Local Water and Environment

Nyamwamba River Water Contamination by Kilembe Copper Tailings: A threat to people and livestock


KASESE: Better known to the rest of Uganda and the world for its perennial devastating flooding and subsequent displacement of people, River Nyamwamba in Kasese district is gaining notoriety for stealthily “eating away” at people and livestock to whom it’s a source of water.

At risk are nearly one million people and animals that are oblivious to the contamination of the river from copper tailings that it soaks in from the abandoned Kilembe mines as it snakes its way across mid-western Uganda.

Flowing from the snow-capped Mount Rwenzori, Nyamwamba (River) transcends the various blocks of the mountain, finding its way through Kilembe and Kasese towns and pouring her contaminated waters to lakes Edward and George.

Video Clip showing down stream Nyamwamba River. Clip by Alex Baluku.

This substantial and natural source of water for people who live in Kasese District and its immediate vicinity, which spans a total catchment area of 72 square kilometres, has been proven to contain copper metals that pose a serious health threat to locals.

In August 2019, during the cancer run activities in Kasese town, this mid-western Ugandan district with only about 1.8 per cent of Uganda’s total population of 40 million was highlighted as having contributed 50 percent of cancer patients at the Nsambya hospital’s oncology unit. 

Yeresi Biira, a palliative care nursing specialist with Cancer and Aids Relief Organisation (CARO), says that if the accumulation of cancer cases is not arrested today, by 2025 many people from the region could be diagnosed with the disease.

Jafali Kigutiya, the Local Council One Chairperson for Basecamp Lower village in Basecamp parish, Kasese district, says whenever most of the people in his area of jurisdiction drink water from River Nyamwamba, they develop abdominal complications. 

“Some of the people from my area develop problems with their intestines and when they visit clinics, they are warned by medical staff from using water from River Nyamwamba,” he stated.

Kigutiya added that most cattle keepers and farmers in Base-camp Lower have always complained over the continued death of their animals.

He says in May 2020, a total of 42 goats and cows died due to gut perforation in their bellies, a complication they developed after drinking water from River Nyamwamba. 

Cows drinking from the contaminated waters of River Nyamwamba. Photo By Alex Baluku.

The Central Division Health Inspector, Habibu Mubibu, confirmed the reports, saying that he has been receiving calls from people complaining about the death of their animals that had consumed water containing suspected toxins that threaten human and animal life.

In an interview with this online publication, Dr. Abraham Mwesige, an environmental toxicologist from the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences at Makerere University in Kampala, says that they have in recent years carried out studies about the pollution of River Nyamwamba and found that high levels of metal concentrates, including copper, cobalt, arsenic, zinc and nickel, remain present in most of the water sources and agricultural products in the Nyamwamba valley.

Kilembe Mines-Tunnel. File Photo.

Dr. Mwesige also asserts that the tailings have not only exposed humans to danger but also livestock and the environment. 

According to Dr Mwesige, their research involved collecting samples of soil, water, yams, forage, and toenails from the communities in Kilembe and the downstream of Nyamwamba Valley. Those samples were then analyzed at the school of biosciences, Nottingham University, in the United Kingdom.


The recent assessment report conducted in 2019/2020 by the ministry of water and Environment indicated that metal concentrates were above the rural water drinking limits of 0.05mg/l.

The acting Principal Water Analyst at the Ministry of Water and Environment, Stephen Emor, says the river quality total heavy metal load was determined using international Standards Organization (ISO) methods and for digestion analysis Inductively coupled plasma (ICP).  

The Inductively Coupled Plasma (ICP) is an ionization source that fully decomposes a sample into its constituent elements and transforms those elements into ions.

He elaborated that traces of Manganese (Mn), copper (Cu), and cobalt (Cr0, were found to be high in the discharges from the mines and streams close to discharge points. 

Chat showing heavy metal concentrates from upstream to downstream Nyamwamba River in Kasese district.

Two points of pollution along the Nyamwamba river (Nyarusenghe discharge point and Discharge point from Kilembe mines (4300ft.) are clearly observed

The concentration of heavy metals at tail race and the stockpiles were low due to absence of visible erosion during the visit. The situation may be different during heavy rains when erosion is high.

“The human activities eroding the copper stock tailings and untreated discharge from Kilembe mines underground mine into River Nyamwamba are potential source of pollution into River Nyamwamba and other water bodies downstream,” the report reveals.

The study found that water from tributaries flowing into River Nyamwamba, located outside the mine and tailing zone, also contain elevated concentrations of heavy metals, exceeding recommended drinking water thresholds for Fe (38%), Ni and Mn (13%).

“Heavy metals and trace elements found upstream of River Nyamwamba and in the tributaries possibly originate from geological weathering, attributed to area mineralogy and geology,” Mwesigye adds.

Dr. Benard Balyana, the Medical Superintendent at Kilembe Mines Hospital in Kasese Municipality, said consumption of metal concentrates can cause cancer to the whole colon system, including liver, blood and gastro-intestinal cancer, as well as abdominal complications.

“Drinking water contaminated with heavy metals concentrations such as copper, cobalt, Aluminum, nickel zinc and iron show that it has potential to cause human respiratory cancer,” Dr. Balyana says.

Dr. Benjamin Mwesige, the Head of Research at Uganda Cancer Institute, told our reporter that the institute is alarmed by the increasing number of cancer patients from Rwenzori and Kasese. When asked what could be the cause of the rising cases, he attributed this to pollution of both food and water. 

Dr Mwesige adds that different people develop cancers depending on; age, immune system robustness, co-mobilities.

Pie Chart Showing top prevailing cancer cases in Uganda.

In the 1950s, Frobisher Limited and Venture Limited, all Canadian mining companies, formed a joint project code-named “Kilembe Mines Limited” with an aim of mining copper from underground in Kasese district of mid-western Uganda.

However, after 32 years of operation, copper extraction ceased due to a number of reasons, including dilapidated equipment, high inflation and insecurity.

According to Alex Kwatampora, a Geologist and former plant manager for Kilembe Mines Limited, mining and processing of copper left over 15 metric tons of copper tailings containing cupriferous and cobaltiferous pyrite dumped within the Nyamwamba River Valley, thus exposing communities and the environment to contamination.

Copper tailings refer to the waste rock that remains after ore has been processed to remove the copper. It is usually pulverized to the size of fine sand. 

Spills of copper tailings in the Nyamwamba Valley. Photo By Alex Baluku.

The Nyamwamba river, which originates from the melting glaciers of Rwenzori Mountains, flows through Kilembe Mines, where most of the copper tailings drain into the water, and continues at least 15 kilometres downstream from the mines before branching into River Rukoki, which empties directly into Lake George that also connects to Lake Edward through the Kazinga Channel in Kasese district. 

Lake Edward also connects to River Semuliki, which also empties into Lake Albert, meaning that the pollution of River Nyamwamba affects the fish quality on  three lakes and, subsequently, the consumers.

Faustine Ngabirano is a farmer. This reporter encountered her near St. Peters Primary School, just a few metres from River Nyamwamba in Nyamwamba Division of Kasese Municipality. 

Ngabirano cultivates beans, maize, and vegetables, among other crops. She says that together with other farmers in the valley, they have faced a number of challenges whenever the river bursts its banks. She narrates that every time the river floods, a lot of water containing impurities from Kilembe mines spills over to their gardens and their crops wilt. 

Ngabirano says this has continued to worry them as farmers and people who are using Nyamwamba River for domestic use. The river supports life and agriculture through irrigation in the Mubuku irrigation scheme.

However, studies indicate that the river is contaminated with high concentrations of heavy metals from the copper tailings eroded into the water body’s valley from Kilembe Mines, forcing residents to call for an urgent action.

When this reporter toured the Nyamwamba valley, he discovered and realized that some of the stones in the river have turned from their original white colour to brown. Ngabirano explained that this happens when the water levels in river Nyamwamba drop, but added that the other stones on the bank of the river remain white, which is an indication that copper might have turned the other stones to brown.

Stones in River Nyamwamba Valley have changed color. Photo By Alex Baluku.

Mr. Alex Kwatampora, a Geologist, says the old stock piles from the mines, which were initially run by Canadian copper-mining companies, Frobisher limited and ventures in July 1950 were initially covered with vegetation.

“Since the companies left in 1982, in 2013 after nearly 30 years of dormancy and after several failed attempts to privatize the mine, the population has been encroaching on this area for settlement and cultivation, leading to erosion into water systems,” Kwatampora said.

He adds that following the closure of the mines, the resultant breakdown of the pipe network and lack of maintenance of underground mining for a long time has seen water containing cupriferous pyrites escape into public water sources.

He says Tibet Hima Mining Company, which was contracted to resume mining between 2013 and 2021 also left the stock piles even more openly exposed.


Ngabirano, a 55-year-old mother of four, who this reporter found ploughing her garden in the Nyamwamba valley, says that the valley feeds most of the occupants in Kasese municipality and pointed out that feeding on contaminated water has a very big impact on people’s lives. She quickly calls for massive sensitization. 

Farmer Faustine Ngabirano in her garden in the Nyamwamba Valley in Kasese Municipality. Photo By Alex Baluku.

Currently, there is water scarcity in Kasese Town and communities are only receiving water on some days, forcing them to rely on Nyamwamba river to collect water for domestic use. 

Dr Yusuf Baseka, the Kasese District Health Officer, also asserts that  there are a lot of research studies that have been done on the public water system in Kasese and findings indicate a lot of acidic metals in River Nyamwamba, River Mubuku and River Rwimi.

“So, we are telling people to desist from drinking it but to use the few safe water supply sources,” Dr Baseka says.

A social survey conducted in 2021 by Makerere University Students, which Dr. Mwesigye participated in, established that more than half of the households in Kilembe (51%) depended on tap water, 38% on the river Nyamwamba while 11% collected water from community water sources such as streams, water wells and gravity water systems.

Peter Ebwati, the National Water and Sewerage Corporation’s Manager in Kasese district, says that the water supply has reduced by nearly half in the last three months, from 3,700 cubic meters per day to less than 2,400 cubic metres per day, which has been compounded by the persistent dry spell that has seen many rivers dry up.

Women wait to fill a long line of jerrycans at a tap in Kiteso, Kasese Municipality. Photo by Alex Baluku.

Ms Fazila Kabugho, a 30-year-old mother of four, says for some good time, they have been trekking for several kilometres to fetch water from River Nyamwamba, since most taps have dried up.

“Some people who can’t brave walking for kilometres to River Nyamwamba resort to getting water from unsafe sources of water like drainage channels,” Kabugho says. 

Judith Ithungu, 33, a mother to six and resident of Umoja in Nyamwamba Division, says the lack of clean water and lamentations about pollution of River Nyamwamba has persisted for long but government has paid a deaf ear to the cries of the locals.

“Lack of water for drinking and domestic use is now the biggest challenge since we have been warned against using water from River Nyamwamba yet it is the only major source of water. It has been on for years but there is no hope since we have sought intervention but no response at all,” she lamented.

Access to safe water in Kasese district is about 60 percent on average, varying from 18 percent in Kyondo Sub-County to 95 percent in Ihandiro Sub-County, according to the Ministry of Water and Environment’s Water Supply Atlas. The district has 3,345 domestic water points which serve almost 500,000 people, meaning that every water point serves 149 people. 

Rural water functionality is at about 80 percent, and 578 water points have been non-functional for more than 5 years, the government reported. About half of the non-functioning water points were not operating due to low yield.

Column Chart showing safe clean water in Kasese.

The types and amount of pollution presented in drinking water will vary depending on which body part they have entered, contamination of water source, water treatment processes, or when the water is delivered to users. 

He adds that there are a lot of studies that have been done especially in industrialized countries like Japan, Korea, India and in Uk and USA that confirmed a relationship between heavy metals and cancer, especially cancer of the lining of the lungs, gastric stomach and colon.

What should be done?

Evelyn Mugume, the Kasese Municipal Senior Environment Officer, says there are a lot of research studies that have been done on the public water system in Kasese and findings indicate a lot of acidic metals in River Nyamwamba, River Mubuku and River Rwimi.

Evelyn Mugume, the Kasese Municipal Senior Environment Officer. Photo By Alex Baluku.

According to Dr. Mwesige, Uganda as a country needs to do research to clearly cut out the cancer relationship with copper, cobalt and iron ores in Kasese public water.

He says the research/study ought to monitor heavy metals in the food chains, especially in the water sources around Kasese and Rwenzori at large, as well as in the meat and vegetables that locals eat. 

Dr. Benard Balyana suggested that Kilembe mines and government should come up with better enforcement measures for proper waste disposal and local people living near the disposal prone areas of Kilembe, Katiri and Bulembia should be sensitized on dangers of using polluted waters sources so that they can make informed decisions.

Also, there is need for construction of containment structures around all copper tailing sites and landfilling to protect the soils.

According to Kwatampora, initially, when Kilembe Mines was fully operational, the underground water used to be properly managed through a well-maintained pipe system.

This water is filled with numerous underground minerals the reason to why underground waters should properly managed through a well-maintained pipe system.

Now, the geologist says there is an urgent need to treat the underground waters in Kilembe mines before they are left to flow into Nyamwamba.

During a ministerial visit to Kilembe Mines in 2021, Prof. Ephraim Kamuntu, the minister of water and environment, said that there is a need to adopt corresponding water management policies to reduce the harm caused by water pollution to human health.

Prof Kamuntu added that there should be focus on water quality at the point of use, with interventions to improve water quality, including chlorination and safe storage and provision of treated and clean water. However, since the Minister’s visit, nothing has been done apart from desilting of the River that is currently being done by Ambitious Construction Company Limited. The exercise is an emergency mitigation measure against the damage of critical infrastructure and loss of livelihoods whenever the river floods.

Kamuntu had also suggested that in order to reduce the cancer impacts of water pollution, supervision of water quality should be strengthened, especially on the purity of water sources, the scientific nature of water treatment and the effectiveness of the drinking water monitoring, plus community sensitization on control of source pollution from production, transportation and consumption.

However, findings from this investigations indicate that the ministry is yet to address their own supremo’s concerns or implement his proposals. It remains to be seen when the authorities will eventually wake up to the threat posed by the contamination of River Nyamwamba to the animals and people who depend on the waterway.

This story was published with funding from the Uganda Editors Guild.

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