The descent from the western rift valley escarpment gives a splendid view of a crater lake in Queen Elizabeth National Park in Western Uganda.
From a distance, structures adjacent to the shoreline look like fish cages. Unfortunately, there is no fish in these waters or any ordinary plants as the saline status of the lake cannot allow their presence.
Further downhill, as one gets closer to the shoreline, the appearance takes on the look of walkways partitioning the lake Katwe beaches into sections.
An unmistakable smell of suphur is evident in the air. It somehow indicates the historical origins of this age-old water body located a stone’s throw from Katwe town.
Genesis of the status quo
National Environment Management Authority data of 2010 indicates that Lake Katwe is an explosion crater lake with salt content of 13.5%.
According to the information, unlike conventional volcanic mountain set ups, explosion craters lack the conical mountainous shapes as they simply blow ash plus rock fragments to distant locations.
The lake is believed to have taken shape around the 13th century with a lake-bed salt deposit about 0.8metres thick.
“Salt is said to have been mined from here since the thirteenth century. The quantity is too huge to be exhausted so fast,” says Augustine Koli, the Kasese district environment officer.
According to Koli, it has been estimated that about 12million tonnes of salt lie in the rather still brackish waters occupying about 3.5 square kilometres.
“The shores are occupied by small ponds or salt pans from which salt is extracted from the bottom through a process called salt panning. These plots of about 10 by 12ft and approximately 5ft deep are private and inheritable,” he discloses.
Agnes Mugoha, a labourer explains that the salt mined is categorised as crude used as animal lick, edible salt or unwashed salt.
“The females are majorly left to work in beachside ponds as men go out onto the lake for rock salt extraction. We use our feet to crash the salt to small crystals of edible salt,” Mugoha narrates.
Koli reveals that an association of rock salt extraction issues licences for removal of salt from the middle of lake for the sake of sustainable mining.
“It is one sure way of regulating the amount picked up within a certain period of time. Over-mining would pose serious consequences for the delicate lake ecosystem,” he adds.
An estimated 25,000 locals inhabit the neighbourhood of which over half are directly dependant on the salt mine for their livelihood.
There is no outflow or inflow into the lake meaning rainfall can significantly add onto the volume of Lake Katwe waters.
However, as Deo Mugisa, a local explains, rains aren’t welcome at all due to the dilution effect on the briny local treasure.
“Locals would rather stand the sunshine than rain. Rainy season means loss in production as less salt is extractable,” Mugisa says.
He believes the run-off from surrounding slopes does not make matters any better as it all pours into the lake.
“The flooding of salt pans spells doom for the workers since contents of the plots called ‘gardens’ take much longer to make much cherished crystals. The scorching sun instead helps vapourise more of the water thereby making the waters more concentrated to boost easy crystallisation of salt,” Koli divulges.
Koli says the lake could feed an industrial extraction plant with a production rate of seven tonnes of salt per hour for 34years.
“Unfortunately, the corrosive nature of the saline waters was underestimated when a salt-making facility was built here by Idi Amin Dada in the 1970s. The pipes laid into the lake got eaten away within months compromising the project,” he says.
But this does not stop local dealers from packing their proceeds into sacks and make cash through exports to Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo.
Sam Cheptoris, the water and environment minister encourages locals to plant more vegetation on the slopes to prevent run-offs into the lake.
“This is a national natural resource that can be put to sustainable benefit once it is carefully preserved,” Cheptoris advises.
Koli adds that a local firm has pledged to avail protective suits to workers who in the search for a wage wade in the toxic waters the entire day especially women.
“The lack of wildlife is a testimony of the toxicity of the lake. Women have suffered uterine complications while men have itchy private parts.
He laments that the male workers have been improvising safety precautions by using condoms while females wear pads