Sand mining in Lwera: The dark side and bad deals

One of the heavy machinery used in the mining in Lwera. Photo by Martins E. Ssekweyana

What you need to know:

  • It is a lucrative but destructive activity wrought with irregularities. A few benefit from sand mining but most are harmed.
  • Mining which leads to the removal of channel substrate, resuspension of streambed sediment, clearance of vegetation, and stockpiling on the streambed, will have ecological impacts.
  • These impacts may have an effect on the direct loss of stream reserve habitat, disturbances of species attached to streambed deposits, reduced light penetration, reduced primary production, and reduced feeding opportunities.

Sand mining, a practice used to extract sand through an open pit is a lucrative activity in Lwera in Kalungu District located along the Kampala- Masaka highway.
It is lucrative because of the purposes sand serves in different fields including construction.
Silica sand, quartz (a hard white mineral consisting of silicon dioxide) that overtime, through the work of water and wind, has been broken down into tiny granules is one of the most common varieties and has many uses including making glass.
Despite these advantages, sand mining activities have caused severe effects on the environment in Lwera wetland including water pollution, destruction of the vegetation as well as the excavated pits and trenches ruining the beauty of the landscape.
For such reasons, the Parliamentary Committee on Natural Resources went on a fact finding mission to the area on September 22.
Before visiting some of the sand mining sites, the team first held a meeting with the town council members in the district.
Richard Vvube, the environment and wetland officer, Kalungu District says people started taking up sand mining in the region without their knowledge. Such actions forced them to enforce and ensure that the miners comply with the laws.
“In Kalungu, we have so far permitted three companies to undertake sand mining. However, one of the companies, after preparing itself legally did not find sand at the site identified to be viable,” Vvube said.
“The other two are operational and are closely regulated.”

The companies are Hesahduo and Lukaya Sand Dealers. Both are Chinese owned.
Vvube says Hesahduo Company started mining unlawfully towards the end of 2014 until it was licensed in 2015.
Meanwhile, there are claims Lukaya Sand Dealers exports the sand to Dubai for making glass.
The statement is in contradiction to what Mayanja Kakande, an interpreter at Lukaya Sand Dealers later told the team.
“The sand mined here is mainly for the Ugandan market. It is for the construction activities taking place in the different parts of the country. I am not aware if it is exported,” Kakande said after getting questioned by the team.
The two company directors of Lukaya Sand Dealers were reported to be out of the country, therefore unavailable for a comment.

One of the heavy machinery used in the mining in Lwera. Photo by Martins E. Ssekweyana

The complaints from the locals
Derrick Kizito, a resident of Lwera, who spoke to Daily Monitor, says it is unfair that most of the sand mining licenses are being awarded to foreigners and not the locals.
“The concerned authorities should start giving Ugandans these sand mining deals,” says Kizito.
In response, Aisha Kitende, the town clerk, Lukaya Town Council says property owners should be the ones blamed for leasing off land to the Chinese.
“Who owns the land determines the person going to conduct the activity. You cannot blame us for giving the Chinese permits to work and yet the locals are selling it to them to work,” Kitende says.
In relation to this, Vvube says there is no single local person who has ever deliberately applied for sand mining. Also, it is common for them not to follow the procedures required for sand mining.
“They want to go through the back door and if things do not work out, they start complaining,” he says.
Interested parties in sand mining are required to apply declaring their intention to carry out the activity.
The application letter submitted should bear comments from the Local Chairperson of the district and then from the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA). If the project is viable, the developer intending to take it up comes up with an Environment Impact Statement (EIS), a document prepared to describe the effects for proposed activities on the environment. It also describes impacts of alternatives as well as plans to mitigate the impacts.
No carrying wet sand
Transportation of wet sand is discouraged among sand mining companies as a way of minimising road damage.
To minimise the practice, several check points are in place to check the quantities trucks are carrying. Some drivers however, do the transportation during the night hours to limit their chances of getting caught. Companies are encouraged to ferry dry sand as its weight has less impact on the roads.

Who is mining sand illegally?
Seroma Limited was cited as one of the companies carrying out sand mining unlawfully.
“I only learnt it on September 21 that this company was doing sand mining illegally and we had to stop them,” Vvube says.
His statement angered Members of Parliament with several of them stating that he had known about the illegal activity for some time and had not deliberately acted on it sooner.
“As you can see the environment here (mining site at Seroma Limited) has been destroyed,” stated Wilberforce Yaguma, Member of Parliament of Kashari North.
“They should get fresh soil and fill the pits so that in future we can get more sand. The environment officer claims to have only known of the illegal activity here recently. This activity has been going on for some time and yet he claims not to have known anything. That is fooling people.”
Abubaker Lubega Kaddunabbi, the Resident District Commissioner, Kalungu District says Seroma Limited was never given approval to work.
“They are doing this work and yet I have not cleared them. It is mandatory to visit our offices even before surveying,” Kaddunabbi says.
When Charles Komakech, the acting manager of Seroma Limited was interrogated, he gave sketchy details of the project.
“Our responsibility as workers is only to excavate sand. It is our bosses who sell it,” he says.
Komakech says the company has been operating for the past three weeks. However, some of the locals say they have been operating for some few months now.
Roland Ssemanda, the chairperson of Kamunga village in Kalungu District, reveals that from time to time, high profile individuals often claim to own the land of the locals. Even when they go ahead to complain, the powerful personalities use their influence and power to sabotage the situation. Ssemanda hopes that environmental laws are strengthened in order to curb the illegal activities in the wetlands of Lwera.

Land affected by sand mining activities in Lwera. Photo by Benjamin Jumbe

What measures are being taken?
What is being done to regulate the sand mining activities?
Richard Vvube, the environment and wetland officer, Kalungu District, says they emphasise wise use among the miners. The mandate is to use these resources to benefit individuals but also while being mindful of the implications of the activity on the environment. At the time of giving licenses, we give conditions at safeguarding the environment and social aspects.”

Daily Monitor contacted Mark Ssali, the head of public and corporate affairs at Uganda National Roads Authority (UNRA), for a comment regarding the sand mining activities in Lwera, he referred us to Monica Sseruma, the head environment and social safeguards at UNRA who was not available by press time as our phone calls went unanswered.
Last year, Daily Monitor published a story of traffic along Kampala- Masaka highway coming to stand still after truck drivers ferrying sand blocked the road in protest against the daily fines imposed on them by UNRA.
The officials at UNRA later came out to deny the claims saying they only ensure the trucks carry the recommended load to avoid destroying the newly constructed highway.

Members of the parliamentary committee on natural resources looking at the extent of wetland destruction in Lwera. Photo by Martins E. Ssekweyana

What can be done?

Extraction has an impact on biodiversity, water turbidity, water table levels and landscape and on climate. There are also socio-economic, cultural and even political consequences.
The problem is now so serious that the existence of river ecosystems is threatened in a number of locations, damage being more severe in small river catchments. The same applies to threats to benthic ecosystems from marine extraction.
In some extreme cases, the mining of marine aggregates has changed international boundaries, such as through the disappearance of sand islands in Indonesia.
Sand and gravel mining also has also climate impact. It has a direct impact through greenhouse gas emissions from both the extraction process itself and the transport, sometimes over long distances of the mined materials.
It also has an indirect impact from the production of cement for use in concrete together with sand and gravel: for each tonne of cement, an average of 0.9 tonnes of carbon dioxide are produced.
Emissions of 1.65 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide were estimated from cement production in 2010 alone (about 5% of total greenhouse gas emissions) and total carbon emissions from cement amount to about 30 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide.

The absence of global monitoring of aggregates extraction undoubtedly contributes to the gap in knowledge, which translates into a lack of action.
There are a number of ways to deal with the problems associated with sand mining.
Reducing the consumption of sand
One way is to reduce consumption of sand by optimising the use of existing buildings and infrastructure. Recycled building and quarry dust material can be a substitute for sand.
Despite the very high value of minerals found in the sand, it is mostly used for concrete or is buried under highways. Concrete rubble should be recycled to avoid using aggregates, at least for low-quality uses. Recycling glass bottles would also reduce sand consumption.

Also, substitutes for sand are available. Quarry dust could be used to replace sand in general concrete structures.
The replacement of sand by up to 40% of incinerator ash exhibits higher compressive strength than regular cement mortars. Some desert sand can be used if mixed with other material.
There are also alternatives to concrete for building houses, including wood, straw and recycled material. However, the current building industry is geared towards concrete know-how and equipment.

Training of architects and engineers, new laws and regulations, and positive incentives are needed to initiate a shift for lowering our dependency on sand. Renewable and recycled materials need to be targeted for building houses and roads.
Setting taxes on aggregates extraction to create incentives on alternatives
The current situation will continue unless sand extraction is correctly priced and taxed so that other options become economically viable. Because sand is still very cheap – sand itself is freely accessible; only extraction costs need to be covered – there is little or no incentive to induce a change in our consumption.

Alternative sources of sand and gravel, such as those that accumulate at the bottom of dams, can also be targeted. Large amounts of water must regularly be released from dams to flush out aggregate although currently more expensive, these aggregates could be extracted from the dams.

Their use would address the problem of their accumulation, which leads to a reduced capacity of dams to store water and could result in the dams’ water intakes being blocked.

Reducing the negative consequences of extraction
The environmental impact of in-stream mining might be avoided if the annual bed load were calculated and the mining of aggregates restricted to that value or less. Local environments should be studied to define the limits of acceptable changes


For thousands of years, sand and gravel have been used in the construction of roads and buildings. Today, demand for sand and gravel continues to increase. Mining operators, in conjunction with cognizant resource agencies, must work to ensure that sand mining is conducted in a responsible manner.

Excessive instream sand-and-gravel mining causes the degradation of rivers. Instream mining lowers the stream bottom, which may lead to bank erosion. Depletion of sand in the streambed and along coastal areas causes the deepening of rivers and estuaries, and the enlargement of river mouths and coastal inlets. It may also lead to saline-water intrusion from the nearby sea.

The effect of mining is compounded by the effect of sea level rise. Any volume of sand exported from streambeds and coastal areas is a loss to the system. Excessive instream sand mining is a threat to bridges, river banks and nearby structures. Sand mining also affects the adjoining groundwater system and the uses that local people make of the river.
Instream sand mining results in the destruction of aquatic and riparian habitat through large changes in the channel morphology. Impacts include bed degradation, bed coarsening, lowered water tables near the streambed, and channel instability. These physical impacts cause degradation of riparian and aquatic biota and may lead to the undermining of bridges and other structures. Continued extraction may also cause the entire streambed to degrade to the depth of excavation.
Sand mining generates extra vehicle traffic, which negatively impairs the environment. Where access roads cross riparian areas, the local environment may be impacted. Impacts of sand mining can be broadly clasified into three categories:

The large-scale extraction of streambed materials, mining and dredging below the existing streambed, and the alteration of channel-bed form and shape leads to several impacts such as erosion of channel bed and banks, increase in channel slope, and change in channel morphology.
These impacts may cause: (1) the undercutting and collapse of river banks, (2) the loss of adjacent land and/or structures, (3) upstream erosion as a result of an increase in channel slope and changes in flow velocity, and (4) downstream erosion due to increased carrying capacity of the stream, downstream changes in patterns of deposition, and changes in channel bed and habitat type.

Water Quality
Mining and dredging activities, poorly planned stockpiling and uncontrolled dumping of overburden, and chemical/fuel spills will cause reduced water quality for downstream users, increased cost for downstream water treatment plants and poisoning of aquatic life.

Mining which leads to the removal of channel substrate, resuspension of streambed sediment, clearance of vegetation, and stockpiling on the streambed, will have ecological impacts.
These impacts may have an effect on the direct loss of stream reserve habitat, disturbances of species attached to streambed deposits, reduced light penetration, reduced primary production, and reduced feeding opportunities.

Source: San Diego State University