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Ugandan river dying from pollution

The Rwizi River in western Uganda, with various tributaries crisscrossing different districts, pours its water into Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest freshwater lake.

But the river is dying.

For World Rivers Day on March 14, with many people settling on the banks of the river, there has been an increase in land use activities and practices, some of which have affected the ecological situation, posing a risk of degradation.

Mustafa Kihogo from Mbarara said 20 years ago, it was hard to cross the river because of the huge volume of water, but today, the water has been significantly reduced.

The National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) said about 60% of Rwizi River catchment has been degraded, resulting in reduced water volumes.

“Encroachment on wetlands and runoff from degraded hills due to poor agricultural practices have accelerated disposal of soil into the river, leading to silting up and reduced water volume,” said Jeconious Musingwire, Mbarara’s NEMA senior environment support officer.

A recent report by NEMA found that farming, bricklaying, open defecation and littering along Rwizi’s banks have extensively polluted the river and caused clogging.

The biggest polluters include major industries, hotels and higher institutions of learning based in Mbarara, which pollute it with pesticides and agricultural wastes from farmers, industrial wastes from Coca-Cola, Nile breweries, waste products from the iron and steel industries and waste from Mbarara Regional Referral Hospital, among others.

Interventions

Musingwire said through stakeholder engagements, there are ongoing interventions to restore the river’s catchment and water level.

He said Nile Breweries has erected gabion walls at its plant in Mbarara to stabilize the river banks and stop loose soils from collapsing into the river.

Nile Breweries’ environment and safety manager at the Mbarara plant, Adam Emaru, confirmed the measure. “The gabions stabilize the banks to stop the silting and also stabilize the water levels to enable us to monitor its volume. We have as well erected metering pillars to monitor the water flow. Readings of the water levels are taken daily for analysis,” he said.

Other partners like the World Wild Fund (WWF) are working to conserve the river. At least 1 kilometer of the river bank has been restored with planted bamboo as a sustainable land management intervention to reduce encroachment and degradation of the banks.

In addition, water conservation structures that include earth and stone bunds, retention beaches, gabions and trenches in the upland catchment areas of the river have been constructed to increase water storage in the soil so that water is available in wet and dry seasons.

Katongole Hadija, an environment lecturer at Kampala International University, told Anadolu Agency the steps could not be sustainable if there was no enforcement of laws and policies to protect the river.

“It is very important to educate people to understand the hazardous effects of polluting the river. Otherwise, they will not pay heed to prevent it. Once that is effectively done, the existing policies and laws on the management of water resources need to be strictly implemented. The river’s catchment areas such as swamps, which have been destroyed by people in proximity to the river, should be reclaimed and put in place collaborative management to prevent a repeat of the same,” she said.

Government intervention

To save the river, the Ministry of Water and Environment has issued a buffer zone of 100 meters (328 feet) from the banks along its 25-kilometer (16-mile) stretch in Mbarara and other affected districts.

Ministry spokesman Charles Muwonge said the government has undertaken statutory decisions to fight further degradation of the environment and restore degraded areas across the country by way of canceling all land titles in wetlands.​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

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