Nature left to fight off contaminants at Lubenge wetland

Contaminated water flowing through a section of the Lubenge wetland in Nakaseke District. PHOTO | DAN WANDERA

What you need to know:

  • The Lubenge wetland is a lifeline for not only the farmers in Nakasongola and Luweero Districts but feeds into the larger water catchment areas including the Lugogo and River Kafu.

One of the ugliest and unfortunate human characteristics against the environment has been subjected to the Lubenge wetland through industrial waste contamination. For over four weeks now, the concerned parties seem to have abandoned the fight and left it to Nature.

With confirmation from the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) that the company responsible for polluting Lubenge wetland had been directed to clear the wetland of the toxic waste, the earlier fear about the waste finding its way into the greater Lugogo, Kafu River basins. Both the affected community that derive a livelihood and District leaders at Nakasongola that have tested the wrath of the toxic waste spilling into the wetland water channels are now cursing the management at Victoria Sugar Company for failure to own up the damage.

Mr Charles Andama, the Nakasongola District Environment Officer believes that the toxic waste water has not only contaminated the waters at Lubenge but the entire drainage basin that includes the greater Lugogo and Kafu water basin.

“It is unfortunate that officials at Victoria Sugar Limited did not heed to our earlier advice and instead became hostile even after our team used the best approach to try to arrest the situation. The contaminated water was not stopped from flowing. We have witnessed the death of aquatics including the fish, frogs and snakes among other features,” he told this publication.

“As the District, we did not test the water but we got information that the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) recently visited the affected areas at Lubenge, picked some water samples and instructed the sugar company to fix the problem immediately but this has not been done, Mr Andama explains.

Mr John Beebwa, an environmentalist and consultant based in the greater Luweero areas is surprised that attempts to try and stop the toxic substances spilling into the larger water catchment areas has not seen the light of the day even after the intervention of NEMA.

“The Lubenge wetland is a lifeline for not only the farmers in Nakasongola and Luweero Districts but feeds into the larger water catchment areas including the Lugogo and River Kafu. I would advise that a tougher approach is considered for any polluters of the environment,” he says.

The unfortunate part with many developers and industrialists in Uganda is the failure to fulfill their required obligations in relation to the Environment management component, Mr Beera reveals.

“Many developers that have taken advantage of the wetland areas to establish factories become liars and default on the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) that is supposed to be a must before the factories are allowed to operate.”

“As we speak, we are not yet sure about the magnitude of the toxic waste that the communities have consumed from the day the contaminants got released into the wetland. The toxic material can even find its way underground into the borehole water that we drink if not managed. The risks as we speak are many,” he says.

Foul smell

While the immediate communities earning a livelihood at the Lubenge wetland including the villages of Kirowooza, Kakooge and Kyabutayika have tested the wrath of the contaminants that have released a foul smell and the water that turned black, the worry according to the leaders is the after effects including diseases that could result from the contaminated water.

Mr Sam Kigula, the LC5 Chairperson Nakasongola District is surprised that four weeks after the waste material was first observed by the suspecting public and reported to the District authorities, no attempt to try and stop the flow of the toxic substances has been made.

It is unfortunate that even when we got information from the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) about their intervention when the reportedly halted activities at the factory, nothing has been done.

“We expected the Sugar factory management to quickly divert the contaminated water to a temporary dam for treatment when the team of inspectors from NEMA visited the affected areas and engaged management at the factory. To date (Tuesday) September 26th, 2023, no single step in the direction of neutralizing the amount of toxics in the wetland has taken place,” he says.

“When we approached Management at the Sugar factory, the officials were rude and refused to discuss the matter with the District team.  They claimed that they were working with NEMA to put everything right and had no business with the Nakasongola District officials, Mr Kigula  adds.

Mr Hannington Kabali, a farmer at Kirowooza village who had 29 cows that grazed at the Lubenge wetland area has since shifted his animals to a different village after the cows failed to drink the water that had developed a foul smell and turned black. The herdsman had to move the cows to a safer area which came at big cost.

“We expected a quick response from the factory management when they held a meeting shortly after the inspection of the contaminated areas of the wetland in the first week of September. We are yet to overcome the foul smell. We continue to see lifeless fish and frogs floating on water at the drainage channels,” he says.

Livestock shifted;

Lubenge wetland that measures about 5 square miles is a trans-boundary wetland shared between the Districts of Luweero and Nakasongola. Livestock farming being one of the major activities, it is estimated that more than 20,000 animals got relocated to safer areas during the first week after the water was contaminated.

A section of the farmers claim that their respective livestock stopped drinking the water because of the foul smell while the grasses became yellowish.

Mr Lazurus Ssembajwe, a farmer and resident of Kakooge Town Council in Nakasongola District says that he lost fish at one of the fish ponds and was forced to relocate his cattle that graze at Lubenge wetland 3 weeks ago.

“When my worker who attends to the livestock including the water ponds opened the water gate to get additional water from the water channels, the fish suffocated to death. We found the fish floating on the water lifeless. The workers later realized that the water had turned black with a foul smell. We did not understand the cause until we saw a team of officials from NEMA inspecting part of the wetland, he told  Daily Monitor.

Heavy rains helping neutralize the contaminated water;

While a section of the concerned communities are happy that the level of contamination has reduced because of the ongoing heavy rains, environmental experts believe the dangers of the toxic material spreading fast and getting mixed up with the soils and contaminating the domestic water use points is high.

At Kirowooza village, the residents claim that the foul smell from the water drainage channels has reduced because of the heavy rains.

“While the water at sections of the drainage is still black, the foul smell has reduced because of the heavy rains. We are not very sure about the level of the toxins and we still avoid using the water for domestic purposes because the color has not come to the original form,” Ms Elizabeth Namulindwa a resident of Kirowooza village said in an interview on September 26.

A security officer at the entrance of the Victoria Sugar Limited in Luweero District revealed that the managers had moved out for a meeting in Kampala and that a meeting with them was not possible. But last week, an official who claimed to be an Engineering Assistant at the plant claimed that the management was busy addressing the concerns raised by NEMA.

Earlier the NEMA officials revealed that they were studying the available information and that the polluters would be brought to book.

A man observes the withering grass and the contaminated water at a section of the Lubenge  wetland in Nakasongola District

NEMA had also tweeted on their official page in early September that they had halted activities at the Sugar factory and directed management to put in place a waste management system before they resume operations.

This publication could not verify the extent to which the NEMA directives had been implemented. Statistics at Nakasongola District Production Department estimates about 18,000 households that directly derive livelihoods at Lubenge and the greater Lugogo water basins.

The fear among the district stakeholders after information spread about the suspected toxic substances spilling into the wetland areas has been the likely impact on both the human health and the livestock. The other fear is about the aquatics at the different water bodies including the Lake Kyoga. The district officials believe that the death of frogs, fish and snakes that were seen floating on water at the water channels in Lubenge perhaps helps build the fear among the stakeholders.