Plastic waste choking life in Lake Victoria

BY IRENE ABALO OTTO

  • Fishermen in Lake Victoria Uganda, are lamenting the effects of plastic pollution in the water body.
  • Environmental researchers are concerned that continued disregard of proper plastic management endangers aquatic and wildlife.
  • Uganda battles to legislate the single-use plastic ban

Mr. Thomas Oduha, a short skinny gentleman with Rastafarian-style dreadlocks has been collecting plastics in the trenches of Ggaba landing site on the shores of Lake Victoria for more than eight years. He collects and burns the plastics so that they do not enter the lake.

In a country where plastic and organic wastes are inappropriately discarded, Mr Oduha bears the smell for a small pay from local leaders. When it rains and he cannot burn all the garbage, his work is to collect and hand it over to Kampala Capital City Authority for disposal in the KCCA designated Kiteezi landfill.

“The people who throw these rubbish from their homes into the trenches do not care what happens in this area,” Mr. Oduha laments.

He says when the wastes are washed into the lake, the plastics that float at the shore are collected by the community during a routine weekly cleaning exercise.

Several tons of plastic wastes, especially bottles, damaged plastic foot wear and basins are taken to a nearby collection point at the landing site. The bottles are then sorted, packed and sold to recycling companies like Aquila recycling plant that uses the plastics and turn them into flakes, mainly for export. 

Heap of plastic bottles near a swamp

But countries like China in July 2017 and later India in August, the main importers of plastic wastes, banned the imports citing mixing of plastic wastes with hazardous wastes, meaning countries like Uganda have to transition to domestic plastic waste management.

Other plastic recycling companies are Takataka plastics, Eco Brixs, Plastic Recycling Industries Uganda, and others in Nakawa in Kampala and Namanve in Wakiso district.

But the plastics under the lake have never been collected, according to local fishermen in Ggaba.

Most of the plastic trash in Lake Victoria flows from land. Trash is carried from the major channels and rivers which act as conveyor belts, picking up more and more trash as they move downstream.

Justus Turyamureeba has been a fisherman at Ggaba landing site since 1994. He says the plastics and polythene bags washed into the lake has made it difficult for them to fish. He says the swampy areas where the fish breed is dirty and most parts of the swamp have been reclaimed.

“The swamp you see there, where the fish is supposed to breed, has lots of plastic wastes like polythene and bottles. These buildings you see up there; they had to destroy the swamps to build. The swamps were the purifiers for any wastes before water from there [the swamp] enters the lake. The swamps are now destroyed and water comes with all the wastes from all areas in town, directly into the lake,” Turyamureeba explained.

Swamp polluted with plastic.

Turyamureeba says fishing is no longer as profitable as when he had just begun. He owned more than 25 boats and he was able to buy some property and educate his children. But the fishing business has had so many challenges that he now rides a boda boda to supplement his income.

He says for fishing to flourish, the water has to be clean for fish to breed and grow. Where there are plastic bags commonly known as buvera, the fish breed but can easily die of suffocation when they get entangled in the plastic bags.

“Sometimes you go to fish and end up with plastic bottles in your (fishing) net. You cannot fish near the shore because there are plastics under the water. You have to go deep in the water (more than 200 meters away) to get fish. If the water were not dirty, you would see the plastic wastes down there. Once they are washed there from the shore, no one picks them; they stay under the water,” Turyamureeba told Daily Monitor.

There is no clear research to show how much plastic wastes are in Lake Victoria.

Yet every other day, more plastic wastes are washed into Lake Victoria, the second largest freshwater lake in the world and chief reservoir of River Nile, lying mainly in Tanzania and Uganda but bordering on Kenya.

According to UNEP, more than 300 million tonnes of plastic waste are produced globally every year, nearly equivalent to the weight of the entire population in the world. Because of the plastics’ resistance to degradation, most of it never fully disappears; it just gets smaller and smaller. 

Uganda has several innovations coming up to turn plastic wastes into other products such as poly pavers, bricks and other reusable items, but the amount of plastic wastes seem to increase beyond innovation intake.

Meanwhile, there is no serious punishment on those who discard plastic wastes into the environment. Perhaps this explains why one can easily buy single use plastics like bottles of drinks or packed foods and discard the plastics through their car window or while using public means of transport.

Where these plastics thrown from the car windows or pedestrians end up is always unknown to the users.

It is also common to sit with someone and see them discard plastic bottles right next to them after emptying the content.

According to regulation (6) subregulation (1) of the National Environment (Waste Management) Regulations, 2020,

“A person who litters shall be responsible for the necessary clean-up. The Authority or lead agency may direct the person who litters to clean up to the satisfaction of the Authority or the lead agency. Where the person in subregulation (4) fails, neglects or refuses to clean-up as required, the Authority or lead agency may undertake the clean-up at the expense of that person and shall require payment of costs and expenses incurred by it in the clean-up exercise.”

Despite this regulation, water bodies like Lake Victoria are being polluted by single-use plastics that take minutes or hours to use but take more than 400 years to degrade when thrown in the open in the environment, according to National Geographic, a scientific and educational non-profit organization.

Plastic pollution in Uganda

Environmental researchers are concerned that continued disregard of proper plastic management endanger aquatic and wildlife.

Dr. Bahati Mayoma, a researcher of aquatic pollution from Tanzania, told NTV Uganda at a plastic pollution awareness campaign in Ggaba landing site on Saturday that they have found microplastics in fish.

Microplastics are tiny plastic particles. These are plastics less than five millimeters (0.2 inches) in diameter—smaller in diameter than the standard pearl used in jewelry. Fish can mistake them for prey. When consumed by any aquatic animal, they can easily die of starvation as the plastics make them feel satisfied.

“We are doing research. At the moment, we found Nile perch and tilapia have microplastics in their stomachs. But we know this lake [Victoria] has many species of fish, birds and other organisms,” said Dr. Mayoma.

He added: “We might end up having more plastics than fish in the lake. This means the fishermen and fisher women who go to fish in the lake will have to find alternative ways for a living.”

Whereas some companies are recycling the plastics, those who collect them say the volumes of plastics washed by rainwater have increased overtime.

But this has also become some form of employment to those who hope to clean the streams and swamps where plastics clog.

Sinan Mutyaba started out as a plastic waste collector at Soya-Bunga crossing, about five kilometers away from Ggaba landing site, about 20years ago. He has been earning a living from it. He got the idea from friends when life became tough for his family as a young boy.

Whereas he shies away from talking about his childhood and family life, Mutyaba plies his trade in plastic bottles in Bunga Soya, collecting plastics washed from areas of Katwe and neighboring Kampala suburbs that end up into the Kansanga Ggaba drainage channel that flows into Lake Victoria.

When Daily Monitor visited his collection site on Monday, he had about two tons of plastics ready for sale. He said he sells them to a recycling plant in Namanve at Shs 500 per kilogram. It took him one week to collect the pile.

As Uganda battles to legislate on the single-use plastic ban, the burden of care currently rests on individual users to take personal responsibility to ensure that the environment is not littered with plastics that could end up in the lakes and finally on our dining tables as we eat fish that could have consumed microplastics.

This story was first published by Daily Monitor, Uganda on 25 March 2021

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