As tourists pose for selfies on the shores of Lake Victoria in Uganda, factories within spitting distance of the source of the Nile dump their waste directly into Africa’s longest river.
Agence France-Presse journalists watched as staff at a tannery shoveled garbage into the river, while dirty water flowed into the Nile through plastic pipes leaving a brown sheen, in a vivid illustration of the mounting scourge.
The town of Jinja, where the Nile begins its 6,500km journey to the Mediterranean, is a jumble of small houses squeezed between textile and fish processing factories, boatbuilders, maize millers, brewers and coffee processors. Smoke billows from a factory chimney as fishers nearby land meager catches from their small boats.
Rising industrial pollution in the area last year set off alarm bells, with a report by the 10-nation Nile Basin Initiative saying that “the rich natural resources and outstanding biodiversity in the Nile Basin face unprecedented threats.”
It blamed population growth, urbanization and water contamination, saying the “discharge of untreated wastewater and sludge, fertiliser and pesticides from farming and sediments from land degradation comprise the prime pollutants.”
Young men and women take turns to swim in the waters of the Nile, oblivious to its dangers.
However, fishers, such as Stanley Ojakol, know the changes wrought by pollution all too well.
“We have seen fish stocks disappear... This is largely because of the chemicals the factories pour into the river,” the father of 12 said. “At times the fish die in the water.”
Jowali Kitagenda, 40, has been fishing the river since childhood, and has endured many beatings from soldiers assigned to guard restricted areas of the Nile.
“The government sent the army to stop us from fishing in the deep section of the Nile ... but they let the factories pour tonnes of chemicals into the water and the fish die,” Kitagenda said. “When we try to search for fish, we only get a few.”
With drinking water also polluted, anger at the authorities and the factory owners is rising in Jinja, a town of an estimated 300,000 people, where many households have more than 10 members.
“We were advised by the ministry of health to stop fetching the water from the Nile. It got polluted,” said 50-year-old Ali Tabo, a member of the local council executive committee. “It started itching our skin.”
“The government said it was not good for the kids and domestic use. They sank boreholes and we now draw water from the boreholes, not the river,” he added.
Based in the central Ugandan town of Entebbe, the Nile Basin intergovernmental partnership brings together 10 nations to discuss ways to best manage their shared water resources.
“When you have a problem of water quality without the systems to clean it, it becomes complicated,” initiative executive director Sylvester Anthony Mutemu said.
Climate change might pose a serious threat to the Nile’s levels, but pollution is increasingly emerging as “a bigger issue” in his country, Ugandan Ministry of Water and Environment Water Resources Planning and Regulation Commissioner Callist Tindimugaya said.
“Pollution is a very big issue with growing population and industries,” Tindimugaya said.
Under a Ugandan environmental law adopted in 2000, factories must be no closer than 100m from a river’s highest watermark, but many are much closer, often hugging the banks.
“We have laws, but implementation is a different issue. [The factories] need water treatment plants, but some discharge dirty water at night,” he added.
Tindimugaya said the Ugandan government had come up with a very direct way to show businesses the environmental consequences of their actions.
The government wants factories to release their treated wastewater into the same section of the Nile from which they draw their own supplies, he said.
That way “they are the first to suffer if they pollute,” he said.
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