away from the road towards the bio composite plant. We find culverts nearly submerged in the porous dark brown effluents. The water here ominously turns black as it flows out of this clean environmental cover. This polluted water joins River Musamya.
Mr Samuel Busuulwa, an environmentalist, says SCOUL is the first factory in Uganda to produce bio-gas on a large scale but added that the challenge is that most factories are trying to minimise costs instead of using recommended chemicals to neutralise the danger.
“Since these rivers Masamya and Sezibwa join Lake Kyoga, time will come and we shall have no fish there. Some of the acids and chemicals in the effluents pollute the river to an extent that it will die. Some chemicals such as hydrogen sulphide can cause memory lapses or someone can collapse. It also affects the central nervous system and the eyes,” Mr Busuulwa says.
Through Mabira forest, we trek downhill trailing the rumbling sound of River Musamya. On a day when there is less pollution, River Musamya is a source of fish but residents say most of the fish species has perished, leaving only a handful of lungfish.
“We used to get tilapia and mudfish from this river, but from the time they started pouring molasses in the water, they all died. We only catch lungfish only when there is reduced pollution,” says Mr Vincent Kawonde, a fisherman.
Griffin Falls Camp is 10km inside Mabira forest. It is among 40 exquisite sites in Uganda with a zip-line.
Below the zip-line is River Musamya with polluted black waters, which has left stones stained with greasy circulated like liquid.
We slope to Griffin Falls on the steep rocks. Under an ailing wooden bridge flows the polluted river. At a close glance of the river, its waters appear like gallons of used oil from a car engine. The black water smells like a mixture of molasses and decomposing dump wood.
Downstream, it is hard to tell that there is a river here. The falls are turning black in colour. The change of colour is filtered by the glow of sunrays escaping through a canopy of trees sheltering the river. The cascading waters and the rare species of monkeys at the falls are a spectacular thrill for tourists that flock this place. But many are beginning to turn away as a result of the pollution.
We further travel to Kyabazala in Kayunga District on the trail of River Musamya. At this point, the river has not changed much. The river here flows through an expanse of papyrus swamp, which is a good natural filter. It is more than 30kms from Griffin Falls where the pollution is more evident.
Mr Hakim Salongo, 50, has lived here for most of his life. He and others relied on fishing from the river. However, he says five years ago, they abandoned the river.
“We used to drink this water from the river without boiling it and we had never got sick. The water was pure but the colour changed about five years ago,” Mr Salongo says.
Others claim the polluted water ravages their skin.
“Every time the water gets into contact with your skin, it starts to itch before turning into black spots,” says Mr Abdul Lutaya.
We sail through a swamp, which is the intersection between rivers Musamya and Sezibwa. The means of transport is a rickety canoe steered by a dry, long stick. My seat consists of two pieces of timber. We sail with the locals for about 30 minutes through the papyrus swamp to River Sezibwa. The river with contaminated water passes under the bridge and if pollution is not halted, this will spill into Lake Kyoga.
We return to the distillery in Lugazi. The digester which emits methane gas to generate power is what the community in Lugazi says causes pollution. Methane gas is supposed to be burnt before it is disposed to the environment. But at night and when it rains, residents suffer the brunt of pollution.
“It always smells like a pigsty,” says Thomas Wasswa a resident of the municipality.
“At night, the putrid smell fills the house. There are also some particles which are blown by the wind and when they get into your eyes, they itch and if not well attended to by a specialist, the eye stops seeing,” says Ms Jennifer Kemigisha, the municipality councillor.
Leaders in the area claims they have tried to halt the pollution by reaching out to factory bosses but without much success.
“Whenever they are burning the sugarcane, the black ash always stains our clothes and houses. Some of our leaders in the district have been bribed not to back off this matter. Some NEMA officials came and carried out tests but told us that everything was fine. But at the end of the day, it us who continue to get affected by the air and water pollution,” says Ms Sarah Namugenyi, a councillor.
We later learn that Lugazi Municipality has not had an environment officer for more than a year. At the district head office, we were told that the environmental officer was not around on the day we sought an interview. We tried calling her but she did not respond.
COMPANY SPEAKS OUT
SCOUL’s Regional Director for Africa Operations Suresh Sharma blames pollution at the factory on a technical glitch.
“We do not pollute the environment because we live in the same area with more than 1,000 workers. The smell that is talked about only happened once when there was problem with the switch in the furnace that burns the methane from our digester,” says Mr Suresh.
When we reveal that residents have been complaining about the putrid smell for more than a year, he says: “Some of those people are politically bent to disorganise our business. For the meantime, we have deployed a person who monitors the switch all the time so that when it goes off, he can manually light it so that no raw methane gas escapes into the environment.”
Mr Suresh adds: “I have also ordered one the best automatic switches from Germany, which will be shipped here in a few weeks. When we were taking a loan from France, they sent an environmental audit team from South Africa which produced a report and found us compliant.”
Asked whether it is true that SCOUL is interested in protecting the environment, he says: “The President visited us and we told him that our problem is lack of enough sugarcane. He told us he would give us part of the forest to increase our production. It was the President’s idea not ours.”
The SCOUL deputy general manager, Mr Timothy Muwonge, dismisses allegations that the plant emits hydrogen sulphide into the air. “We treat every affluent before it is discharged into the environment,” he says.
We also ask Mr Muwonge why the factory continues to use open gutters to channel waste yet liquids diffuse into the soil and could contaminate the water tables in an area where people depend on spring water. “On both sides of the open affluent channel, we have planted bamboo, which is good at filtering. We have even been commended by Mabira forest management,” he says.
The factory managers also claim they have heavily invested to ensure that they protect the fragile environment. “We have invested more than $2m in treating effluents. We have one of the best systems in Africa. Last year, the Parliamentary Committee on Natural Resources made a surprise visit to our factory. They moved around up to where the rivers pass and told us that we were doing fine,” Mr Suresh says.
We are taken around the sugar factory to see the process of treating effluents. The hot-brown molasses from the sugar factory are kept in a lagoon to cool before they are pumped into the distillery. After producing the spirits, the end product is pushed into the digester, which produces methane gas. Before the dangerous methane gas is emitted into the environment, it is supposed to be burnt to neutralise it. However, sometimes the gas escapes into the air, especially during the rainy season. This water from here does not contaminate River Musamya like it is with distillery, which pollutes the river.
However, if nothing is done to protect River Musamya and other streams in Lugazi, the lives of residents will remain in peril.