Last Updated on: 17th October 2023, 11:22 am
Gulu I In 2019, Gulu, a Municipality then through support from KFW constructed a channel along the Pece stream to control the overflow of water. Unfortunately, years after, wastes started filling up the tunnel while others were 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 but half of the population consumes food produced within wetlands. The foods (harvests) are supplied to over 50 markets while some are transported to Mbale and other districts from Easter 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 were regarded as “unclean” and the contamination level was found at 20 per cent.
Mahmoud Khalid, a student pursuing a master’s degree in food security and community nutrition at Gulu University who also doubles as the assistant registrar at Gulu University, in his research on the microbiological safety of fruits and vegetables discovered harmful bacteria in the food system supplied in the City.
His study centred on Biochemical and polymerase chain reaction [PCR] analysis – a study he did 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]. These elements are potential agents for transmission of foodborne in all fruits and vegetables supplied in the markets.
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 was tabled to Parliament by Gulu City West Member of Parliament Martin Ojara Mapenduzi on July 18, 2023. Ojara later tasked the government through the Ministry of Agriculture to address pressing concerns of food contamination in Northern Uganda.
Without the brunt of agrochemical practices and proper waste management and policy on wetlands in Gulu City, in a year to come many lives will clamour amid the level of food and water contamination –putting the health of people at risk.
Charles Apiya says 15 years ago it was a different story for him. He is surviving on the wetland as a farmer. He lives in Pudyek cell. Apiya has always used synthetic pesticides to kill pests but little did he know he was putting 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 her exposure to chemicals.
Jimmy Owor sees any pieces of land in the wetlands as an alternative farmland to support his family amid changes in weather patterns. As crops fail to yield when planted a distance away from the water sources, every morning he picks his hoe and slasher and moves only 30 meters to his garden in the wetland to weed or plant.
For decades, Owor did not know the level of water contamination and crops he had been supplying to the markets was hazardous and would later compromise the health of the consumers.
The wetlands he occupies within the City are already claimed and encroached into by the people living near the belts; others have rented them to the migrants and ‘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 as Jimmy disclosed.
“People are growing crops in the wetlands as it is the available source and an 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 on the consumers,” he told tndNews in an interview.
Jimmy, now 36, is a resident of Cubu cell in the Laroo-Peace Division in Gulu City. He has utilised the wetlands for nearly two decades from when he was 21. Owning up 10 plots of land within the wetlands, years on, he has farmed with chemicals to boost his yields, mainly vegetables which he supplies to the local markets.
Blessed with many children, Jimmy has not only used the wetlands for farming, but the water turned to be their drinking and bathing points. Sadly, he ended up contracting skin disease.
He has regularly battled with a scabby disease whose treatment in clinics from the neighbourhood would cost him between shs80, 000- shs100, 000 each time he would fall sick. His children too, are often sick.
The increasing chemical use in the wetlands has forced the locals to abandon the water in the wetlands which was their primary source of clean water for domestic use as water scarcity hit hard the city suburbs.
Solomon Obol is a senior clinical officer and the in-charge at Aywee Health Center III in Gulu City. He acknowledged the burden of skin diseases in the area – saying it ranges from 5 to 10 cases weekly.
According to Obol, 50 per cent of local people living in slums in Gulu lack pit latrines in their homes and they go for open defecation in the wetlands. Others, he said have linked their toilets directly to the wetlands resulting in waterborne diseases, notably, typhoid, diarrhoea, intestinal worm infections and skin diseases.
“Any chemical (pesticide) sprayed in a crop is harmful to our health when we consume uncooked food, many local farmers are spraying their vegetables in a bid to yield crop, but not knowing it will contaminate crops,” Obol explained.
Obol noted that increasing food and water contaminations are fueling the level of severe malnutrition cases as reported at Aywee Health facility. The health centre records between 1-5 cases weekly.
Issac Abuwa, a nutritionist at Care Uganda acknowledged that the level of malnutrition cases in children aged between 1-10 years, and women of productive ages 15- 49 is rising in Acholi sub-region. 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.
“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 observed.
Whereas the region is known for bulk production of food crops, local farmers end up selling them to middlemen which, according to him is contributing to food scarcity because 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 to purchase food from the local farmers in 2022, according to the report by Care Uganda.
“Food can be safe from the garden but on processing it of cooking, to a plate and the final consumers, it may get contaminated but we need to keep good hygiene, sanitation, good storage to avoid contamination,” Abuwa said.
Aggrey Atuhaire, crop and pesticide safety specialist with the National Association Community Occupation of Health [UNACOH] said food crops in the wetlands are easily contaminated through the release of agro-chemicals 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 agro-chemicals affecting food safety in the country,” Atuhaire observed.
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 to the market, calling for the regular use of integrated pest management and holistic soil management, adding that the practice would save food contamination.
“The best alternative approached to fight agro-chemicals 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 contaminated product or not,” Atuharie revealed.
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 food with poisonous contents.
The estimated global population in 2050 will reach over 9.7 billion people, says 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 per cent of children below age five die globally as a result of foodborne infections, including pregnant mothers and migrants 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,” said Deputy Executive Director of UNBS Bageine Patricia Ejalu.
Decimon Anywar, an environmental expert from Northern Uganda acknowledged that knowledge gaps and ignorance remain a big challenge in Gulu City in knowing which water is good or not. He calls for periodic assessment of the problem by the City authorities to find the level of contaminants in the water and to put clear by-laws and enforcement to protect wetlands.
“Can the City council provide proper management of waste, through treating waste, building slags for drying wastes and sensitizing the local community to understand the level of food and water contamination,” Decimon urged.
He said that many activities in the wetlands are contributing to food and water contamination, revealing that many water sources within the City have been turned to washing bays, motor vehicle garages and pork joints. He said lubricants or greases from these places flow into water sources and are bad for human health.
The leakage in sewage systems to water sources, he also said can fuel contamination because it contains some acidic chemicals like Leads (Pb) mercury and cardio axenic when absorbed into water streams is harmful to human systems and you can contract waterborne disease and cancer.
Aryemo Joecy Latigo, Gulu City environment officer commented that the government of Uganda is not funding the environment sector, making it difficult to enforce encroachers within wetlands. She said the City is only depending on partners that are supporting them not fully in waste management. The partners are Taka-Taka, GIZ, Ceed Uganda, and Fetchner, among others.
However, she disclosed that Gulu City under NDP3 is trying to implement a plan to plant trees along wetlands and at schools to mitigate climate change and towards greening the City.
“The population of Gulu City is overpowering, this creates big challenging gaps in managing waste. The level of waste being generated is too much, even landfill is becoming full, it sometimes floods into a wetland during the rainy season because it is near,” Aryemo noted.
According to her report on wetlands, she found that 85 per cent of wetlands in Gulu City with an estimated 600 hectares of land are being destroyed for agricultural activities and settlement. But in the previous years from 2017-2021 reports, over 60 per cent of 400 hectares of wetlands were destroyed with a total of 400 hectares.
Further, in a 2023 report by the environmental officer Ochan Michael Christopher, over 3,000 people are living, and farming in wetlands. Nine (9) people have acquired land titles within wetlands. 5 per cent have established permanent buildings, washing bays, pork joints and bars.
This story was produced with the support of the American Jewish World Service [AJWS] through a partnership with Northern Uganda Media Club (NUMEC, Gulu – Uganda).