Local Water and Environment

Urbanization Threatens Rivers: Mpanga in Fort-Portal, Nyamwamba in Kasese

By 2021, about 609 million people in Africa lived in urban centers. This is predicted to increase to 722 million by 2026. The rapid population growth in urban centers, like in other areas, if not well planned for, hurts natural resources nearby.

In particular, urbanization has been blamed for polluting urban rivers.

With support from InfoNile, Joel Kaguta investigates how urbanization of Kasese Municipality is hurting Nyamwamba River and if Fort Portal City’s growth is threatening River Mpanga.

Is river Mpanga polluted in Fort Portal city?

River Mpanga snakes through Fort Portal city, Kabarole, Bunyangabu, Kyenjojo and Kamwenge districts before it empties into Lake George, a Ramsar site.

River Mpanga flows about 200 km, with an altitude ranging from 1,700 m (source area) to 914 m (Lake George), and crosses Kabarole, Kyenjojo and Kamwenge districts.

Because of pollution of the river, there is declining water levels observed in the river most of the time especially during dry season, as well as Lake George where the river pours its waters, reduce the overall breeding capacity and are detrimental to nursery sites of some fish species which have affected Lake George productivity (Water Resource Assessment for river Mpanga, 2009).

The Water Resource Assessment shows that the water quality in Mpanga River downstream in Fort Portal is heavily impacted by discharge of organic waste water. Further downstream, the water quality improves (due to the purification capacity of Kibale Forest), however in Kamwenge, the turbidity is one of the highest in the country.

Mpanga River plays a key role in the existence and conservation of Kibale National Park. The river flows through different wetlands for which it also plays an important role in maintaining the environmental value.

Who pollutes the river?

As the river flows from ranges of Mount Rwenzori, in Kabarole district, it is being polluted by several human activities largely in Fort Portal city which has left many projects uncertain of their future because it is their source of water.

Urban Development along River Mpanga(2003&2023)

Some of main consumers of water from River Mpanga include, a Shs 27 billion water for production for Rwegaju located in Karangura sub county, Kabarole, National Water and Sewerage Corporation plant in Fort Portal, Mpanga power hydro plant located in Kamwegye district.

Many developers in Fort Portal without permission have constructed structures along the river banks of Mpanga and this has resulted in the river to burst its banks during the rainy season causing flooding.

For the last 10 years, the authorities in the fort portal have been trying to remove the washing bay along the river banks, stop making culverts near the river banks in vain.

The Fort Portal city, senior physical planner, Mr Samuel  Usana, said many developers have been served with many notices and warnings to stop their construction in the river banks of Mpanga in vain and they decided to start demolishing their structures.

He said the majority of developers don’t have building plans and environmental impact assessment reports approved by authorities.

Last year, the authorities in the city led by former Fort Portal City Resident Commissioner, Mr Godwin Angalia Kasiigwa and other enforcement officers carried out an operation and demolished some structures near the river banks, other construction sites halted while other developers were asked to record statements to police of Fort Portal city.

“We have been giving them warning to stop constructing and they refused to comply. Instead they build at night and as authorities we had to make enforcement, we are working on a physical development plan that will help us to address all these issues,” Musana said.

Among the structures that was demolished were at Hakabale which is about four meters away from the river banks of Mpanga according to authorities which forced officials to demolish it and ordered for his reporting to police as he ran away from the site and his workers after seeing city officials.

During the operation some of the developers were halted until they provided all required documents.

Increased  Water Treatment Costs

The authorities at National Water and Sewerage Corporation, Fort Portal branch have expressed concern over the increasing operation costs in the treatment of water they get from River Mpanga as they attribute the problem to pollution of the river.

The Fort Portal NWSC branch manager, Mr Denis Muramuzi, said River Mpanga which is their only source of water is currently polluted due to many human activities along the river.

“Previously we had two water treatment units but because they could not manage to continue treating water due to pollution, we were forced to build another treatment water plant at a cost of Shs 3 billion,” He said.

He said water pollution is always high during the rainy season which affects the water quality which requires a lot of chemicals for treating water.

“During rainy season we only get sand from the river into our water treatment plants, the river carries sand mixed with water instead of water, and at times we are forced to close the treatment plant,” He said.

Mr Muramuzi said, during the rainy season they need to backwash the water treatment unit more than three times a day which consumes a lot of electricity and in a month they spend Shs 100 million electricity bills.

The senior quality officer at Fort Portal branch, Mr John Onencan, said due to pollution of the river during the rainy season from the month of August to November, the cost of operation on treatment of water doubled from Shs 22 million to Shs 40 million.

Mr Muramuzi said every year they use 40 tons of sand which they buy from Entebbe and use it in the treatment water.

Poor land use practices on River Banks

Officials at the branch said during the rainy season, in one week they use 4 tins of chlorine while during dry season they use 3 tins an each tin is 45 kilograms.

After every three days during the dry season they mix 10 bags of Aluminium sulphate but in the rainy season they increase to 15 bags.

For one dose of Aluminium sulphate solution is mixed with 15-20 milligrams per liter of water but increases to 25-30 milligrams per liter during the rainy season.

Polymer chemical which is in liquid form, during the dry season, a day they use 5 milligrams per litter while during the rainy season it increases from between 10 to 15 milligrams per liter. Each drum of olymer weighs 250 kilograms.

The Team Leader Water and Sanitation Regional Center 5, Ministry of Water and Environment, Mr Sam Tusiime, said pollution of the river is largely due to poor land use practices on the banks of the river which is affecting the water quality.

“Our recent assessment along the river Mpanga, we found out that many people don’t have toilets which means there is open defecation and our water treatment plants are always overwhelmed by dirtiness and we have recommended that people should stop staying in buffer zones of the river of 50 meters,” He said.

The senior environment officer Fort Portal city, Ms Gladys Natugonza Mirembe, said they have started an operation of demolishing all illegal structures along the river banks as one of conserving the river.

“All those people who don’t have river banks user permits, their structures along the river Mpanga have been demolished, we are continuing to give others notices such that they can stop their activities,” She said.

Mr Muramuzi, said they are now partnering with city leaders and NGOs to continue planting trees along the river banks.

River Mpanga water is being used by many users. In Karangura Sub County, Kabarole district, the government established a Shs 27 billion water for production plant to help farmers in Rwegaju model Sub County.

In Kamwenge district, there is power generation for Mpanga hydro power.

In Fort Portal city, last year the authorities embarked on restoration plans to conserve river Mpanga and other wetlands in the city by demolishing all illegally built structures to conserve them that are currently under the threat of extinction of encroachment.

The Fort Portal city, senior physical planner, Mr Samuel Musana, said many developers have been served with many notices and warnings to stop their construction in the river banks of Mpanga in vain and they decided to start demolishing structures.

He said the majority of developers don’t have building plans and environmental impact assessment reports approved by authorities.

Among the structures that were demolished were at Hakabale near river Mpanga.

After elevation of Fort Portal into a tourism city status in 2020, the city has been experiencing a number of developments in infrastructures which authorities say some don’t have approved plans that threaten the extinction of wetlands around the city.

The most affected areas where developers are freely claiming wetlands include Kitembe, Butagwa, Kyabikokoni, river banks of Mpanga and Mugunu all in the central division of the city.

The NEMA laws state that any development must be implemented at least 100 meters away from any water body or wetland.

In less than five years, wetland encroachment river banks degradation in the new city has risen as the city expands, with Kitembe, Rwengoma and Butangwa wetlands.

Other gazetted wetlands facing encroachment include Nyakimya and Nyadoi and Kalamaga.

Residents have since said as a result of continued degradation of wetlands, the weather pattern in the area has changed drastically in the last five years.

In the past years, the area used to experience fog from morning up to midday and a lot of rain throughout the year but these days it is no more as climate change takes its toll due to destruction of wetlands.

The newly drafted Fort Portal city physical development plan, once completed, helps in zoning the city by identifying places for Human Settlements like Urban Settlements, Agriculture, Crops Specialization, Industry and Manufacturing sector , Minerals  development,  Tourism development, Natural resources Conservation and environmental protection Utilities Development.

Is the development of Kasese municipality costing Nyamwamba River?

It is about 40 years since the mining of copper at Kilembe Mines in Bulembia Division of Kasese Municipality was halted due to political instabilities and price fluctuations. But up to now, a person who was born 40 years ago within the valley is still suffering the penalty of toxic waste.

Even, the generation to come if nothing is not done; they will be exposed to the health risks of water contamination.

A number of researches have been conducted showing that high levels of metal concentrates including copper, cobalt, nickel, zinc and arsenic remain present in both agricultural soils and public water sources.

An example is Dr Abraham Mwesigye, an environmental toxicologist at the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, Makerere University, who discovered that the waste water from Kilembe mine was not treated to remove heavy metal, thus exposing the environment to contamination.

The researcher believes that the minerals are causing danger not only to the community but also the livestock and environment within the valley.

Dr. Bosco Bwambale, a PHD Environmental lecturer at Mountain of the Moon University in Uganda’s western City of Fort-Portal defined pollution of Mpanga and Nyamwamba rivers in Anthropogenic activities.

For Nyamwamba, Dr. Bwambale explained that Kilembe mines limited plays a big role in polluting the river.  About 15 dumping sites for copper tailings were established to pile the residuals during the good production period of the mine until the production was halted in 1982.

But, quite often, the copper tailings have been eroded into the river shade when Nyamwamba burst its banks. Alex Kwatampora, the former Manager for Tibet Hima, a Chinese company that had won the concession to revamp the mine says about 1.2 million tons of copper tailings from Dam C have been eroded into the river. This, according to him, poses a big threat to the water system of river Nyamwamba.

Kwatampora, who also doubles as the Managing Director for Mpora Geo-tech Consultants Limited stationed in Kasese town added that he participated in many researches within the Nyamwamba valley.

According to Kwatampora, their research findings showed that there are high levels of metal concentrates including copper, cobalt, nickel; zinc and arsenic present in both agricultural soils and public water sources.

An untreated toxic waste from Kilembe mines underground has continuously joined the main river. This poses a health threat and slowly, stones within the river valley are changing yellowish and blackish.

So, Kwatampora explains that the continued disposing of untreated industrial effluents in the river channel directly leads to alteration of river quality.

“The oxygen in the Nyamwamba River does not meet standards due to both industrial and agricultural discharges”, Kwatampora said.

So, the pollution caused by the mine alone is not standing alone as the only polluter of Nyamwamba but also there is a lot of agricultural activities, damming and sand mining that are taking place within the river shade.

When this reporter visited the river, he was welcomed by women and children who were washing their domestic utensils like sauce pans, clothes into the river without fearing that they would be implicated or arrested.

The families live about two meters away from the flowing river.

Jonoles Muthethu, an elder replied this writer that washing into the river has been a common culture for decades and they have never seen anyone cautioning them. “Me personally, I have been coming here to wash my clothes and plates, why are you asking me”, Muthethu asked?

One thing in the National Environmental Management Authority-NEMA regulation under the National Environment Act No. 5 of 2019 is to protect the 200 meters buffer zone.

But, the enforcement of the law specifically by NEMA and Environment police has not been implemented along the river channel.

Mr. Peter Baluku, a resident of Nyamwamba East in Kasese Municipality says that the NEMA’s regulation cannot be applicable. According to Baluku, lack of enough land is a big challenge.

“People have not enough pieces of land so living a distance of about 200 meters away from their own land just to protect the river cannot be applicable”, Mr. Baluku said.

Kasese district as general is multi-prone to dryness. The conditions push people closer to the rivers to look for moisture that can support their subsistence farming.

This has prompted the same farmers to pesticides when the climatic conditions vary. So, the consistent use of fertilizers poses a big threat to the downstream water bodies like Lake George.

Bwambale states that prevention is cheaper than treating the water when it is polluted. According to Bwambale, below river Nyamwamba, there is another water body which really cannot allow water reaching there to be treated since it will be posing a threat to the aquatic life in the water body.

Also, Bwambale attributes the pollution of River Nyamwamba to soil erosion which erodes and causes siltation. Bwambale says the issue makes it easy for even the little precipitation to easily cause bursting of river banks.

The locals reveal that the water’s temperatures always change downstream, every time a water reservoir that was constructed upstream river Nyamwamba by Nyamwamba EMS Company is opened.

For, Mpanga River, Dr. Bwambale says the main activities include sand mining, stone quarrying.  He adds that when it meanders through Fort portal City, there are groups of people who established tree nursery beds within the river course.

Also a number of washing bays have been established along the River, all pouring their effluents in the water.

Evelyne Mugume, the Kasese Municipal Environmental Officer explains that homes adjacent to River Nyamwamba pollute the river by constructing their latrines along the river valley.

Mugume is worried that the pollution of River Nyamwamba does not affect the people within the valley but also those who share the water from the same river.

River Nyamwamba pours into Lake George and it is connected to Lake Edward through the Kazinga Channel and these connect to Semuliki and Albert.

Selevest Kule Walyuba, a conservationist proposes that the people neighboring rivers should be trained on how to apply sustainable farming to avoid accelerating water runoffs which are polluting rivers in the district.

Dr. Bwambale implores the National Environment Management Authority to sensitize the farmers about their roles in polluting the river and how they can prevent it.

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