Women and children queue at a water well in Kinawataka, east of Kampala. Their jerricans fill up at a time, at ‘zero’ cost.
But as the well continues to flow freely, more are filling up pit latrines and septic tanks in neighbouring areas. Adjacent to the well is a gully carrying visible faecal matter, cigarette butts and food leftovers down Africa’s biggest fresh water body, Lake Victoria. From the lake, the National Water and Sewerage Corporation (NWSC) draws water it supplies to the city and surrounding areas.
Lake Victoria, surrounding wetlands and rivers, on top of providing water, are home to various fish species, which many residents of these areas feed on.
And Kinawataka is just one of hundreds of Kampala suburbs and surrounding areas affected by poor sanitation.
Mr Henry Kayondo, a design engineer at Sanitation Solutions Group, a company that empties and transports sewage from homes in the city, says the situation is even worse in Bwaise, Kalerwe and other low-lying areas.
“In these [low-lying] areas, people dug holes on pit-latrines and when it rains they just open the holes and let go of sewer,” Mr Kayondo says.
Statistics obtained from Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA), the institution that plans for the city, show that only 10 per cent of Kampala homesteads are connected to the National Water and Sewerage Corporation sewer line, although the agency is mandated by law to operate and maintain sewerage network, treatment plants, and make new sewer connections.
Most homesteads use pit latrines and a few locally setup sceptic tanks which need to be drained from time-to- time, making the cost of sewer management expensive and disposal difficult.
The 2014 Population and Housing Census put the number of households in Kampala to 516,210 meaning only 51,621 of the said homesteads are connected to sewer line. The said census also put the population of Kampala at more than 1.5 million, an indication that hundreds of tonnes of waste end up into the environment due to poor sanitation.
NWSC currently runs two major sewerage plants in Kampala; Bugolobi Sewage Treatment Plant constructed in the 1940s and upgraded in 1970 putting its current capacity to treat 33,000m3 of wastewater a day, and Lubigi with capacity to treat 5,400m3 (5.4 million) wastewater a day.
Bugolobi plant receives piped sewage mainly from the Central Business District and other parts of Kampala.
Nwsc also operates other satellite Waste Stabilisation Ponds in Bugolobi, Naalya estates and Ntinda Ministers’ village, in Kampala.
Dr Najib Lukooya, the KCCA environment manager termed the lower sewerage coverage “unfortunate” and the use of pit-latrines in the city whose water table is near surface “a real problem”
“Because people just dig a pit-latrine in the soil, faecal matter can have a direct contact with ground water. It can also collapse when it rains but even emptying when it is full is hard,” Dr Lukooya says.
NWSC public relations manager, Mr Samuel Apedel, admits that the agency has huge mantle ahead in ensuring all sewer is managed but he is quick to blame the status quo to poor planning of the city where people have built anywhere with no regard to social amenities.
Mr Apedel says for areas which are well planned like the central business district and the old colonial areas; sewer coverage is at 100 per cent coverage. But the said planed areas are the smallest part of the city.
According to plans, Mr Apedel says many treatment plants are set to be built and those in place expanded to cater for the growing population.
One of the facilities being expanded and expected to be completed next year, is Bugolobi treatment plant to enable it “treat 45m litres of waste water and serve 380,000 people,” Mr Apedel says. The expansion will basically help serve places like Kyambogo, Naguru, Banda and Butabika. The plant will too generate biogas electricity which will cut the utility body’s power costs.
In the meantime, Mr Apedel says there is no need for alarm even for those using septic tanks and pit-latrines. He says the multi-billion Lubigi plant handles 5 million litres of both piped and faecal matter from pit-latrines every day and residents should make use of it.
Dr Lukooya says there has been limited public sensitisation about the pit-latrine standards for the city, dangers of improper sewerage disposal and sewer disposal companies have not advertised themselves to the public.
“We have developed minimum standards for a pit- latrine,” says Dr Lukooya. “A pit-latrine should be sealed (properly with cement and other materials from down to up) so that faecal material is not in contact with soils and ground water as a minimum.” He says proper sealing will enable easy emptying and prevent cases of pit-latrines easily curving in during the rainy seasons. But will the users be ready to bear the associated costs?
Also, Dr Lukooya says they are engaging sewerage collectors to increase their coverage especially in slums since pit-latrines will continue to be used in the city for some time due to income inequality among the city dwellers but also because NWSC cannot cover the city overnight.
KCCA has five trucks that can collect waste from homes at fee of Shs65,000 per trip but the authority hardly does so because “our priority is public health centres, public primary schools and public markets” he adds.
There are also initiatives to turn the waste into biogas such that people are encouraged to properly manage waste.
“In every division, we have put up a sanitation coordination office. These offices will among other functions, provide technical support to communities and local leaders to access these services. We are also working on call centres that will link the community, private sector and KCCA such that we get feedback on illegal dumping, sewer spills,” Dr Lukooya adds.
Mr Kayondo says they charge Shs30, 000 to carry 180 litres (one drum) of sewer using their gulper, a long PVC stainless steel hand pump that works like a borehole to empty pit- latrines. Mr Muwanga says this is expensive but it was his first time there are such facilities that can not reach those areas with improper access routes.
To dump 3000 litres of sewer at Lubigi, NWSC charges Shs10,000. From 3,000-7,000 litres, one is charged Shs14,000 and above 7,000 litres, it costs Shs25,000.
For planning purposes, Kampala was divided into five boroughs: Kampala Central Division, Kawempe Division, Makindye Division, Nakawa Division, and Lubaga Division. This means that a tiny part of the city can boast of proper sewer disposal.
Mr Ali Abdullah Hallagi of Makerere University School of Public Health fears that should there be a major earthquake in Kampala, residents will “swim in sewer”. Waterborne diseases would be rampant.
A desk study done in 2012 by the Water and Sanitation Program (WSP) of the World Bank estimated that Uganda loses $177m (about Shs636.3bn) annually due to poor sanitation alone.
For instance, just last year, in a space of only two months, more than 400 suspected typhoid cases plagued Kampala.
Dr Ian Clarke, a social critic and businessman, has famously referred to Kampala as “one big toilet”.