Uganda's environmental watchdog has warned of devastating consequences if Chinese investors insist on mining sand from Lake Victoria.
The National Environment Management Authority (Nema) spokesperson, Naomi Karekaho, said Chinese firm Mango Tree Group Ltd was only permitted to manufacture ships and must first seek approval to engage in sand extraction.
“We want to categorically state that Mango Tree Group Ltd’s activities of engaging in sand mining are illegal. We only cleared them to manufacture ships after they secured a license from the Uganda Investment Authority, not carrying out dredging on the lake shores,” said Ms Karekaho on Wednesday.
“The sites where they want to excavate sand are very crucial. We warned them against tampering with them because any destruction may spark off a serious ecological disaster we may not handle as a country. They can think of other areas but an EIA [Environmental Impact Assessment] has to first be carried out,” she added.
On September 2 last year, the company submitted its first EIA report to Nema, seeking approval to excavate sand from three sites on the lake shores of Nkumba near Entebbe, near Kimi Island in Mukono District and near Kavejanja-Buusi Island, Wakiso District.
But Nema rejected the EIA on grounds that the company’s activities would have a negative impact on the eco-system.
In a June 1, 2017 letter to Mango Tree Group directors, the Nema executive director, Dr Tom Okurut, explained that Kimi Island, for instance, is a tilapia breeding area, while Buusi and Nkumba are breeding and nursery areas for Nile Perch as well as active fishing grounds, which cannot be tampered with.
But the company directors, led by a Mr Water Lee, insist that to develop water transport on Lake Victoria, they need to dredge a ship channel on the lake bed to open up a route to Mwanza Port in Tanzania.
“To develop water transport on Lake Victoria, we need to do some dredging in some parts of the lake where the ship cannot sail well. We have injected more than $35 million (about Shs127b) in this business, but we ask the government to work with Nema and offer us a dredging licence and we begin our project,” said Mr Shuchun Fan, another company director.
“Currently, we don’t have a licence and that’s why we can’t do anything though we have launched the ship to show government how ready we are,” he added.
The plan by Mango Tree Group Ltd to excavate sand from the lake has since caused a standoff between Wakiso District chairperson Matia Lwanga Bwanika and councillors.
While Mr Bwanika insists the company’s activities will kill aquatic organisms in the lake, the councillors led by the speaker, Mr Simon Nsubuga, say since the district needs money to facilitate various development projects, sand mining can be embraced as of the key revenue sources.
Early this month, Mr Bwanika accused councillors of taking bribes from Gen Salim Saleh, the coordinator of the Operation Wealth Creation programme, to endorse the Chinese sand mining project, an accusation they have since denied.
In an interview on Wednesday, Mr Bwanika said he will not yield to any pressure to back a project he believes will endanger the lake.
“We are poor as a district, but we shall not seek temporary economic gains at the expense of the environment because if we do so, our future will be bleak as a country,” he said.
Gen Saleh has since openly backed the excavation of sand from the lake, saying the country must make sacrifices if it is to attain industrialisation.
Mango Tree had initially been licensed by the Uganda Investment Authority to build ships, a port and ship yard at Kawuku. It was also expected to use one of the built dredgers to open the water ways. A dredger they built was recently commissioned by State minister for Trade Michael Werikhe.
Environmentalists have on several occasions warned that unchecked sand mining activities in lakes and major swamps across the country will lead to a serious ecological disaster.
But the booming construction industry where sand is much needed seems to have blinded those in authority thus sacrificing the environment at the expense of perceived revenue.
Reported by Joseph Kiggundu and Al-Mahdi Ssenkabirwa