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Breathing in steel

By Patrick Kagenda

Residents of Kampala and its neighbourhood fear for the worst as new industries bring prosperity – and pollution

Kasenge ‘A’ village, a hamlet of about 1000 homes in Mukono district, is possibly among the fastest growing industrial zones in Uganda. Located in Kasenge Parish of Naama Sub-county in Mukono district about 30Kms along the Kampala-Jinja highway, it lies in the heart of Mukono’s pride; its industrial park.   The nearest urban centre is the Mbalala trading center which is about half a kilometer away.

Kasenge village, Mbalala trading centre, and surrounding areas are today home to over 20 Chinese ow ned factories. Plastics manufacturing plants snuggle toilet paper mills, ironware foundries, car battery plants, mattresses factories and steel rolling mills.

The industries have led to an unprecedented economic boom as a result of the growing migrant worker population producing a surge in rental housing, retail shops and restaurants, and social services like clinics, schools, and transport and communication services.

But the industrial boom has also brought new dangers; especially industrial waste pollution.

The area, which was once renowned for its lush green forests, swamps, and clean air, is now shrouded in clouds of white, grey, and black fumes fanned from the many factory chimneys.   “At night a lot of smoke from these factories forms a blanket that descends upon the village and makes breathing difficult,” says 37-year old Ismail Kibirango, the vice chairman of Kasenge village, “The smell is worse when the wind is not blowing because the smoke concentrates in area.”

The worst time is early morning, late evening and throughout the night, when the pollution is at its worst and the air smells of burning metal. A thick blanket of gray fumes hangs over the area, stretching over 20kms in all directions; from Bweyogerere near Kampala to Lugazi. The smoke does not have any heavy pungent smell, but it is still thick enough to irritate the nose, throat, and eyes.

Biggest polluters

Kibirango says, as local leaders, they once invited the top political leadership up to district level to address the issue of pollution and held discussion with some of the top polluters but nothing has changed.

“They promised that they would increase on the height of their chimneys but to date nothing has been done and pollution continues to affect us,” he says.

Kibirango says the biggest polluter is the Chinese complex of the Tian Tiang Group of companies which opened in 2009. Its flagship is a steel rolling mill with a capacity to produce 70,000 tons of integrated steel per year. The complex also has a foam mattress factory and the group also has invested in real estate ventures.

“The Chinese have refused to adhere to environmental regulations and have continued to pollute the area,” says Kibirango, “Before the meeting, they used to release sewerage into our water system but at least that has since stopped. We are worried because the air pollution could have devastating breathing problems in the near future.”

Kibirango says the Chinese are just after establishing factories and are not mindful of the environment. He adds that, unlike the locals of the area, the Chinese have connections with “powerful people in Kampala”.

“Whenever we try to say anything we are warned not to disturb the investors,” Kibirango says, “Even NEMA the environment watchdog has done nothing about ending the air pollution in the area because we only saw  NEMA officials once  when they came to tell us about the factories being built. Since then we only see them drive by, yet they are supposed to reign in these people.”

Diseases increase

An attendant at one of the clinics in the area says they have seen an influx of patients with respiratory and factory-related traumas.

“Most of the patients we get here are those suffering from cough and flu and victims who have been cut by machines in the factories,” the attendant says as a man, in his late 20s walks and asks to buy cough syrup. He says he works in the Tian Tiang steel factory, which is not surprising as the complex employs over 500 people.

“It is the steel factory that emits most pollution,” says the man who cannot be named for fear of jeopardizing his employment.

Kibirango; the vice chairman of the area says they have not received any serious complaints as a result of the air pollution in the area, but they live in fear that the situation could get worse.

“We may see people develop complicated ailments like tuberculosis and other chest related diseases,” he says.

Kibirango says, going by how the Chinese behave whenever people are injured in the course of work in the Tian Tang complex, it is unlikely they would help in the worst case scenerio.  “Many workers have lost arms, cut off by the machines and have been compensated Shs 50,000-70,000 only, so do you expect them to compensate us something sensible when the pollution begins to take its toll on us,” Kibirango asks.

At Kasenge police station, detective of police Judith Ruth Auma says they cannot act because they have not received any complaint from the local people about air pollution.

“Even NEMA has not lodged any complaint about the air pollution although they come here to lodge cases on environmental degradation especially on swamps and forest cover,” she told The Independent.

According to chemical production studies, production of steel results in creation of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and sulfur trioxide which when released into the atmosphere become pollutants and are dangerous to the environment. Although The Independent is not aware of any studies done regarding the Mukono pollution, these are some of the gases residents could be inhaling.

Poor technology

Uganda has over 10 steel related industries. Most of these are cleaner as they only import already processed steel plates and bars and either roll them or chop them, or fabricate various products. Only a few are involved in smelting and recycling steel.

At Steel and Tube (U) Ltd; one of the cleaner steel producing factories based in the Namanve Industrial Park in Kampala, the environmental analyst says they try to adhere to NEMA standards.

“Our pollution levels are very minimal because we follow ISO manufacturing standards and the environmental policy,” the official said. But efforts to get Tian Tang Group to explain their production processed failed. A marketing manager only identified as Charles who was assigned to talk to The Independent said he would call back but did not.

At the Ministry of Water and Environment, Chebet Maitum, the acting commissioner for the Department of Climate Change said “air pollution is for real in Uganda and is dangerous”.  He said it must be understood within the broader picture of emissions responsible for global warming and climate change that are a threat to human survival.

“What the Chinese are doing is very dangerous to the area and the country at large and I hope NEMA will rein them in,” Maitum said. When The Independent contacted Arnold Waiswa Eyazika, the NEMA Director for Environmental Monitoring and Compliance, he said they had carried out an environmental impact assessment of factories in the Mukono area as part of their biannual inspections.

“In 2013 we almost closed Tian Tiang group of companies but they promised to install equipment to capture the smoke. We even saw  the equipment they had brought but I am now going to follow up to see the progress although they told us the smoke comes when there is no power,” he said.

Other industrial areas; including Namanve Industrial zone east of Kampala  and the Kawempe industrial zone  north of the city, are also big pollution emitters but not to the extent of the Mukono Kasenge zone.

Haze over Kampala

But some residents of Kampala are wary of a growing haze that covers most of the city environs in the late evening hours and early morning.

Waiswa said NEMA is aware of it but has not established its cause.

According to the Journal of Environmental and Public Health 2014, air quality in Kampala has deteriorated significantly in the past two decades. Basing on spot measurements conducted by the Journal researchers for airborne particulate matter, particle concentrations are above 100 micrograms per cubic meter of air.

The recommended concentration standard is between 15 micrograms per cubic meter of air (long term) and 35 (short term).  Residents of some cities in China routinely wear anti-smog masks as airborne particulate matter is very high.

In 2014, some parts of China issued an “orange alert” as micrograms per cubic meter of air hit 500.  The particles are dangerous as they can enter the lungs and cause long-term disease. In the short term, they may cause cough and sneezing, and make conditions like asthma worse.

In Kampala, the Journal report said, over 90% of the measured fine particles in the air mass can be explained by condensed particles (crustal species and between 41% and 59%) and soot from burning fires, manufacturing processes, and motor vehicles (carbonaceous aerosol at between 33% and 55%).

The results of the Journal research is indicative of unhealthy air and suggests that exposure to polluted air in Kampala may increase the burden of environmentally induced cardiovascular, metabolic, and respiratory diseases including infections.

Uganda is a country with a rapidly increasing population and expanding economic growth. The national economic strategy gives priority to the industrial and manufacturing sectors and has promoted and realized a rise in cottage and other larger industries within and outside the city.

In addition to the ever growing road traffic and unregulated industrial emissions, waste burning by individuals to manage uncollected waste, also contributes to the deterioration of air quality in Kampala.

Already, an ongoing study by the Uganda heart institute shows an increase of heart diseases that were virtually absent up to the end of the 1990s. By 2011, they comprised more than 10% of all admissions at the Mulago cardiology ward.

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