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Illegal sand mining in Uganda puts human, aquatic lives at risk

Illegal sand mining in Kakumiro District in western Uganda is degrading wetlands that are sources of water for residents and destroying the habitats of aquatic animals.

Since 2014, more than 16 wetlands have been degraded in the district as a result of illegal sand mining, according to an environmental status report from the district’s natural resources department.

Chris Baguma, the Kakumiro District natural resources and environmental conservation officer, says the most affected wetlands include Mabengere, Kaitanjojo, Kabale, Mpongo and Masaigi in Mpasana, Kisiita and Kitikara sub-counties.

Baguma says these wetlands are a source of water for more than 100,000 people. He adds that sand mining has reduced the wetlands’ natural function of water-filtering, thereby harming aquatic life.

Baguma says miners have encroached on more than 70 percent of wetlands in Kakumiro District.

Channel dug by miners
The miners use wide channels to drain water from the wetlands.This, according to conservation officials, has resulted in the drying of wetlands / Credit: Alex Tumuhimbise

One of the most harmful methods used by miners is digging of channels to drain water from wetland areas where they want to mind sand.

James Bikumu, a resident of Buhonda Village in Kisiita sub-county, earns a living from selling mudfish in local markets. He fears that unregulated sand mining at the Mabengere wetland will destroy an ecosystem that has served as the area fishing ground for several years.

"We have always got fish from the wetland, but given the rate at which the wetland is being destroyed, we are likely to lose out. The government should stop those digging water channels to drain it," Bikumu says.

The law

According to the Amended National Environment Act of Uganda, 2019, the approved uses of wetland resources include harvesting of papyrus, medicinal plants, trees and reeds; fishing using traps, spears, and baskets or another method, other than weirs.

Other functions include water collection for domestic use, or hunting subject to the provisions of the Uganda Wildlife Act.

Activities like sand and clay mining require the developer to apply for user permit from the National Environment Management Authority (Nema) and require the developer to undertake an Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA).

The National Environment Act 2019, under “Management and Utilisation of Wetlands” Section 3 (a), states that the wetland resources shall be utilised in a sustainable manner compatible with the continued presence of wetlands and their hydrological functions and service.

The same act, under “Restrictions on the Use of Wetlands,” states that a person shall not, without the written approval of the relevant lead agency, given in consultation with the Authority, reclaim or drain any wetland or disturb any wetland by drilling or tunnelling in a manner that has or is likely to have an adverse effect on the wetland.

In the Kakumiro case, several people involved in sand mining in the wetlands have no ESIA report as required by the law.

According to Nema and wetland user guidelines, the sand miners are also supposed to acquire wetland user permits and restore the environment of the site to its original shape or support other environmentally friendly activities such as fish farming in the pits created by mining activities.

However, Baguma says in all the seven mines visited in Kakumiro District, there is noncompliance with the law and no site restoration has ever been done.

Fred Magara, who operates a mining site in Mabengere Village, Kisiita sub-county, says he has turned some of the open pits into fish ponds after mining. The pits are created after the excavation of sand from the wetland.

“I have used some pits as fish ponds. Other open places are going to be fenced off,” Magara says.

Kisiita sub-county council speaker Dickson Turyatunga, who lives in Buhonda Village near the sand mines, says the miners do not restore the mine pits after mining and that they end up filling with water, thus becoming safety hazards. He says four children have since drowned in the unsecured pits.

“The bodies were retrieved from there and the matters were reported to the police. However, we don’t know what happens at the police because we don’t see any follow-up or action being taken against the sand miners. These pits are deadly to children who cannot exercise caution,” Turyatunga says.

A pond after sand extraction is completeed
One of the extraction sites after sand mining is completed. There are several unprotected sites of this nature that prove dangerous to animals and people / Credit: Alex Tumuhibise

Baguma says the ponds are also breeding grounds for mosquitoes, which have affected the neighboring communities.

According to the 2020 monthly status reports on malaria from the Ministry of Health, Kakumiro District malaria's status as of July 2020 indicated an upsurge in malaria cases at 61.3 percent of prevalence. A month later, in August of the same year, the rate increased to 68 percent.

William Mweshezi, a cattle keeper who lives next to the sand mines at Buhonda in Kisiita sub-county, says he lost two cows last year in open sand pits.

‘‘My two cows fell in flooded ponds in the sand mines and died. The miners are supposed to fence off the pits after mining but you can see what is happening. Nothing has been done and we are likely to lose more cows,” he says.

Noelina Mushisti, a resident of Mpasana Town Council, says the wetlands are their only source of water, and she is worried that sand mining will soon leave all of them without.

"We fetch water for both domestic use and for animals from these wetlands. I fear that they will dry because of sand mining. We want the government to intervene and halt mining activities in the wetlands,” she says.

Unmarked wetland boundaries

Baguma says the district started demarcating boundaries of wetlands, but the exercise faced financial challenges.

According to records from the 2019 sector performance report of the Ministry of Water and Environment, Uganda had by 2018 demarcated only 198.2kms of wetlands countrywide.

“As Kakumiro District, we have tried to demarcate some wetlands as a way of preventing encroachment but we don’t have funds to run all the operations involved,” Baguma says.

Sensiyo Ikyiriza, a project coordinator with World Vision, a non-governmental organisation that advocates for environmental protection, says wetland degradation is affecting people’s livelihoods and sustainable water access.

“Illegal activities in wetlands should be discouraged. We need water for irrigation and if we degrade wetlands, the surface water is drained away, people will not get water for irrigation. Several boreholes are drying up because the water table is being affected,” Ikyiriza says.

The National Environment (Wetlands, River Banks and Lake Shores Management) Regulations, No 3/2000, provides for the formation of committees responsible for coordinating, monitoring, and advising district councils on all aspects of wetland resource management.

However, in all the affected villages, there are no such committees. This, Mr Sensiyo says, is making enforcement of environmental laws difficult.

Two miners digging out sand
Two young men extract sand with shovels froma wetland in Kakumiro district, western Uganda / Credit: Alex Tumuhimbise

Why illegal sand mining has continued to thrive

Mining in Kakumiro District is informal, and despite periodic condemnation by government officials, including the President, government oversight here is inadequate. This inaction has enabled the cartels to establish either irregularly licensed or unlicensed operations.

Dezi Kaberuka, a casual labourer in some of the mines, says sand mining is his only source of income. The mine where he works, together with several other people, is now operating illegally since its user permit expired in 2019. However, the owner has stayed in the business pending its renewal by Nema.

“I have done this job for several years and it is where I get money to sustain my family. I did not go to school and I don’t have any other job,” he says. 

When this reporter visited the area recently, he found that each sand mining pit employees about five people.

The Kakumiro District secretary for production, Godfrey Barugahare, says efforts to curb illegal sand mining are yet to bear fruit. There are several people who are mining sand without wetland user permits, something which contravenes the environment law, he says.

Last year the district council attempted to introduce a local tax to be levied on the miners in an effort to regulate sand mining, but the miners rejected the tax, Barugahare notes.

“As a district, we took necessary steps to streamline the sand mining businesses by imposing a local tax on sand mining where each lorry trip was supposed to pay between Shs50,000 and 100,000 for small-sized trucks. This form of tax was expected to raise at least Shs500 million in revenue per year. This money was meant to provide water and funds for work on the affected community feeder roads,” he says.

In retaliation against the miners for rejecting this form of taxation the district has since stopped issuing companies and individuals with recommendations for wetland user permits.

Barugahare warns that all those illegally mining in the wetlands will be arrested and prosecuted in courts of law. 

According to Section 36 (1) of the National Environment Act, 1995, a general penalty for illegal wetland use is imprisonment for a term not exceeding 18 months or a fine of not less than Shs180,000 and not more than Shs18m or to both.

At the same time, Magara says sand mining has become increasingly lucrative because of the growing demand from people constructing houses and roads.

“Here, a trip of lake sand at the site costs Shs300,000 and plaster sand costs Shs70,000,” he says.

Sand miners at a collection point
Sand miners at a collection point near the wetland in Mpasana, Kakumiro district, on Thursday, ‎January ‎21, ‎2021 / Credit: Alex Tumuhimbise

A report by Parliament’s Committee on Natural Resources on sand mining in Uganda tabled before Parliament on November 16, 2016, found that sand is not a restricted export in Uganda. The Minerals (Prohibition of Exportation) Act, Cop 147, only prohibits the exportation of copper.

The committee established that as of October 14, 2016, about 42 companies registered with the Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) had exported 63,380kgs of sand worth Shs11.5 billion in the period between 2012 and 2016.

The sand destinations included Kenya, Canada, France, Tanzania, and the US, among others.

The committee reported that during the period between July 2013 and October 2016, URA had collected a total tax of Shs14.9 billion from 13 licensed sand mining companies. Revenue collections were received in form of income tax, domestic tax, and custom payments.

 Reporting for this story was supported by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.

Banner image: A young man extracts sand from the middle of a wetland in Buhonda village,Kakumiro District on Thursday, ‎January ‎21, ‎2021 / Credit: Alex Tumuhimbise