Uganda's Sewerage Problems: Where Does the Buck Stop?

Uganda's Sewerage Problems: Where Does the Buck Stop?


Uganda's progress downhill in sanitary terms went so well that most of Kampala's residents now compete for the sidewalks with openly flowing sewage on the streets.

By Ivan Kibuka-Kiguli
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First published: May 5, 2008


Once again, problems with Uganda's primary raw water sources are making headlines. It has been reported in the media that the level and type of algae in Lake Victoria are now lethal. Are you shocked? I expect you to be. Are you surprised? Only if you do not live in Uganda or have not visited in a long, long time.


Once upon a time, long before I was born, Uganda was baptized the 'Pearl of Africa' by Winston Churchill. Back then, I am told, all was spic and span. Sometime during the 1970s, things started going downhill. Uganda's progress downhill in sanitary terms went so well that most of Kampala's residents now compete for the sidewalks with openly flowing sewage on the streets. Proper sewers are non-existent in most suburbs of the city, let alone other parts of the country. Where they do exist, they are blocked not only because they are poorly maintained but because they are overloaded and abused too.

During Uganda's trademark plentiful rainy seasons, the chickens really come home to roost. For the majority of Kampala's poor, their poor living conditions become more obvious when the floods arrive. They often find themselves fighting for life, swimming with floating feaces, rabid dogs and discarded plastic bottles (I wanted to leave the condoms out)!

How did things get so bad in the first place? The wanainchi (Joe Public) say it is the local government administrations that are failing them. The 'local leaders' (politicians) argue that the central government lacks proper planning resources. Meanwhile, the central government is not happy with the shabby attitude exhibited by many wanainchi in the form of irresponsible wastewater and rubbish disposal.

Regardless of whose side you take, a few things cannot be ignored. We cannot, for example, excuse the central and local governments' lack of effective planning abilities.

Uganda's sewerage infrastructure is generally dilapidated and outdated. Most (if any) drainage infrastructure that has been built in the last thirty years was either poorly designed or was built with poor grade materials. To ensure that such infrastructure is well and truly of little consequence, it is often very poorly maintained.

Poor maintenance can take a number of forms, not just council engineers failing to unblock drains. Take for example, the degree to which many citizens foul and abuse the existing drainage systems. It is quite common to find them offloading their rubbish bins straight into any open drainage channels. Many do not seem to realize that besides normal silting up, it is this very practice that brings floods to their bedrooms, literally. Some are more aggressive than that. They build permanent and obviously illegal structures right over any public drains! Many factories discharge their wastewater directly into streams and lakes without any primary treatment at all. What you do not see does not hurt. Or is it?

We all agree that this state of affairs is unsustainable. The results of our incompetence are staring right back at us from our lakes, rivers, wells and taps. We trust that the guys in local administration, central government and the national environment regulator know what they are supposed to do. We pay taxes and so expect nothing less than right-on-the- spot decisions and their strict implementation from them. If they do not and we do not hold them accountable (this usually starts with complaints and ends with firing), then we have ourselves to blame. We, the locals need to drastically change our attitude to collective ownership of public sewers/drainage pipes. Abusing them affects us all. If we continue with our current ways, should we blame anybody else for drinking water fouled by the same rubbish we threw into the sewers? The buck stops with us!

By Ivan Kibuka-Kiguli
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First published: May 5, 2008
The author is a pollution control equipment engineer/consultant and a proud active member of UGPulse.