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How to travel safely on lakes and rivers

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MV Kalangala docked at Lutoboka Pier  in Kalangala District on March 28,2024. PHOTO/FILE/DAVID SEKAYINGA

The period between June and August, are months traditionally known to be challenging for water transport users. During this period, major water bodies experience strong winds and turbulent waves, sometimes resulting in loss of lives.

In its latest advisory to water transport users, Uganda National Meteorological Authority (UNMA) urged boat skippers and passengers to take precautionary measures.

In a statement showing June, July and August seasonal rainfall outlook, UNMA predicted that strong winds will be characterised with heavy waves.

“Avoid overloading of boats due to the expected strong winds, wear life jackets at all times to minimise accidents and use sea-worthy boats,” a statement dated May 29 and signed by Mr Bob Alex Ogwang, the UNMA acting executive director, reads.

Barely two weeks after Mr Ogwang issued the warning, police in Buvuma registered a case of drowning after a passenger boat from Jinja heading to Lyabaana on Lake Victoria capsized near Muama Island killing four people, including Edris Kukyana,Stephen Mukanji ,Noah Mukuve and Musa Owino . 

The ill-fated boat was loaded with 11 passengers and more than 500 jerry cans of fuel. Seven other passengers were rescued by the fishermen.

In a June 13 police statement, Ms Hellen Butoto, the Ssezibwa Region police spokesperson, said after the boat was hit by turbulent waves, its engine abruptly stopped, causing it to sink, adding that the occupants’ alarm attracted nearby fishermen who came to their rescue. 

Ssezibwa Region Police Spokesperson, Ms Hellen Butoto. PHOTO/FRED MUZAALE

The disaster map for the island district of Kalangala shows that strong winds are usually experienced in the sub-counties of Mazinga, Kyamuswa, Bubeke, and Bufumira, as well as parts of Bujumba Sub-county and Kalangala Town Council. 

According to Mr Sirajje Mawanda, the spokesperson of the Association of Fishermen and Lake Users (AFALU), increased water levels in Lake Victoria necessitate following instructions from boat skippers before boarding. 

“Water levels have significantly increased at many landing sites, submerging the docking piers in some places. So, it’s very crucial to listen to the boat skippers when boarding and disembarking the boats,” he said.

“We also inform fishermen to use boats of 28 feet that can’t easily overturn, we have also warned them against travelling at night and during cloudy conditions,” he added. 

According to Mr David Omongot, the Kalangala District disaster focal person, boat skippers need to communicate the time of departure at landing sites and remain in touch with his office and police for quick emergency response. 

“We have already sensitised local leaders on how to respond to emergencies, they [local leaders] are expected to stay alert, ready to respond to any distress call from boat skippers that have set off from their landing sites. We also expect them to keep monitoring them [boat skippers] during the journey and alert them in case there is bad weather in a particular area,” he said. 

Mr Sudi Kayongo, the Kasenyi Landing Site chairperson, urged passengers to adhere to the landing site rules.

“Before boarding any boat, every passenger should ensure he/she wears a life jacket and must also record his particulars in the passengers’ registration books at landing sites,” he said. 

Mr Rajab Ssemakula, the Kalangala District chairperson, said: “It is not wise to ply a route without knowing the weather on the lake. Some boat skippers just sail because they have used a particular route several times, this is dangerous.” 

Mr Yusiya Nkunyinjji, a boat operator, plying the Bukasa-Mweena route, admitted to relying on local knowledge to predict strong winds on the lake. 

“We always travel between 6am and 10am in the morning and between 3pm and 6pm because winds on the lake are usually dangerous in the afternoon,” he said.


To minimise accidents, the government has made efforts to improve water transport. These include constructing search and rescue centres, providing life jackets, strictly monitoring boats, establishing a maritime institute to train boat skippers, and disseminating reliable weather forecasts to islanders.            

According to Mr Henry Ategeka, the project manager of the Maritime Communication and Transport Project under the Ministry of Works and Transport, of the nine planned search and rescue centres, five are under construction on major water bodies.

“On Lake Victoria, we are setting up rescue centres at Kaazi and Masese, on Lake Kyoga, we have one in Zengebe, we have others in Kaiso and Panyimur on Lake Albert. We thank the African Development Bank for funding this project,” Mr Ategeka said.

He added: “Other rescue centres like the one at Misonzi in Kalangala, Number Emu in Buvuma, Lwanika in Mayuge and Majanji in eastern region will be constructed in this new financial year.”

He further requested boat skippers to always call emergency toll free rescue number of 110 before sailing so that they are guided on the prevailing weather patterns.

According to Ms Suzan Kataike, the Ministry of Works and Transport spokesperson, government has so far dispatched more than 23,000 free life jackets to various landing sites around Lake Victoria and more will be procured the next financial year.

 Lake Victoria in Uganda. PHOTO/FILE/AFP

According to Prof Wilson Wangi ,the acting managing director of the Maritime Institute, courses to be taught at the institute are yet to be approved by the National Council for Higher Education .

“ We are hoping to start next year training and teaching courses that vessel owners, coxswains and other people can join to learn as we exploit the potential we have for water transport business,” Prof Wangi said.

“We shall start with a Bachelor’s Degree in Maritime Engineering, Diploma in Maritime Engineering and Diploma in Nautical Science courses that shall be taught at Busitema University main campus and at Namasagali campus in Kamuli District,” he said.

According to the Water Quality and Quantity Synthesis Report of 2005 compiled by the Lake Victoria Environment Management Programme (LVEMP), the islands of Ssese (Kalangala District) are part of the convergence zone of winds from the east , south east and south west that converge on the western shores .

The report shows that the same convergence creates asymmetrical and unstable waves that result in heavy turbulence of the waters that eventually cause water accidents.

Past incidents

Winds and water waves are some of the major contributors of drowning in water bodies in the country. For example, on March 12, 2024, a ill-fated boat carrying 17 people from Bussi Island on Lake Victoria to Nakiwogo Landing Site capsized after failing being hit by turbulent waves.

The incident occurred at around 5am. A total of 11 passengers, who were wearing life jackets were rescued by the Special Forces Command marine unit and six died. 

On February 16, a boat carrying five people and five cows capsized on Lake Victoria, resulting in the deaths of three passengers, the skipper, and all five cows.

On December 11, three passengers died when a boat they were traveling in capsized on the same lake between Kirewa and Namiti islands. At least 24 passengers, mostly women, were on board. 

Last August, Uganda recorded one of the most fatal water accidents in five years where 16 passengers perished near Nsazi Island in Mukono District.

The wooden vessel, which was travelling from Kalangala District to Kasenyi landing site near Entebbe, Wakiso District, was reportedly overloaded. It was carrying an estimated 25 passengers, but only nine survived.