Karangura: Caught up between the dual danger of COVID-19 pandemic and water crisis

By Felix Basiime and Jonan Tusingwiire

KABAROLE : Young girls are getting pregnant. Domestic violence is on the rise. These are just some of the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and its restrictions in an area where water is scarce, said Kikora Masereka, of Kyahwire zone, Karangura Sub County in Kabarole district of Western Uganda.

“The challenges we have got during the lockdown due to Covid-19 is increased pregnancy due to young girls walking long distances to fetch water at far water sources,” Masereka said. “Previously men and women have been fetching the water, but now due to schools closure, parents send their children at water sources and boys have taken advantage of that.”

“We are now starting a dry season (June to August); we are going to face a lot of challenges of domestic violence because of long queues at water sources. It will force women who at most fetch water than men to delay at water sources to come back home and usually men think that they were not at the water sources but had gone for other men,” he added.

A child dumps waste in River Mpanga

Chris Tumuranzye, the LCI chairperson for Kyahwire zone, said he is facing a lot of challenges leading a community that is water-stressed amid the dangers of Covid-19.

He said more than 6,000 residents in the area scramble for water at two sources that serve four zones. Others who are scared of the crowds and queues are forced to walk over one and half kilometers to fetch water from River Mpanga, he said.

“The government tells us to stay at home, but we have to walk to water sources where there are no sanitizers at the taps,” Masereka, the resident, said.

People are forced to crowd at boreholes and shallow wells thereby no social distancing is observed at all, a basic requirement to slow the spread of Covid-19.

Audio story by Jonan Tusingwiire originally aired on KRC FM.

Karangura with a population of 12,368 is the source of River Mpanga that snakes through Kabarole, Fort Portal town, Kyenjojo, Kamwenge and Kitagwenda districts before it empties into Lake George. The upstream is highly contaminated. Lake George connects to Lake Edward through the 40-kilometer Kazinga channel and Lake Edward is connected to Lake Albert through River Semuliki before they connect to River Nile.

“We have a gravity flow scheme that supplies only two wells that serve four zones; Kazingo (Bukuuku sub county), Katuuru (Mugusu sub county), Katuuru Upper (Karangura) and Kyahwire (Karangura). There is always a scramble for water at these sources; kids are beaten; this has created bad blood between women as they fight due to the long queues, so we want government to avail us more water sources,” said Tumuranzye, the LC I Chairman for Kyahwire zone.   

He adds, “We have tried to teach the people of this area to avoid Covid-19 by using clean water for drinking, water at their toilets, wash hands all the time and to wear face masks, but it is a challenge amid a water crisis.”

Vincent Mugumya, a resident of Karangura, said the people in his area had no safe water for consumption since their water was either stagnant or originating from shallow open wells.

“In the hills it is very rocky, while in lower areas the water table is high, so people dig very shallow latrines and feaces mix with water, which means the people downstream drink contaminated water,” Mugumya said.

Maureen Kajumba, the Acting Sub County Chief of Karangura, said the issue was worsened by the widespread trend of open defecation.

“Most families spend the whole day up in the hills in their shambas digging from morning to evening and even have their breakfast and lunch from there so what do you expect after eating?” she said. “In the gardens there are no toilets and they dig very far away from their homes, so when it rains, the floods and landslides sweep the waste in the river and other water sources.”

She said managing hygiene and sanitation is also worsened by the topography of the area, a mountainous region with 6 rivers and their tributaries..

“When it rains, all the feaces and waste is washed into the rivers,” she said.“Despite using enforcement and sensitization by NGOs like NRDI, Protos and Hewasa, people’s attitude is still poor to hygiene and sanitation.”

Kajumba was worried that human activities in Karangura are contaminating the rest of the region downstream.

“All the gravity flow schemes are contaminated and I am scared that since Karangura feeds the entire region because the source of river Mpanga is here, it is not us only who are going to be affected but the entire population of Kabarole district downstream,” she said.

Mwesige Fenehansi, the LC I chairperson for Nyarukanga village in Karangura, is trying to address the problem by mobilizing all LC I chairpersons to organize all households in the sub-county in groups of 10 model households, which will begin communal cleanup of each home including setting up standard latrines. But the long-standing issue of water scarcity has multiple competing causes in the region that will require a comprehensive approach from many stakeholders, district leaders said.

Elderly woman washes hands in Kazingo trading centre

No social distancing at water points

Maate Joseph, a resident of Nyakitokoli village in Karangura sub-county, said he generally walks about half a kilometer to fetch water at an uphill spring that serves about 20 households. 

“Water is always there, but we can’t avoid crowding at water sources just to catch up with the time of curfew [7pm to 6:30am],” he said.

He added, “I work from Karago Town Council [with a population of over 9,000]; there is only one borehole that serves all the residents and it is about 750 meters away, so we have had challenges of walking and crowding at the only water source.”

There have been only two cases of Covid-19 thus far, patients admitted at Fort Portal regional referral hospital. The first patient, a 29-year-old truck driver, tested positive for coronavirus on May 8, 2020 and was later discharged in June after testing negative, according to Dr. Solomon Mugara, the head of Covid-19 at Fort Portal Regional Referral Hospital.

The Kabarole deputy resident district commissioner, Festus Bandeeba, said the second Covid-19 patient was admitted at Fort Portal Regional Referral Hospital on June 20 from Bwera Hospital in Kasese. He is a Ugandan who was sent back from DR Congo authorities. 

So far no case from the communities has been reported in the region. Deputy RDC Bandeeba asked the community members to observe standard operating procedures and other guidelines from the Ministry of Health. This includes social distancing and washing hands.

But Karangura residents are forced to crowd at some water points in search of safe water, which puts them at risk of spreading disease during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

A child defecates in front of a ltrine in Karago Town Council

Water available in rivers and other water sources is also contaminated due to collapsing latrines, causing faecal material oozing to some water sources.

Olive Tumuhairwe, the District Health Inspector for Kabarole district, said Karangura is the source of all water that is consumed in Kabarole district and beyond. Karangura has about 79 percent latrine coverage, but less than 10 percent have improved sanitation facilities, which are safe and clean facilities, she said.

“The sanitation and hygiene coverage in this area is not so good, because we have a majority of the structures which are temporary and those that compromise the environment and the water safety,” Tumuhairwe said.

According to Kabarole District Wash Master Plan 2018-2030, access to water services is low (58 percent) and is less than the national average estimated at 70 percent at the time.

The district master plan indicated that there is a high level of contamination of drinking water sources (64 percent) especially in rural areas. This compromises the quality of water for domestic use.

The adoption of hand washing with soap at household level is very low, and less than 10 percent of households had improved sanitation facilities with hand washing facilities with water and soap.

Since hand washing is key to stay the spread of Covid 19 pandemic, there is a high chance of the communities becoming infected with Covid-19 if community transmission begins in the region.

Geological challenges

According to the district chairman, Richard Rwabuhinga, loamy soils composed mainly of sand and silt with a small amount of clay have made it impossible for engineers to build WASH structures. These soils make up about 70 percent of the district, and have caused the district to lose lots of money in latrines that collapse.

Olive Tumuhairwe, the District Health Inspector for Kabarole district, said that in Harugongo Sub County, pozzolana rocks made up of volcanic material have also made it hard to dig pit latrines. 

The high water table in areas such as Karago town council, Karangura and Bukuuku also make constructing latrines difficult, since the waste can easily enter into the groundwater or run into rivers and streams when they flood, Tumuhairwe said. A water table is the level at which underground soil and gravel is completely saturated with water. The water table is generally higher in areas with high density soil related to clay content. 

Some of the makeshift pit latrines in Karangura have water facilities for hand washing but have no soap

Cris Amanyire, a Field Officer with Natural Resources Defense Institute as a Field Officer said to solve the issues of sanitation under areas faced by high water table, they are promoting ecosan toilets in Karangura and Bukuuku sub counties and Karago town council (population 9,772 as per Kabarole Wash Master Plan 2018 to 2030) where this type of toilet is good in such areas.

Ecosan toilets work without water, separating urine from faeces and allowing waste to be recycled by turning the waste into compost or liquid fertilizer, which can be used to fertilise soil or crops.

“We just open the surface and start construction… The household contributes Shs 700,000 and NRDI pays the balance of Shs 2.3 million,” Amanyire said. NRDI also runs a community project of planting trees along River Mpanga and provides free seedlings to the community. 

Rita Kiteme, a social scientist with the Ministry of Water and Environment, said that issues identified in Karangura include a high level of erosion because of the gradient of hilly areas.

“This has caused siltation of the river due to human activities cultivating close to River Mpanga, so Albert Water Management Zonefocused at homes in Karangura because it is the upstream of River Mpanga, a sub catchment that flows through four districts to Lakes George to Edward and Albert.”

The ministry has done some community trainings of technologies that could minimize issues of erosion such as constructing rain water harvesting trenches and formulating contours where the gradients are very steep.

 “After two years, NWSC in Fort Portal has been able to report that the water is a bit better,” she said.

A man extracting sand from River Mpanga in Karangura sub county

Water treatment at NWSC plant in Fort Portal had tripled in the previous years, as they used more chemicals to purify the water of contamination, according to the NWSC Fort Portal branch manager, Denis Muramuzi.

Muramuzi, said it is at times very expensive for them to filter the polluted water from River Mpanga because it requires a lot of chemicals.

“Between 2010 to 2016, the chemical consumption at NWSC Fort Portal plant increased by 3.1 times from 0.0120 Kg/unit of water to 0.0375 Kg/unit of water treated,” he said. “It is all due to the increasing pollution levels on River Mpanga which serves as our source of raw water supplying Fort Portal and Kabarole District,” he added.

NWSC has over 10,000 water connections (households) in Fort Portal town alone and at times consumers complain of the chocolate color of the tap water pumped into their homes especially during the rainy season due to contamination upstream.

A child dumps waste in River Mpanga in Karangura in Kabarole District, Uganda

Community attitude

Tumuhairwe, the district health inspector, said some villages are worse off like Harugongo, where people are hostile and often fight the enforcement teams that go to enforce hygiene and sanitation, due to poor attitude toward government programs.

Lydia Mutiibwa, a Senior Environment Health Officer with the Ministry of Water and Environment attached to rural water and sanitation in Western region, said that the residents of Karangura have a big challenge of washing hands despite knowing the dangers and being taught what to do.

“Here people have been taught to wash hands but you find someone has a toilet but no water or some have water without soap, some have soap but no water yet hand washing in totality it stops most diseases including coronavirus. You find five out the 20 households we visited were able to do proper hand washing; the rest know the importance of hand washing, but behavioral change is wanting so they don’t practice it,” she said.

The district health inspector Tumuhairwe said the district has been holding a community awareness campaign throughout the whole of the last year to improve hygiene and sanitation in the area.

Kabarole District Health Inspector, Ms Olive Tumuhairwe inspecting one of the sub standard latrine facilities

Water coverage in Kabarole District

According to the Kabarole District water officer, Mr Bruno Basude, the status of water supply, sanitation and hygiene promotion (2018/19), water coverage was 80 percent while functionality of water sources was at 88 percent, functionality of water committees 41 percent and latrine coverage at 81 percent.

Hand washing facilities at household level were at 28 percent in 2018/19, hand washing facilities at schools at 14 percent, pupil: stance ratio at 65:1, household sanitation at 85 percent, about 171 (35 percent) villages without a water source and 323 villages (65 percent) with a water source.

The waterborne toilets account for only 1 percent of the facilities.

According to 2014 data published in the Uganda Water Supply Atlas, the access rates in Kabarole vary from 7 percent in Kijura Town council to 95 percent in Bukuuku Sub-County. Kabarole has 1,137 domestic water points which serve a total of 258,053 people – 178,127 in rural areas. About 207 water points have been non-functional for over 5 years and are considered abandoned. Kabarole has 3 piped schemes.

This story was produced in partnership with InfoNile with support from Code for Africa and funding from the Pulitzer Center and National Geographic Society. Editing by Annika McGinnis.

This story was originally published in the Daily Monitor.