The expansive Lwera wetland on Kampala-Masaka Highway, which stretches about 20 kilometres, is a major water catchment area that connects several rivers and wetlands in Gomba, Mpigi and Kalungu districts and drains directly into Lake Victoria.
For years on, many of the locals have lived in peace with the surroundings. However, over the past couple of months, sharp noises from dredgers are heard.
The dredgers, manned by a section of Chinese and some Ugandans, are stationed in the middle of the wetland, scooping sand about 12 metres underneath the swamp onto waiting trucks.
A dredger is a vessel designed for dredging – an excavation activity usually carried out underwater, in shallow seas or freshwater areas with the purpose of gathering up bottom sediments and disposing them of at a different location.
As the sand is loaded, middle-aged men direct the trucks through a narrow passage while two Chinese stand still; one pocketing while the other holds a lit cigarette in his right hand. They constantly instruct sand loaders to speed up the process.
The process of sand mining requires stripping the soil bare, meaning the topography of the area (vegetation, animals, soil, and bedrock) are transported to different areas.
That is not the only destruction at the wetland though. Sand mining also requires that the sand is disaggregated and washed before being loaded into trucks. This process requires more land for this purpose and takes large volumes of water.
Since the Chinese companies - Hong Hi Jeng Cai, Lwera Swamp, Site light lakes - are capable of importing in such powerful dredgers, according to locals and environment experts from the Uganda National Environment Management Authority (Nema), they are able to cause more soil stripping.
So far, according to Ayazika Waiswa, the Nema environment monitoring and compliance director, the mining companies in the areas have contravened their license obligations.
Most of the sand companies, according to Waiswa are scooping sand 12 meters underneath instead of the recommended three meters which enables easy regeneration of the resource.
“Through our routine inspections, we came and stopped them [sand miners] but later, our officers withdrew due to financial constraints and they [miners] came back,” Waiswa, said during a Nema board inspection recently.
But that is not the only violation; “…among the conditions we set out, they were not supposed to do mining in 200 meters from the road but they are not complying,” Waiswa, adds.
Dredging the sand 200 meters towards the highway puts the busy road, which connects Uganda to Tanzania on the brink of soil erosion through constant flooding and degradation.
Recently, torrential rains caused flooding in the same area displacing more than 500 residences in villages like Kamaliba and Kamuwunga in Lukaya Town Council in Kalungu District.
The floods displaced Chinese investors setting up factories. Others like homes, gardens and several sand-mining sites have been submerged by floods triggered off by heavy rains but blamed on lack of catchment to control and store the water.
Dr Wilson Kasolo, a Nema board member says sand mining is creating an ugly topography of the area and although Nema is not against people harnessing the resource, they should do it in a more sustainable manner.
“This is going to be an annoying site. We may see animals, people drowning unless we address it now,” Dr Kasolo said.
Currently, the area has man-made ‘lakes’ created as a result of extensive dredging; ‘lakes’, the miners, say will be used for fish caging since they cannot bring in foreign matters to refill the area.
But before that is granted, Dr Kasolo says a clear picture must be ascertained on how the area will look like and the effects it will have to the rest of the wetland and the surrounding areas.
“When you look at it in the restoration perspective, we must have a clear picture of it if the area is turned into a man-made lake. If we have fish ponds here, how will it look like? It must be dictated on the plan and there must be demarcations,” Dr Kasolo demanded.
But the mini-lakes and soil erosion are just but the short time danger.
According to Mr Polly Birakwate, the natural resource officer, Mpigi District, sand mining is causing silting of Lake Victoria thus depriving fish and other aquatic lives of breeding grounds.
“…Chinese are our friends, they are helping us but we have a problem with them. In the initial stage, they tell you they are going to do this activity but give them two or three months down road, they are doing a different activity in the same area,” Birakwate said.
Lake Victoria is an all important resource to the country and beyond. According to the Uganda Bureau of Statistics report 2015, Uganda harvested 461 million tones of fish in her water bodies, the biggest per cent being from Lake Victoria.
The destruction of the Lake Victoria is not a local thing though as it affects an inter-state issue as an estimated 30 million people depend on the 68,800 square kilometer lake for survival directly but the number swells with some countries using it to generate hydro power and irrigation, among other purposes.
Birakwate says stopping miners will require everyone’s efforts, since it is a lucrative business as the construction industry surges in the neighbouring towns of Masaka, Mpigi and the capital, Kampala.
Hiring a lorry costs about Shs800,000 - Shs1 million. Even the miners are levied by districts.
And, he says, Lwera sand is highly demanded since “I am told this sand is being used to make glasses and even the construction in Kampala, this sand is highly demanded.”
“I heard that people are exporting the sand to Saudi Arabia and China as well,” Birakwate said.
But Shafiq Wamala, an interpreter for the Chinese, said the sand is being used locally to feed the growing construction industry.
He refused to divulge details since he needed clearance from his bosses who were not available at the site by the time of the Nema visit.
Currently, environment protection bodies like Nema and districts among others are battling an uphill task to protect national resources as both Ugandans and foreign nationals deplete the resources with little care for the next generations.
Many have built in or reclaimed wetlands for agriculture, never mind their crucial uses like contributing to water purification, de-nitrification and detoxification, waste water treatment, and provision of food like fish.
Such uses of wetlands mean that destroying them is self-destruction but the little gains from them blindfolds the encroachers, experts say.