Plastic Pollution of Lake Victoria in Uganda: Who is to Blame?

At Ggaba, heaps of polythene bags and plastic bottles litter the shores of the once-pristine lake.

Robert Egesa, Angella Nankabirwa Henry Ocaya and Willy Gandhi Pabire, in their 2020 study on microplastic pollution in surface water of Lake Victoria, indicate that polyethylene, often used in bags, wrappers and films, contributes 60 percent of analysed microplastic particles, thus making it the biggest of the plastic pollutants of Lake Victoria. Lake Victoria is the world’s largest tropical lake, a massive 26,828-square mile water body shared by Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania.

In her article; ‘Setting Sail on Lake Victoria to Beat Plastic Pollution,’ Hannah Evans of the Flipflopi plastic revolution expedition lays out various scientific studies that indicate that plastics are found ubiquitously in the lake’s fish, impacting the health of humans and the ecosystem.

Early this year, an investigation was launched on the unsustainable human activities leading to the problem at the major landing sites along the lake in Kampala, Ggaba and Port Bell,where plastic pollution is rampant. Is plastic pollution intentional or it is done unknowingly? Who is responsible for protecting the lake from pollution? What can be done to eradicate the said unsustainable human activities?

The Situation At Hand

Ggaba Landing Site: The Big Elephant in the Room

About 11 kilometers southeast of the Kampala city center is a bustling lakeside community that has for generations lived in harmony with the waters and resources of Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest freshwater lake. Ggaba and the nearby Port Bell communities are the two major landing sites on the shores of Murchison Bay, which provides much of the drinking water for Kampala city. But today, burgeoning populations that rely on throwaway plastics are threatening the health of the lake - and the humans that rely on it.

At Ggaba, heaps of polythene bags and plastic bottles litter the shores of the once pristine lake. Which of the two landing sites contributes more to the problem?

Based on the writer’s observation, between the two landing sites visited, Ggaba is the bigger culprit, contributing more plastics especially polythene bags to the lake and its shores compared to Port Bell. Due to the dense population, there are more recreation and business activities at this landing site, such as boat riding, sightseeing and fish eating. In Ggaba market, scores of vendors converge to sell fish, food and snacks, drinks, second hand clothes and shoes.

Christopher Mutyaba, who is in charge of managing hygiene at Ggaba Landing Site Fisheries Department, said the landing site is home to more than 25,000 residents. The landing site was first established in the 1950s but was a small community until the 1990s, when the booming fishing business attracted more people from neighbouring districts such as Mukono and Wakiso. Population has been growing exponentially: Just two years ago, the landing site had only 15,000 residents, Mutyaba said.

Hassan Bogere, the fishermen chairman and tax collector in Port Bell , says there are more than 10,000 traders at the landing site, and 75 percent of them are women. The major businesses they engage in are food vending and fish mongering. Most of the plastic polluters are grocery shops, he said.

According to several traders and residents, most local residents know that it’s harmful to throw plastics in the lake for their health and that of the ecosystem, but find it difficult to stop.

Gerald Tumukwasiibwe, a trader from Kabale, western Uganda, sells goods in Ggaba Market. He said he packs his passion fruits in polythene bags to give to his customers.  Though he tries to advise his customers to avoid littering with the bags.

“I advise those listening to me to keep the polythene bags well. If you are serving your customer, tell them to handle the polythene bags with care not throwing them everywhere,” Tumukwasiibwe said.

Aidah Byamukama, a shopkeeper who has spent more than 15 years at the landing site in the same business, says that the residents try to avoid depleting the lake with polythene bags and plastic water bottles, their tops and sealing materials, but at times they are overwhelmed. She said that however much Kampala Capital City Authority regularly comes and takes their garbage for disposal, there is always more plastic waste than can be handled.

Byamukama urged the government to establish more garbage collection facilities to lessen the deluge of waste.

At Port Bell, several kilometers north of Ggaba at the tip of the bay, the situation is not as bad, according to this journalist’s observation.

Marion Akankunda, a bartender in an establishment a few centimeters from the shores of Lake Victoria at Port Bell, said the staff gather used plastic bottles and polythene bags in one place inside the bar and wait for the management of the landing site to come and pick them for disposal and recycling by the Kampala Capital City Authorities (KCCA). The garbage is collected twice a week, on Fridays and Mondays.

Hassan Bogere, says that in partnership with KCCA, in case someone is caught improperly disposing of garbage, he or she is fined 50,000 Uganda shillings or imprisoned for three months. Unfortunately, many have not taken heed.

Prior Research Findings of Plastic Pollution of Lake Victoria in Uganda

Gerald Kairu, a senior researcher and programme director of the Africa Water Investment Programme at Global Water Partnership, Eastern Africa says the directorate has carried out studies[1]  concerning the problem prior. He says that much of the pollution are microplastics: microscopic plastic particles that come from polythene bags, plastic sacks, cosmetics and pharmaceutical products - and the communities are the biggest polluters.

Kairu further says that the plastics possess dangerous chemicals, causing water pollution and affecting the lake’s water quality[2] .

Costs of treating water from the lake for drinking and safe use by humans rose by more than eight times from 2010 to 2020, according to Lillian Idrakua, the commissioner of Water Quality Management at the Ministry of Water and Environment.

To manage the growing pollution at the bay, the National Water and Sewerage Corporation (NWSC) first shifted its water intake inward into Lake Victoria by 1.5 kilometers from the original intake in 2010. Between 2008 and 2010, levels of alum (aluminum sulfate) used to treat water reached close to its maximum permissible limit, at which point NWSC started using poly aluminium chloride instead, according to Idrakua.

What Do Local Authorities Say?

Hassan Bogere, the fishermen’s chairman at Port Bell and tax collector at the market,  said that the plastic pollution culprits at the landing sites are punished.

“We fight improper garbage disposal. If we found you improperly disposing garbage, you are fined 50,000 Uganda shillings or imprisoned for three months. Rotary brought us cans which they fill with plastic bottles. When they fill, they come and take them for recycling,” Bogere said.

Idiriisa Walusimbi, the vice chairman of Ggaba Market and Chairman of the Fisheries Unit at the landing site, said they advise people not to scatter wastes because they are near the national water pumping station located at the shores of the lake. However, since the area is a developed area, the residents have different mindsets and most are illiterate. In the near future, laws to punish the culprits will be established, Walusimbi said.

The WASH Non-Governmental Organizations Cry Out

Frank Muramuzi, the Executive Director of the National Association of Professional Environmentalists (NAPE) in Uganda and Chairman of the East Africa Communities for the Management of Lake Victoria, said that Uganda is the leading plastics polluter of Lake Victoria among the countries that share the lake’s waters.

He says his teams have engaged different stakeholders who include the communities, policy makers and government on the matter of plastic pollution of the lake, including taking others especially the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) to court over issues of plastic pollution.

Muramuzi further noted that NAPE together with partner organizations agreed to undertake a campaign against plastic pollution three years ago. Unlike other countries, it was not a success in Uganda due to lack of alternatives to plastic, strong opposition from businessmen such as supermarket owners, beverage producers, polythene bag manufacturers and others, and little enforcement from the government, he said.

A 2015 NAPE lobby paper advocated for the mass deployment of plastic bag collection systems, recycling facilities at strategic locations, and the development and promotion of alternatives such as cloth-based bags made out of jute and cotton that are biodegradable and reusable.

He also announced that they are working together to educate the lake’s communities on how they can live harmoniously with the lake, clean its shores and establish interventions to deal with plastic pollution at the lake. NAPE has encouraged communities to collect plastics and burn them in private if they do not want to recycle them, instead of throwing them in the lake, he said.

Muramuzi says that one of the major challenges they have with the Uganda situation is weak enforcement of laws, specifically the National Environment Act No.5 which includes prohibition of the use of some plastics, including polythene bags.

He further said that court cases against plastic polluters have failed in the country’s courts of law. 

Government Speaks Out

The government of Uganda is concerned with the vice.  Lillian Idrakua, the Commissioner of Water Quality Management at the Ministry of Water and Environment, presented in a webinar on the 4th of March about the Ministry’s projects to fight plastic pollution in the famous lake. 

Idrakua admitted that the cities around the lake lack proper waste disposal systems. She said that the ministry has more than 119 water quality monitoring stations countrywide, first established in 1999, and they hold regular visits to monitor their efficiency.

She also announced that the Ministry is embarking on a project to improve water purification, but the money they have is not enough. “The project is a 14 million Euro project. What we have right now is slightly less than 2 million euros. So depending on the availability of funding, project outputs include a new building and a new laboratory for the national water quality reference lab.”

Idrakua said the ministry is also planning to procure a water vessel so as to be able to do regular monitoring in the lake.

“A remedial action plan will be developed for the restoration of water quality in the bay, and then last but not least, we plan to pick some feasibility studies for selected actions that will be identified under the remedial action plan,” Idrakua said.

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This InfoNile / WanaData story was produced with support from JRS Biodiversity Foundation and Code for Africaas part of the WaterCommons initiative and the Code for All Exchange Program, funded by the National Democratic Institute and the National Endowment for Democracy.

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