By Gerald Tenywa
At Lutembe Bay in the Wakiso district, Lake Victoria is calm, but Darawusi Katende, a seasoned fisherman, looks troubled.
This is because the lake, which has helped Katende and thousands of other fishermen to earn a living for decades, has come under invasion from sand miners.
“We are concerned about sand mining on Lake Victoria because our fish catches are reducing every day,” Katende says, adding: “We are extremely worried about our future,” Katende says overfishing on the lake was previously the biggest threat, but the situation is getting out of hand lately.
“Illegal sand mining has come to drive the lake into destruction,” he told Saturday Vision in an interview.
Sand mining, Katende says, affects the lake through the destruction of vegetation along the shores, which causes massive silting of the lake, particularly when it rains.
“The water is heavily silted and the fish shun such areas,” he says, adding that fishermen have to move deeper into the lake and spend more time and fuel to catch fish.
Katende further notes that the noisy dredgers on the lake not only scare away fish but also suck aquatic organisms indiscriminately. “We have seen millions of lifeless creatures, including frogs and snails removed from the lake and abandoned by sand miners in heaps,” he says.
Katende adds that the dredgers also leak oil waste into the lake in the wake of their operations, leaving the freshwater contaminated.
There are two methods of sand mining — where miners use rudimentary tools and large commercial mining which involves big motorized equipment such as dredgers.
Both approaches, Katende says, are dangerous to the lake. In most cases, sand miners dredge through the vegetation and extract sand using boats.
At Lutembe Bay, the local community, with the support of the Wakiso district, has brought the large-scale mining of sand to an end.
However, the small-scale miners are the ones persisting, Katende says. “We do not know whether they deceive government officials or there is connivance. The smallscale miners come in the name of creating fish ponds, do assessments and in the end, carry out sand mining,” he says.
As the miners scour the lake for sand, they have met their match in Katende’s group of fishermen who have teamed up with Nature Uganda, a partner of Birdlife International, to protect Lutembe Bay, which is a Ramsar site.
Ramsar sites are wetlands of international importance that have been set aside for conservation under the Ramsar Convention on wetlands as they contain rare or unique wetlands, or for their importance in conserving biological diversity.
Lutembe is the world’s largest sanctuary of migratory birds (the white-winged black terns), which escape the chilly winter in Europe to the warmer Uganda.
Katende also points out that government authorities, including Wakiso district, the Ministry of Water and Environment, and the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), delay responding when destructive activities are taking on the lake.
In addition to Wakiso, sand mining takes place in Mpigi, Kalungu, Masaka, Kyotera, Rakai, Mukono, Jinja, Mayuge, Namayingo, and Busia districts.
Impact on breeding
Dr Vianney Atugonza, a fisheries researcher at the National Fisheries Resources Research Institute (NaFIRRI), says sand mining disrupts the color of the water to the extent that fish cannot trace their mates.
“The fish rely on the bright colors of their mates to locate them for breeding,” Atugonza says, adding that sand mining changes the turbidity of the water, and therefore, fish cannot easily locate mates for breeding.
He also says when fish are breeding, the young ones require a lot of parental care, pointing out that some of the fish will carry their babies in their mouths to keep them in a safe environment.
“The lake has muddy and sandy areas, riverine or estuaries where breeding takes place,” Atugonza says, adding that sand mining makes life difficult for fish to breed in the suitable areas.
Mark Olokotum, a research officer (fish biologist) at NaFFIRI, says the biological diversity of Lake Victoria has come under threat. Biological diversity is defined as the variety and variability of life forms on earth.
“From what I know, sand mining is done in wetlands, within the lake, and at inshore islands,” he says, adding: “A lot of boats are ferrying in the sand at Masese in Jinja, Ggaba and Port Bell and nobody is saying anything,” Olokotum says there are macroinvertebrates that live in the sand, and that means sand mining is destroying the aquatic biological diversity.
In the end, he notes, the food web is also destroyed because some of the macro-invertebrates provide food to micro plants and animals on which fish feed.
“Sand mining is not only affecting the visibility of food for fish, but also the ability of fish to hunt for food, or to escape from its enemies or predation,” he points out.
Olokotum says the lake is not simply a pool of water, but it has suitable fish breeding grounds. NaFIRRI, with the support of the Government, has been mapping out fish breeding grounds and they are in the process of being gazetted, he adds.
Patrick Byamukama, a fisheries officer at the agriculture ministry, says some fish burrow in the sand when they are going to breed. “When you alter the sand, you are altering the whole ecological system.”
Apart from sand mining, Lake Victoria is plagued by pollution and the changing climate which is sweeping through the world.
The rising water bodies, including Lake Victoria in the last three years, have been attributed to climate change as well as the destruction of wetlands and forests in the lake’s catchment area.
Two years ago, Uganda experienced sudden fish kills caused by deeper layers of water experiencing oxygen shortage.
This prompted fish to move to the top of the lake, leading to their death. In December 2022, a similar event took place in Kenya’s part of Lake Victoria.
World over, and is becoming a precious commodity as it is highly demanded making glass, computers, mobile phones, and television sets, among other valuable items.
For the last two decades, the demand for sand has skyrocketed as the pace of development increases within Uganda.
Internally in the country, and is highly demanded construction and making of different products, including tiles. However, unconfirmed reports indicate that some of the sand is exported.
Sand mining is not allowed on the lake
Mining sand in lakes and rivers is not permitted because of several reasons, Dr Barirega Akankwasah, the NEMA executive director, says.
“Sand extraction from lakes and rivers significantly pollutes the waters, making it unsuitable for people and biodiversity unless you spend more money on the treatment of water,” Akankwasah says.
He adds: “Extraction of sand from lakes and river beds significantly alters the hydrological flow of water, thereby risking bursting of river banks and lake shores, hence causing flooding and associated loss of lives and property.”
Akankwasah also pointed out that sand mining in lakes and rivers is prohibited because fish use lake shores and river banks for breeding.
What is being done about it?
“We continue to engage all the concerned parties within the Government, including fisheries, Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) and the Police marine units, local government and urban authorities on the vice and the dangers of lake shore and river sand mining,” Akankwasa says.
He adds that the illegal activities take place at night when enforcement is not there. “We are engaging UPDF marines to help us with surveillance,” Akankwasah adds that NEMA is also enhancing its capacity for staff and equipment to ensure that they are more effective when it comes to enforcement and service delivery. “We are improving our capacity to survey, arrest, prosecute, and deter illegality,” he adds.
Hide and seek on the lake
Dr Jerome Sebadduka Lugumira, a natural resources management specialist at NEMA, says they had cleaned the lake of all sand miners three years ago.
This is being reversed after deep budget cuts to ensure enforcement, prompting sand miners to return in some areas.
“When you find them in Wakiso, they migrate to Mukono and when you go there, they move to Namayingo,” Lugumira says.
He adds that illegal sand miners are mostly foreigners working in a cartel-like manner.
“These foreigners part with a lot of money, which they give to highly-connected people with promises to secure sand mining permits,” he says.
When NEMA and the Police arrest the sand miners, Lugumira says their ‘brokers’ keep on calling big officers to bend the law in their favor.
He says sand mining cartels have compromised the political leadership at the lowest level of governance.
“Politicians such as councilors and other local council leaders, who you would expect to work in people’s best interests, are getting conscripted into cartels that work against their people,” Lugumira notes.
Sand mining leaves tattered lakeshores
As the sand miners excavate the precious raw material on the lake shores, the lake advances to fill the gaping holes left behind by the sand miners.
In some cases, the advancing lake has also swallowed land belonging to people who are not engaged in sand mining.
Before the flooding of Lake Victoria in recent years, the shoreline of Lake Victoria has been eating away at the land in the vicinity of the sand mining sites. The land has gone underwater.
Sand miners exploit weaknesses
Matia Lwanga, the Wakiso district chairperson, who has been at the forefront of fighting sand mining on the lake, says he cannot be in every spot where destruction is taking place.
He says local council leaders are everywhere, but it takes active leaders not only at the top but also at the lower levels (villages) to stop environmental destruction.
Lwanga also says since the impacts of environmental degradation are not immediate, this will not cause the much-needed cooperation.
“We need the leaders and communities to secure the environment from destruction,” Lwanga says.
He also cites corruption, pointing out that law enforcement agencies will end up doing something else the moment they see your back. “Wakiso has been kept as a rural.”