Why Kampala-Masaka highway keeps cracking at Lwera swamp

Unra staff repair the damaged section of Kampala-Masaka highway at Lwera swamp, Kalungu District on  April 1. PHOTO/ MUZAFARU NSUBUGA

Transport was last week paralysed for motorists plying the Kampala-Masaka-Mbarara highway after a section of the road at Lwera swamp collapsed. 

The highway had traffic gridlock stretching more than 20 kilometres between Lukaya Town in Kalungu District and Nabyewanga Town in Mpigi. 

The road collapsed after culverts that were used to fix it broke down. 
The Uganda National Roads Authority (Unra) declared it impassable and diverted motorists to the Mpigi-Kanoni- Sembabule–Villa Maria-Masaka road.

However, taking this route is expensive and makes the journey longer .
Unra blamed the problem on rain and heavy trucks. By Friday evening, the road had been repaired and the traffic flow restored.

Why does the problem reoccur
Every after a few months, a similar problem reoccurs at Lwera which inconveniences motorists.

Some motorists, who regularly use the highway blame this on weak culverts.
“I am not an engineer, but it is quite obvious that corrugated metal culverts which Unra uses in Lwera cannot work on a busy highway with heavy trucks like Kampala–Masaka highway, let them resort to concrete box culverts which are durable,” Mr Moses Mulindwa, a commuter taxi driver, who has been plying the road for 30 years, said during an interview at the weekend .

Mr Sam Kibuuka, a truck driver, said  the Lwera section has several other spots which he thinks will soon sink if Unra does not act swiftly.

“I move on this road daily and whenever I reach Lwera, I have to slow down because I know a particular spot on the road may carve in any time ,” he said.

Others blame the excessive human activities in Lwera such as sand mining and rice growing, which have slowed down the flow of water thus affecting the highway.

“We never used to see water near the road in Lwera, but when sand miners and farmers increased in the wetland, flooding also started pushing water levels towards the highway,” Mr Salim Ssekidde, 68 , a resident of Lukaya Town, said .

Mr Allan Ssempebwa, the Unra spokesperson, said their engineers are studying the situation. 

Mr Ssempebwa added that Unra is considering an intervention which will permanently solve the problem.

“Our engineers are carrying out hydrological studies on Lwera and other roads with related problems such that when we get funding the next financial year and fix the problem once and  for all,” he said.

Lwera wetland is a major water-catchment area that connects several rivers and wetlands in Gomba, Mpigi and Kalungu districts and drains directly into Lake Victoria. 

There have been calls to ban sand mining in Lwera but the government has kept a deaf ear. Environmentalists have on several occasions also warned of a serious ecological disaster as a result of destroying Lwera swamp.

A report by Natural Resources Parliamentary Committee of 2016 revealed that the miners had affected fish stocks within Lake Victoria since Lwera wetland acted as a breeding area. It recommended banning sand mining, but nothing has been done.

While appearing on a local radio station at the weekend, Dr Keffa Kiwanuka, the vice chairperson of natural resources committee of Parliament , said it was unfortunate that the Parliamentary report on Lwera was never implemented.

“The blame is squarely put on the executive which failed to implement our report. For us we did our part as Parliament,” he said. 

While inspecting Lwera last July, State minister for Environment Beatrice Anywar said sand mining is a regulated commercial activity which cannot be stopped at a time when it supports the country’s infrastructural development.

In a recent interview, Dr Tom Okurut, the executive director of Nema, said  Lwera wetland system, which stretches about 20kms, has a section, which is  not a wetland and that is where some human activities are permitted .

“We are making sure that the area is protected through routine inspection and ensure restoration on the side of sand mining. Don’t say sand mining is everywhere in Lwera. Rice growing activities are also carried out on a dry part of Lwera and we regularly monitor their operations,” he said.

Due to its strategic location, Lwera has attracted many investment companies and individuals who engage in sand mining, fishing farming and crop growing.
Kampala-Masaka highway is one of the busiest highways in the country with an average daily traffic count of about 30,000 vehicles.  It is the main gateway to DR Congo, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi. 

The highway was in poor state until 2009 when government secured about Shs103b from European Union and started upgrading it  to Grade II bituminous surface with drainage channels, culverts and shoulders. 

The road works were done in two phases and the last phase, which was done between 2012 and 2013 saw the road widened from 6.5 metres (21ft) to 11 metres (36 ft). 

Under the same contract which was undertaken by Reynolds Construction Company, passing and climbing lanes were also created as well as pedestrian and cyclists’ lanes. 

In March 2019, Unra engineers expressed fear that a section of highway in Lwera swamp  was  scouring from underneath. This followed a big hole that emerged in the middle of the highway, causing concern that the entire section might carve in. 

The hole developed at the left lane towards Lukaya  Town  from Kampala . Although the sunken spot was assumed to have a culvert which was thought to have been washed away or damaged, engineers at the end scene who  excavated within the hole and sideways, reportedly  failed to trace the culverts .

While commissioning the new Lukaya Roadside market last month, Works and Transport minister, Gen Edward Katumba Wamala, said government was in the process of  re-designing the section of  highway between Lwera and Lukaya Town and actual works are expected to commence the coming financial year.

Way forward
Mr Sam Mucunguzi, the coordinator of Citizens Concern Africa, an organisation which promotes sustainable management of natural resources, said they have on several occasions  offered guidance on how to save Lwera, but their advice fell on deaf ears.

“We told them [government] that the water table in Lwera is displaced due to excessive excavations and use of chemicals and pesticides and that soils cannot be stable anymore, but they keep ignoring our advice,” he said.

Mr Mucunguzi said Unra needs to erect a bridge similar to that built over Nambigirwa swamp on Kampala-Entebbe Expressway to avert possible disaster.  “And they [Unra]  have to act before it is too late,” he added.