Annah Luka speaks with so much pain and anger. The 75-year-old’s life has never been the same ever since she slid over a wooden bridge and fell into a stream a year ago.
It started with her legs itching like she had been burnt with acid. Later, it began affecting her bones. Today, Luka can’t move on her own without being supported. The resident of Kityedo village in Bwijanga sub county in Masindi district, believes her illness was caused by the stream’s polluted water, a topic that has raised a storm in the area.
The Mugeye-Kaborogota-Nyamasoro-Ntooma stream, as it is popularly known, is allegedly polluted by Smart Start Industries, a factory located upstream in Bikonzi in Bwijanga sub county that distills local brew popularly known as waragi.
The factory discharges its waste into the stream, something that has changed its colour to a foul black stream with a strong stench oozing out of it and covering the villages of Kityedo, Bihanga, Ikoba and Katuugo in Bwijanga sub-county, through which the stream runs.
However, according to Julius Kahiira, the district councilor for Bwijanga sub county, the affected villages could be more because the stream pours into Ntooma valley in Hoima district. Ntooma is one of the tributaries of River Kafu, which pours its water in Lake Kyoga, one of the lakes on River Nile.
“We need a chemist to come and test this water because our people are complaining about so many complications,” Kahiira said.
When The Observer visited Kityedo village, there was a public outcry with several people complaining that the disease rates in their area had risen, and they suspect that pollution is the cause. Jackie Kusiima, one of the residents in the area, said she almost got a miscarriage when she drunk contaminated water and fell sick.
“I almost lost my baby after taking contaminated water. I didn’t know that the pollution has affected all our water sources,” she said.
The stream supports several protected spring wells that provide water to more than 30,000 people. Among these spring wells is Kyakajumba, which Observer visited.
While the water flowing from the spring looks clean, that coming from the surrounding ground had molasses, confirming that the molasses has accumulated in the surrounding soil in that even if government moved and closed the factory now, the community has to pay the price for years to come.
“Health officers have advised our people to stop using this water [Kyakajumba] but where else can they run to?” Kahiira asked.
The other affected springs include Kabakazi and Mugeye. According to Kahiira, Ikoba health centre III, which has been using Kyakajumba spring, stopped operations. Apart from human health, locals also report that the contamination has affected agriculture in the area due to failed crops and loss of livestock.
“Our goats, pigs and cows are all dying because of that smelly water,” said Norah Driciru, a farmer.
Many local farmers confessed living in fear of eating the crops they grow, especially near the stream. They know that they are planted in polluted soil.
“Our soil is polluted. The yams are all rotten. We are even scared that we may contract cancer. Some people are even complaining of their eyes itching,” said Sam Kabagambe, a local resident, who also alsked government to revoke the company’s license.
For youthful Grace Mugisa, it is how the pollution has killed his childhood memories of the stream that makes him sad.
“As children, we used to fetch water from that stream because it was the only source of water. Now, our parents live in fear that our young siblings may stray into the stream,” Mugisa said.
Public outcry had successfully managed to have the factory temporarily closed in 2013, after they complained that there was no Environment Impact Assessment done. However, the factory reopened last year when it secured a Nema certificate dated June 18, 2014.
The certificate, which is valid for a period of five years, a period presumed to cover both the construction and operational phases of the factory, is granted on condition that the factory complies with a number of conditions.
Among them is the requirement to construct a modern waste-water treatment plant to treat all the waste water/effluent discharged from the distilling plant, and undertake regular analyses to ensure compliance with the recommended national standards.
In fact, the certificate emphasizes that before commencement of the operation phase, the factory should ensure that the waste-water/effluent plant is installed. That has not been done, according to William Nsimira, the district environment officer.
“There is direct open discharge without treatment of the factory waste into the stream,” he said.
Nsimira, who recommends an environment audit to gauge the impact the factory on the environment, says the environmental impact assessment was rushed.
“It has many loopholes because first of all where the factory is located is a residential area,” Nsimira noted.
Rising public concern about the impacts of pollution forced Kahiira to move a motion in the district council on May 29 on environment degradation in Bwijanga sub-county.
“Mr Speaker, I want to register a public outcry on behalf of the community living in Bikonzi, Kityedo and Ikoba villages and more so, to people living along Mugeye-Nyamasoro-Ntooma stream,” reads his motion.
“The management of the waragi factory has continued to dump their factory (molasses) refuse into the said stream for long. Efforts to stop them in writing were made by the district environment officer Masindi but didn’t yield results. Officials from NEMA office in Kampala visited the site and promised to avail us an impact assessment report but to-date we have never seen it.”
When contacted, the factory proprietor David Byensi narrowed the entire issue to witch-hunt.
“The person bringing up all this is Fox Kayebwa [the sub county NRM chairperson]. He is using
Kahiira to fight me because I sunk a water pump in [a piece of] land that he was interested in,” Byensi said.
“All they are doing is to fight but they won’t succeed. My waste is treated as recommended by Nema. Yes, it smells and has that colour but it is ok. It happens with all factories. It is the same with Kinyara [sugar factory]. Why aren’t people complaining about Kinyara?”
When The Observer stealthily visited the factory in Bikozi, there was heavy spillage and massive leakages, with the residue spilling into the road. Charles Wamala, the programme manager Masindi District NGO Forum, says Byensi has been previously advised by one of his workers that they could ask for permission from Uganda National Roads Authority (UNRA) to pour the molasses waste on the murrum roads. The molasses is sticky and can help to reduce the dust.
However, Byensi told The Observer that it is an expensive venture that would require trucks to transport the molasses. Byensi, instead, proposes that if he gets funds, he would rather buy a digestor to turn the waste into fertilizers. Edward Mbiheebwa, the executive director of Masindi District NGO Forum, says enough is enough.
“This has really reached a climax,” Mbiheebwa said.
“We are going to mobilize the locals to decide a way forward.”
Yose Ombedra, the coordinator for natural resources for Community Development and Conservation Agency, said the impact of the factory’s disposal had the papyrus around Kitama giving way, creating a sort of a lake.
“The community believes the roots of the papyrus had been weakened by the molasses because it has never happened before that the papyrus would give way,” he said.
Ombedra further noted that Smart Start Industries’ case is a tip of an iceberg. There are so many other small scale distillers polluting wetlands in Bunyoro sub-region. He gave the example of Kiha-Kachukura wetland, which has been heavily degraded by these distillers that it is starting to dry up.
“These breweries are compromising the quality of water, but also they are cutting down trees for brewing firewood,” he noted.
The major driver for breweries setting up base is Kinyara sugar limited, which has also had a great impact on forests and wetland degradation in the sub region. The local breweries buy molasses from Kinyara sugar limited.
As people look for arable land for sugarcane growing, it’s fragile areas such as wetlands and forests that are sacrificed.
“This [August] used to be a rainy season but it is like January and February [it is dry]. Most of this evidence is real and affecting the local people,” Nsimira, the district environment officer, said.
According to Nema’s publicist Naome Karekaho, nothing has come to the attention of the authority.
“Environment management is decentralized. At every local government, there is an environment officer. If it was debated at the district level, we expect them to have taken action, or reported, which they haven’t done,” Karekaho said.
“No report has come to us, but now that it has come to our attention, we will take it up.”
Story sourced with support from PANOS Eastern Africa