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Ban on old fridges starts biting as NEMA swoops in
Publish Date: Jun 02, 2010
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By Gerald Tenywa

MUSIC muffles the noise of huge hammers banging against metallic materials in Katwe, a shanty suburb of Kampala City. In this atmosphere of song and clutter, local artisans are hard at work. They have mastered the skill of turning metals into useful items prompting the nickname, “Magezi ga Baganda”meaning items made locally.

The place is littered with refrigerators and some people have baptised this part of Kampala “Refrigerator City”. This is where many people who never dreamt of owning a refrigerator or taking chilled drinks in their homes meet their childhood dreams. Katwe artisans give the archaic fridges that are regarded as dustbin materials by the original owners in Europe, a second life.

While the fridges have hooked so many people, particularly women who chill items cheaply in the kiosks, a ban imposed on old fridges recently is pulling people to their knees. It is giving dealers in old fridges sleepless nights. Sitting by his business, Hajji Habib Kulumba is afraid of losing his business since the Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) working under the advice of NEMA has started implementing the ban. “It is baffling to see Government banning secondhand refrigerators yet it is refrigerants (gases), which should be of interest,” says Kulumba.

Margaret Aanyu, environment impact assessment officer and Ozone officer at NEMA says more than 50% of the refrigeration and air-condition equipment imported into Uganda is faulty. “These old pieces of equipment are the main source of leakage of refrigerants and harmful emissions into the atmosphere,” she says. In addition, the technicians do not posses the skills to handle delicate refrigeration and air conditioning equipment. “There is need for incentives for importing ozone-friendly technologies and high taxes to encourage phasing out obsolete technologies,” she says.

The ozone layer, a gas that occurs naturally in the atmosphere (between 10 and 50km) is fading because of chemicals referred to as ozone-depleting substances. With the ozone layer damaged, the harmful rays from the sun, ultra-violet rays could easily reach the earth.

Ultra- violet rays are blamed for causing skin cancers, eye cataracts and weakening of human immunity, lowering of crop yields and extermination of aquatic species. Ozone-depleting substances are responsible for creating the ozone hole that exists in South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand and in the Northern Hemisphere over Greenland. Evidence accumulated since the 1970s indicates that one particle of chlorine can easily destroy 100,000 molecules of ozone while bromide is 40 times more destructive.

They can last in the atmosphere between 55 and 1,700 years. Apart from refrigerators, ozone-depleting substances also emanate from flower farming that use methyl bromide, dry-cleaning using carbon tetrachloride and fire fighting relying on halons.

Uganda has adopted protective measures, after signing the Vienna Convention and the Montreal Protocol on substances that deplete the ozone layer. “We should keep in mind that the atmosphere has no boundaries. Ozone-depleting substances released in any part of the world destroys the ozone layer and will impact every part of the world over time, says Jessica Eriyo, the state minister for environment.

According to Arnold Waiswa, NEMA’s director of monitoring and environmental compliance, the crackdown on old refrigerators is being done under two regulations. “We have the national management of ozone-depleting substances of 2001. We are also drafting regulations to implement the recently enacted Finance Act, which banned secondhand refrigerators,” says Waiswa. He explains that the regulations on management of ozone-depleting substances were meant to phase out chemicals that are dangerous to the ozone layer also known as ozone- depleting substances.

However, the regulations under the Finance Act go beyond the regulations on management of the ozone-depleting substances.

“We want also to protect Uganda against becoming a dumping ground for electronic waste so we will also seriously consider the age of the equipment to be imported into the country,” he says. “It is cheaper to make a new refrigerator than to recycle an old one. So some developed countries export electronic waste, which we call reconditioned refrigerators.”

Currently, refrigerators and freezers, according to Godfrey Sebaggala, the chairperson of the association bringing together importers and dealers, the business employs 3,500 people. This, Sebaggala says, includes importers, sellers, technicians and other service providers. He puts the total number of people living off the secondhand refrigerators at 35,000 since the dealers have people to look after.

He also argues that Uganda is a Less Developed Country with a par capita income of less than $300 a year meaning that most Ugandans cannot afford a new refrigerator. For instance, Sebaggala says small refrigerators with a capacity of 300 litres costs sh1.1m and the one of 400 litres goes for sh2.1m as opposed to reconditioned ones of the same capacity that go for sh0.4m and sh0.6m respectively.

“It is imperative to note that 80% of the reconditioned refrigerators go for commercial use and 20% are used domestically,” says Sebaggala. “This implies that the ban will affect commercial refrigeration users who are mainly low income earners, selling for example milk, soda, water, fruits and juices in kiosks.”

Armed with such arguments, Sebaggala’s group petitioned the budgetary committee of Parliament in a letter dated July 8 to revisit the ban. Parliament gave a grace period of six months from September 31 to March 31.

Uganda phased out some of the ozone-depleting substances like methyl bromide, a pesticide used by flower farmers ahead of schedule. Currently, the country is building capacity among technicians and law enforcement agencies and encouraging importance of ozone-friendly substances such as ammonia, isobutene and carbondioxide.

Although alternatives to chemicals that are unfriendly to the ozone layer exist, they have also been found to cause global warming and climate change.

This, Aanyu says, has prompted the global community to impose restrictions on production of such chemicals starting 2008 and importation by 2013.

Asked how to deal with old refrigerators on the streets and people’s homes, Waiswa says they have started with curtailing importation of old refrigerators and then they will move on. But Kulumba says his group is lobbying Parliament to lift the ban in the coming national budget.
The writer is a journalist

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