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Wetland farming poses a threat to food safety in Gulu City

(Last Updated On: 12 October 2023)

Gulu I Without the brunt of agrochemical practices and proper waste management policy of wetlands in Gulu city, a year to come many people will have health issues as the levels of food and water contamination are expected to be high.

Within pieces of land in the wetlands in Gulu City, Jimmy Owor sees alternative farmland to support his family amid changing weather patterns as crops planted a distance away from the wetland fail to yield.

Every morning, Owor picks his hoe and slasher and moves to his garden for planting. This garden inside the wetland is located roughly 30 meters from his home.

For decades, Owor says he had no knowledge about the level of water contamination and crops he supplies to the markets as being hazardous which would later compromise the health of the consumers.

The wetlands he occupies within the City are claimed and encroached into by the people living near the belts; others have rented them to the migrants and the ‘urban poor’ who consider farming as a source of livelihood. The land within the wetland is rented between shs150, 000 and shs200, 000 per plot, Jimmy disclosed.

“People are growing crops in the wetlands as it is the available source of alternative for survival while others are claiming it for settlement. After harvest, I always supply it to the markets within Gulu City but nobody has ever told me about the impacts of the supplies on the consumers,” he tells tndNews.

Jimmy, 36, a resident of Cubu cell in Laroo-Peace Division in Gulu City has been farming for over 15 years in the wetlands. He started just at the age of 21. Owning up 10 plots of land within the wetlands, years on, he has farmed with chemicals to boost his yields, mainly vegetables he later supplies to the local markets.

Together with many children, Jimmy has not only used the wetlands for farming but also the water turned to be for consumption and bathing point. Unfortunately, he ended up contracting skin diseases.

He has regularly battled a scabby disease whose treatment in clinics from the neighbourhood would cost him between shs80,000 to shs100,000 each time he would fall sick. His children too, are often falling sick.

A finding show that the increasing chemical use in the wetlands has forced some locals to abandon the water in the bogs which was their primary source for domestic use amid the scarcity of water in the suburb.

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Solomon Obol is the senior clinical officer and the in-charge at Aywee Health Centre III in Gulu City. He acknowledges the burden of skin diseases in the area. He reveals that 5 to 10 cases are registered weekly at the facility.

According to Obol, 50 per cent of local people in slums in Gulu lack pit latrines in their homes and go for open defecation in the wetlands.

Others, he says link their toilets directly to the wetlands resulting in waterborne diseases, notably, typhoid, diarrhoea, intestinal worm infections, and skin diseases consumed in uncooked food and water.

“Any chemical (pesticide) sprayed in a crop is harmful to our health when we consume uncooked food, many local farmers are spraying their vegetables to yield not knowing it will contaminate it.

Obol urges that increasing food and water contamination is fueling the level of severe malnutrition cases as reported at Aywee Health facility.

Issac Abuwa is a nutritionist expert at Care Uganda. He acknowledges the level of malnutrition cases in children aged between 1 and 10 years, and women of productive ages from 15- 49, saying it is on the high in Acholi. At least 33 per cent of 1 million people comprising children and women in Northern Uganda suffer from severe malnutrition due to poor food safety culture.

Also read: Agroecology, a remedy to mycotoxins in Northern Uganda

“Without scaling up business plans globally through national development plans, nutrition and actual policies for food security by the government of Uganda, malnutrition will more than double,” Abuwa observes.

Whereas the region is known for bulk production of food crops, local farmers end up selling them to middlemen which, according, to Abuwa is contributing to food scarcity, noting that most households are forced to buy low-quality food which compromises their health.

In the three districts of Gulu, Kitgum and Lamwoo, the middlemen have spent over shs110 billion on foodstuff purchases from the local farmers in 2022, according to the report by Care Uganda.

“Food can be safe from the garden but on processing it for cooking, to the plates and the final consumers, it may get contaminated, but we need to keep good hygiene, sanitation, good storage to avoid contamination,” Abuwa advises.

In 2019, Gulu City through support from KFW constructed a channel along the Pece stream to control the overflow of water but the wastes have filled up the tunnel, while others are carried and dumped into the farmlands within the wetlands. Such wastes, according to health experts end up in the food web which affects food safety.

The city currently has a total population of 271,049 people but half of the population consumes food produced within wetlands, the food crops are supplied to over 50 markets while some are transported to Mbale and other districts from Eastern and Central Uganda.

According to the city health department, over 39,000 people in Gulu City consume contaminated water, and over 6000 of them depend on water from wells, and springs in the areas within the wetlands already exposed to hazardous waste and agro-chemicals.

In 2018, according to research by the Gulu Health Department and Harvard University, over 50 water points within the city (municipality at that time) were regarded as unclean and the contamination level stood at 20 per cent.

Mahmoud Khalid, a student pursuing his master’s degree in science, food security and community nutrition at Gulu University and doubles as the assistant registrar at the same University, in his research on the microbiological safety of fruits and vegetables, uncovered harmful bacteria in the food supply in the city.

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His study centred on Biochemical and Polymerase Chain Reaction [PCR] from 2018-2023. It indicates that 40 per cent of vegetables in Gulu city contain salmonella, SP bacteria and 3.3 per cent of Shiga toxin-produced ecoli [STEC].

According to Gulu University’s three-year research conducted in twelve districts in Northern Uganda between August 2018 and 2022, 98 per cent of food grains in the region are contaminated by mycotoxins.

The finding raised concern after it was presented to the Parliament by the Gulu City West Member of Parliament Martin Ojara Mapenduzi. Ojara, in his motion, has tasked the government through the Ministry of Agriculture to address pressing concerns of food contamination in Northern Uganda.

The motion was presented before Parliament on July 18, 2023.

To Charles Charles Apiya, 15 years ago, it was a different story to him. He survived on the wetland as a local farmer within Pudyek cell, often using synthetic pesticides to kill pests but little did he know he had put his family at risk.

“I didn’t know that farming in the wetland would cost me over shs2 million for the treatment of my wife after exposing her to cancer infection,” he recounts in an interview.

Four years later, his beloved wife contracted cancer of the head and eye and lost sight. “My wife is still battling with the disease,” Apiya discloses, suspecting origin to have been exposure to chemicals.

Aggrey Atuhaire is a crop and pesticide safety specialist with the National Association of Community Occupation of Health [UNACOH]. He says food crops in the wetlands are easily contaminated through the release of the agrochemicals which end up in plants or crops.

“Africa Continent is the second leading importer of pesticides applied in the crops. European Countries, USA, Canada, and Asia are leading States, but Uganda does not have regulatory control over imported acidic pesticides, every private company can be allowed to practice agrochemicals and it is affecting food safety in the country,” Atuhaire says.

He, however, advised local governments, and extension workers to take the lead in monitoring local farmers to bridge the knowledge gaps on chemical use and supplies on the market. Regular use of integrated pest management, and holistic soil management, would save food contamination, she notes.

“The best alternative approach to fight agrochemicals in food is to practice agroecology farming and use of bio-pesticides in the market through promoting kitchen gardens which control what is coming from the garden, whether it is a contaminated product or not,” Atuharie reveals.

According to research done by ESAFF Uganda, in 2022-2023 about 600 million various food types consumed globally are unsafe, thus over 400,000 people globally fall sick as a result of eating poisonous foods.

The estimated global population in 2050 will reach over 9.7 billion people. Many countries that are not in the middle-income economy would struggle to provide clean food to local people, meaning more deaths.

World Health Organization has estimated that about 125,000 people 40 percent of children below age five die globally as a result of foodborne infections, as well as pregnant mothers and migrant communities who are directly affected by lack of clean food to eat.

“For many years, UNBS has been trying to implement a policy to manage food standards to a different institution in Northern Uganda, but bringing them together as one party is becoming a big challenge,” Deputy Executive Director of UNBS, Bageine Patricia Ejalu tells tndNews.

Wetland

Decimon Anywar, an environmental expert from Northern Uganda acknowledges that lack of knowledge gaps, and ignorance remain a big challenge in Gulu City in knowing which water is good or not good for watering plants, this, to him, needs periodic assessment by the City authorities to find the level of contaminants in the water and put clear laws and enforcement to protect wetlands.

“Can City Council provide proper management of waste, through treating waste, building slags for drying waste and sensitizing the local community to understand the level of food, water contamination but not relaxing?” Decimon asks.

Decimon contends that many activities in the wetland are contributing to food and water contamination, saying many water sources within have been turned to washing bays, and motor repair clinics yet remains of lubricants and soaps fill the water sources once it rains.

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He adds that linkage in sewage systems to water sources can fuel contamination because it contains some acidic chemicals like lead (Pb), mercury, cardio axenic; adding that when absorbed into a water source is harmful to human systems.

Decimon further notes that agricultural activities such as mining, quarrying and use of fertilizers within wetlands bring different elements when they sink into the water and change the chemical, biological and physical conditions of the water.

Aryemo Joecy Latigo, Gulu city environment officer says the government of Uganda is not funding the environment sector, making it difficult to enforce encroachers of wetlands. Because the city is only depending on partners and they are just supporting waste management, she says, citing partners like Taka-taka, GIZ, Ceed Uganda, and Fetchner.

Aryemo further discloses that Gulu City under NDP3 is trying to implement a plan to plant trees along wetlands and at schools to mitigate climate change and also to green the city.

“The population of Gulu City is overpowering the city, this makes big challenging gaps in managing waste, and the level of waste being generated is too much.”

According to her reports on wetlands, she attributes over 85 per cent of wetlands in Gulu city with an estimated 600 hectares being destroyed for agricultural activities and settlement.

But in the previous years from 2017-2021 reports, Gulu had over 60 percent of wetlands destroyed with a total of 400 hectares.

In a 2023 report from environmental officer Ochan Michael Christopher, over 3,000 people are living and farming in wetlands. Of these, nine people have acquired land titles within wetlands. 5 per cent of people have established permanent buildings, washing bays, pork joints and bars.

This story was produced with support from the Agroecology School for Journalists and Communicators and the Eastern and Southern Africa Small Scale Farmers’ Forum (ESSAF).

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