Why Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda, and Tanzania Should Focus On River Kagera To Control Transboundary Refuse From Entering The Lake
By Davis Buyondo
A heavy downpour just drenched Kasensero town council in Kyotera, a district in southwestern Uganda. With wild storms raging, murky waves from Lake Victoria – Africa’s largest, and the world’s second-largest freshwater body – briskly fold towards Kasensero landing site.
Rudely, they shove the boats laid by the waterfront as they convey large volumes of aquatic weeds, plastic bottles, alcohol/gin sachets, and single-use polythene bags, creating an alarming scene of refuse.
It’s such effluent that pollutes the lake and affects its water quality as well as worsens the plastic waste burden in Uganda. But to a keen observer, it’s not only Uganda that pollutes East Africa’s most treasured resource (L. Victoria) with a 26,828-square-mile mass, which is shared by Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania.
Tons of plastic bottles (Jibu, Malagarasi, Alpine, Bunena, Azam Malti coffee, etc.) plus invasive aquatic weeds from Burundi, Rwanda, and Tanzania are discharged in the lake through River Kagera, which stretches about 400 kilometers from its source in Burundi before draining into the lake via Uganda.
The river has a vivid history of carrying into L. Victoria the bodies of people who were massacred during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, which ultimately became a serious health hazard in Uganda.
Likewise, Kagera is polluted with all kinds of waste from the local communities, factories and industrial plants in these countries, which end up in the lake.
The constant inflow of such effluent threatens people’s health, ecosystems and economies. It has become a big concern among different stakeholders who are now advocating for special diplomatic interventions to protect the river and L. Victoria from pollution.
The river and the lake have outstanding value in East Africa, for they serve as a direct ecological and socioeconomic resource for an estimated population of 10 million people.
A local problem
Kasensero, Kikene, Kyabasimba, Sango Bay landing, Lambu and nearby sites in Masaka Region are the most affected. And to the local leaders and fishermen, it’s quite a daunting task to collect and dispose of the effluent from the lake and R. Kagera daily.
Joseph Kimera, the Kasensero Town Council councilor, also a fish trader, says the lake is currently undergoing risky changes due to the increasing dumping of refuse from the four countries.
While a small portion of plastics and polythene bags can be collected, burnt, or recycled by the locals, Kimera says much more continues flowing in from R. Kagera, making it hard to control.
As a result, he adds, the overwhelming pollution has hampered fishing activity and water transport. Weeds, plastics, and some chemicals discharged in the lake often cover the breeding places of different fish species such as the Nile perch, causing them to suffocate and die or to migrate to fresh and deeper waters.
“We have registered a significant increase of at least 50 tons of solid waste discharged in the lake through River Kagera daily compared to less than 10 tons every day in the last six years when the Uganda-Egypt Aquatic Weed Control project was operational,” Kimera says. This project was meant to fight mainly water hyacinth on the lake and other waterways but it concluded operations six years ago.
Environmentalists further say poor waste management leads to soil infertility since the polythenes and plastics prevent water filtration in the soil, air pollution when the waste is burnt, animal deaths when polythenes are ingested, and flooding since the water channels can be blocked and trap fish and other organisms.
According to Kimera, the local government ensures periodic collection of waste from the lake and the shores. However, the task involves heavy financial costs, yet the town council and the district have insufficient technical and financial resources to manage the frequent collection.
“During the [Uganda-Egypt Aquatic Weed Control] project, the water from River Kagera and the lake used to be clean since the aquatic weed and other forms of wastes would be trapped from entering Lake Victoria. The project workers would put a net across the river/channel to trap the waste, which would be pulled out by excavators. So the water in the lake used to be clean and the solid waste burden was less,” he says.
Kimera further appealed to the governments of Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda, and Tanzania to come up with a joint transborder initiative to fight plastics and chemical waste because the population is consistently growing along with the manufacturing of plastic products.
Fred Kwizera, the Kasensero Landing site Chairman, states that the uncontrolled pollution of the lake has critically affected the fishing activity since the plastic and weed cuts off the landing site and prevail over the fishing and breeding locations. In 2021, tons of Nile perch died due to lack of oxygen and this was attributed to the increasing floating vegetation, plastics and polythenes in the lake.
He says that they periodically mobilise financial resources and manpower to clear the weed, plastics and polythenes.
“In 2020 we had more than 450 fishing boats and 30 trucks, which used to take between five and seven tons of fish, mainly Nile perch, every week. But currently, we have around 250 boats due to the increasing fish scarcity, mostly Nile perch due to the increasing pollutants,” he recounts.
As a result, Kwizera said, the fishermen are forced to hunt for the fish in deeper water in Tanzania, where they’re arrested and their boats, engines, and fish are confiscated by the Tanzanian authorities. Conflicts between the Ugandan and Tanzanian fishermen have also resulted in deaths.
Besides the waste from River Kagera, Kwizera says, other plastic comes from the mainland in Uganda due to poor solid water management in Kasensero town council and lack of a buffer zone to control plastics and polythenes from coming near the lakeshores.
Jamiruh Kalanzi, the Founder of Mutaka Foundation, a Non-Governmental Organisation pushing for women and children’s rights, says that the plastic pollution on the shores of Lake Victoria has also escalated child labour through waste collection.
He explains that the problem is more in nine districts that form the Greater Masaka Region, especially in Kasensero, Lambu, Ddimo, Namirembe, and various other communities around the shores of L. Victoria.
“The problem largely affects children’s attendance and performance in class, since several skip school and engage in plastic and scrap collection to make money and some, to support their needy families,” Kalanzi recounts.
Kyotera District shares the same plight with Masaka and Kalangala. Ambrose Musasizi, the Kyotera District Communications Officer, says the district has no budget for solid waste management.
He says they rely on the Natural Resources department to lead campaigns to clean all forms of waste from the lake, shores and communities.
Impacts on fish species
Mark Olokotum, a research scientist at the National Fisheries Resources Research Institute (NaFIRRI), stresses that plastic pollution is a major concern for freshwater ecosystems, including Lake Victoria.
He explained that River Kagera has 9 major species from 11 families of fish that are affected when the river is polluted. These include the Nile perch, Blue spotted tilapia, Nile tilapia, Silver catfish, Nkejje (Haplochromine), and others.
As the number of fishermen has increased, their average catch of Nile perch in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania has declined significantly, according to a NaFIRRI report that will be released at the end of this year. This has affected the fishing sector in the three countries.
Regarding fish kills such as those that occurred in 2021, Olokotum explains that oxygen in the lake usually gets depleted due to consumption from fish and other aquatic organisms. During the day plants and phytoplankton produce oxygen, but during the night there is consumption of oxygen.
In addition, anaerobic bacteria within the water body, especially at the bottom, also consume oxygen all the time in water.
“Now when there’s increasing pollution, there’s increased turbidity and reduced aquatic productivity and hence reduced oxygen production. Yet the consumption of oxygen is not reducing at all (it is constant),” Olokotum noted.
The fish normally extract oxygen from water and it’s easier to do it in clean water but in dirty or turbid water, the fish gills might clog and the fish dies.
A 2020 scientific study on microplastic pollution in surface water of Lake Victoria conducted on the Ugandan side indicates that microplastic pollution of aquatic systems is a widely recognised environmental challenge.
The study was conducted in eight sites including Kagera, Kasensero, Ddimo, Katonga, Kasenyi, Gaba, Masese and Bwondha.
Microplastics are tiny plastic particles, products of the disintegration of large plastic materials.
The researchers, Robert Egessa, Angela Nankabirwa, Henry Ocaya, and Willy Gandhi Pabire, indicated that all the microplastics were secondary in nature, being derived from plastic materials utilised by the community, and that they pose a threat to water quality and fisheries of the lake.
Egessa, the principal researcher, says littering of the plastic wastes arising from the various activities on the lake and its shores was observed to be a contributing factor to the observed abundance of plastic debris in the lake.
Microplastics were detected in all sites with the concentration highest in areas of the lake characterised by intensive human activities.
Timothy Mugerwa, the Executive Director of Green Climate Campaign Africa (GCCF), says that the quality of water in L. Victoria is no longer fresh as it used to be some decades ago due to the increasing toxic chemicals and solid waste.
“Nowadays, microplastics are found in the fish and fish are dying of the pollution, which is largely costing the fishermen and the country’s economy,” he noted.
In August 2019, the World Health Organization released the first-ever report on microplastics in drinking water. The scientists looked at the potential human health effects of microplastics in the environment.
Specifically, the report examined whether the microplastics that have been found in lakes, rivers, wastewater and in drinking water have an impact on human health. The data indicated that microplastics are being ingested, something that has caused concern among consumers.
“If wastewater treatment and drinking water treatment systems are operated efficiently, then it can reduce the levels of microplastic sufficiently,” the report concluded.
The organization further suggests that additional research is needed to obtain a more accurate assessment of exposure to microplastics and their potential impacts on human health.
These include developing standard methods for measuring microplastic particles in water, more studies on the sources and occurrence of microplastics in freshwater, and the efficacy of different treatment processes.
From Kasensero near the Uganda-Tanzania border, the River Kagera drains into Lake Victoria. More plastic waste continues to enter the lake from landing sites in Uganda, including in Masaka, located about 130 kilometers southwest of the capital Kampala.
While some waste drains in from R. Kagera, Rose Nakyejjwe, the Masaka District Natural Resources Officer, says that most of the polythene bags that contaminate the lake are locally produced in Uganda because Rwanda and Tanzania banned the use of polythenes. A law was passed banning the use of plastic bags in Rwanda in 2008.
Almost all the efforts in managing plastic and polythene waste in Uganda are being spearheaded by NGOs because the natural resource department lacks enough financial resources. Nakyejjwe attributes poor waste management to the growing human population in trading centers and landing sites.
“Neither the district nor the sub-counties have a budget for waste management. It is the communities along the lakeshores that mobilize and collect the waste, both biodegradable and non-biodegradable, and dispose of it poorly. This ends up in the lake, rivers and water catchment areas due to knowledge and skill gaps in proper waste management,” she explains.
However, Antonio Kalyango, the Executive Director of the Biodiversity Conservation Forum, says their 2021 survey has established that the contamination of Lake Victoria was being worsened by all countries in the lake basin.
“In our survey, we discovered that various plastic bottles of product brands that are not imported into Uganda by River Kagera, majorly from Rwanda and Tanzania, were scattered across the shores of all landing sites. This confirms that there is serious transboundary pollution which needs special diplomatic attention,” he says.
In August 2021, environment advocates from Biodiversity Conservation Foundation, Green Climate Campaign Africa, and Fridays for Future Uganda in collaboration with Masaka District Environment Department launched a campaign to relieve Lake Victoria of solid waste, especially plastics and polythene bags.
The campaign started at Lambu landing site in Bukakata sub-county, Masaka district to foresee and increase solid waste collection on different landing sites across the Southern Region to ensure sustainable solid waste management and safety of the water.
Rashid Babu, the Manager of Mpongo Limited, which supervises Lambu landing site, says the group embarked on collecting plastic bottles and single-use plastic carrier bags around the landing site, but they are still challenged by the increasing usage and poor disposal of polythene bags.
“The river (Kagera) carries too much waste to our landing site and it’s upon us to collect it from the lake. We collect the plastic bottles and give them to Eco Brixs [a plastic recycling center] at a negotiable price and we burn the rest,” he says.
For the Bukakata ferry docking area, the water weed, plastic bottles, and polythene bags collection is jointly handled by the management of Lambu landing site and Kalangala Infrastructure Services. The measures have had some effect, as the lake shores are not littered by ferry passengers like they used to be three years ago.
John Baptist Lubega, the Ferry Operations Manager, noted several tons of trash and weed brought from the river is collected periodically. And to reduce the plastic and polythenes burden, Lubega says they have put strict rules on littering.
“We provided trash cans at the waiting bay and on the ferry. In addition, the garbage skips to collect what’s used by the passengers,” he explains.
Kalangala District is made up of seven sub counties: Kalangala Town council, Mugoye, Bujumba, Mazinga, Bubeke, Kyamuswa and Bufumira. The district encompasses the Ssese Islands within the lake.
But Rajab Ssemakulla, the Kalangala District Chairman, says only Kalangala Town council receives funding for waste management, which is why most of the plastic waste ends up in the lake and in the soil.
“The town council gets, on average, Ugx180,000,000 (Approx. $USD47,340) every year and this is support from the Netherlands to sensitise communities on how to manage waste,” he explains.
For plastic waste collection, Ssemakula notes that they rely on plastic collection groups and individuals who do it for a living.
“We have no budget for waste management except to burden the Natural Resources Department to undertake the responsibility of sensitizing and enforcing proper waste management in different communities,” he detailed.
As believed by Ssemakula, the approach is paying off although at a slow pace, since people have started sorting waste within their homes. While they keep the organic waste, they collect and sell plastics and then burn polythenes as the available option.
Harriet Saawo, the Kalangala District Natural Resources Officer, says they work with the Kalangala town council authorities in different solid waste management programs aimed at controlling the waste from sinking in the soil and entering water sources.
“The town council has put several garbage skips in different communities to ease the management of solid waste, mostly plastics and polythenes,” she explains.
Aquatic Weed Control Project
Through the Uganda-Egypt Aquatic Weed Control project (UEAWCP), the two governments have been a key player in the fight against waste and invasive plants such as the water hyacinth on L. Victoria, L. Albert, L. Kyoga, and River Kagera for several decades.
Between 2004 and 2010, the UEAWCP intensified mechanical weed control operations by installing machinery at the Kagera landing site area. They included two weed elevators, a multipurpose boat, a conveyer boat, dump trucks and other tools. Nine people were contracted to manage the machines.
The project employees would set up a net across the waterway to trap the aquatic weed, along with any plastics and polythenes that come with it, which they carried away with the collection trucks.
But in 2013, several weed elevators broke down and some were beyond repair. The Egyptians could not repair them due to lack of funds, hence abandoning them, according to the town council authorities.
There was another project that ended in December last year. But the 2021 flooding sparked by increased water levels in Lake Victoria also blocked their access to Kasensero and Kagera River, said Eng. Dominic Mucunguzi, the project coordinator in Uganda.
As a result, the river now openly carries tons of waste in all varieties into the lake.
Mucunguzi says they initially concentrated on the Nalubaale dam, Port Bell and Kamuwunga landing sites, which were invaded and blocked by the floating islands of water hyacinth and papyrus.
However, he adds, they are working out modalities to get funding from Egypt and other sources to resume operations by next year.
“We hope by early next year we shall be back to continue from where we stopped. We know how much the weed and other forms of waste pollute the water, fish breeding areas, causes flooding and how it interferes with navigation on the lake,” he says.
Beatrice Anywar, the Minister of State for Environment, says through NEMA (the National Environment Management Authority), the government of Uganda ensures regular sensitization of communities on plastic and polythene handling. They also license waste handlers who collect waste including plastics to avoid pollution of land and water sources. As of November 2021, NEMA had licensed more than 160 waste handlers (companies) to collect and sort waste across the country.
Anywar agrees the lake is heavily polluted from plastics and other sources, attributing it to pressures from population growth, urbanization, industrialization, lack of adequate waste disposal facilities, discharge of untreated or partially treated municipal and industrial wastewater, and inadequate systems for stormwater treatment.
She says there’s an increase in fertiliser and pesticide application in the catchment, settlement and cultivation on the lake shoreline and wetlands, lack of compliance to environmental laws, destruction of riparian wetlands and forests and poor physical planning in the lake basin.
The Ministry of Water and Environment has undertaken several projects to fight pollution.
“The ministry through the relevant departments and agencies is directly responsible for management of pollution into the lake backed by relevant policies, laws and regulations. With this, the polluter pays various permits and licenses,” Anywar adds, saying wastewater discharge permits are as well issued to cities, municipalities and town councils for discharge of effluent from municipal treatment plants and to industries that produce wastewater.
“Restoration of wetlands is being done since they are natural filters of the pollutants. So to restore wetlands around Lake Victoria, the land titles in wetlands especially in Kampala have been canceled and wetland demarcation has been done. Still, evictions in major wetlands throughout the country are ongoing,” the minister adds.
However, Frank Muramuzi, Executive Director of the National Association of Professional Environments and the chairman of East African Communities for the management of Lake Victoria, blames the government for also allegedly allowing the degradation of key wetlands and other natural resources. For instance, Lutembe wetland is degraded to pave way for a Ramsar farm, Lwera swamp for large-scale rice farming.
“It is the NEMA and Uganda National Bureau of Standards that are giving out licenses allowing the destruction of natural resources, manufacture and importation of various plastics or to develop the wetlands. So, unless they are checked, we cannot cure the problem,” he warned.
He notes that factories and other agricultural establishments near the lake continue discharging effluent right into the lake, thus polluting the water.
Muramuzi stresses the need for a regional approach to tackle plastic pollution in all the East Africa Member countries, especially to coordinate and draft policies and provide financial support for research and technological development toward efficient alternatives geared toward safeguarding the environment.
Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and Rwanda are already cooperating through the East African Community on various issues affecting the partner states. Cooperation on R. Kagera has been going on for several years.
For more than 5 years, the National Association of Professional Environments has been struggling to fight the unsustainable use and disposal of plastics especially plastic bags, but with little success despite having engaged different stakeholders including the communities, policymakers and government on the matter of plastic pollution of the lake.
Muramuzi says most consumer materials like cell phones, clothing, plastic bags, and household items all have components of plastics, which affect the environment once they are poorly discarded.
EcoBrixs recycling plastic waste in Uganda
Eco Brixs is a charity managing closed-loop recycling systems in Masaka, Uganda that promotes environment protection by collecting and reusing plastics from communities and L. Victoria.
The company collects, sorts and recycles plastics through making plastic bricks and pavers, buttons, tables, chairs, desks, concrete poles, dog houses, Covid-19 face shields, baskets, basins, animal troughs and frames, to list a few.
“Having the second life of these plastics by turning them into reusable products can lead us to a plastic-free environment and improve biodiversity conservation,” says the Eco Brixs Coordinator, Daniel Kayemba.
Eco Brixs also sorts and bales the plastics and sells them to international recycling companies in China, India and other countries.
Kayemba says the amount of refuse the three countries contribute through the river is overwhelming.
“Collection of the plastic waste from the lake requires huge funds and joint efforts from all stakeholders. Otherwise it may be too difficult to get rid of it as companies continue producing plastic bottled drinks,” he says.
Kayemba noted that some of the plastic bottles they collect from the lake and surrounding communities are not from the local market. Some brands come from Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi, while others have no labels and it’s hard to identify the origin.
Records at EcoBrixs show the organisation has set up 61 collection centers for plastic bottles, of which 25 were established in landing sites and shores of Lake Victoria.
At Lambu landing site, they collect a minimum of 32 and 40 tons of plastic bottles per month depending on the available funds. Kayemba explains that the biggest portion of the plastics and polythenes at Lambu is contributed by the residents.
At Kasensero and Kikonoka landing sites, respectively, every month Eco Brixs collects a minimum of 20 tons and 2 tons of plastic bottles. Namirembe landing site collects over 2 tons per week.
In Kalangala town council, the collection centre has a capacity to collect at least 7 tons of plastic bottles every week. However, Kayemba noted the tonnage could double or even triple with availability of enough financial resources to push regular collection activity. Eco Brixs conducts its operations in partnership with Masaka Diocese, Coca Cola, and other partners.
He says all East Africa governments and the companies that make and pack beverages in plastic bottles should care to sponsor and be part of every plastic collection from the lake, landing sites and the inside communities.
“We should all get involved in the campaign to save Lake Victoria from plastic pollution because we depend on it for our livelihood. And different measures should be thought of such as putting buffer zones of ten and 20 meters from the lake shore to prevent plastics and polythenes from reaching the shores,” he says.
The organization is trying to make plastics a source of income to the local communities, whereby people are paid to collect and take the plastics to the collection centers.
While there has been a rise in child labour linked to plastic collection, Kayemba says that Eco Brixs doesn’t allow children to collect plastics on their behalf.
Uganda and Tanzania cross-border conservation project
In 2021, a three-year joint campaign dubbed ‘Cross-border Cooperation and Conservation (Triple C project)’ was launched to strengthen environmental conservation, combat the rampant cross-border environmental crimes, and improve people’s livelihoods in Uganda and Tanzania. The project activities include training border communities in proper waste management, environment-friendly agriculture, and conservation.
The project worth 900,000 euros (Appx. Shs3.4 billion) is spearheaded by Caritas MADDO, the Masaka Diocesan Development Organisation in Uganda, and funded by Italy and Australia under the European Region (EUREGIO).
Dr. Stephen Makula, the District Livestock and Fisheries Officer Kagera Region, Tanzania, told New Vision that the project is relevant to several communities in Kagera in terms of environmental conservation.
He noted that they are aiming to conserve the ecosystem and promote proper waste management to save the water bodies from any form of pollution.
Makula noted that it’s difficult to battle cross-border environmental challenges without strengthening cooperation with the neighbouring countries with which they share a similar plight.