KAMPALA – If you were given a glass of water from Mt Elgon Rivers, there are two things you would notice about the water; it smells bad and it is brownish.
But more than that, it has black sand particles and dead algae, making it emit a pungent smell.
This has caused great concern about its effect on the hygiene of those who live around and below this mountain.
Environmentalists and scientists say encroachment on the mountain for farming and settlement are the factors affecting the water.
“It has been on for the past many years, we can’t do anything and everyone seems not to understand,” Mr Silas Gimui of Masira in Bulambuli District at the slopes of Mt. Elgon says.
According to Mr Gimui, the dirt in the water is worsening so fast that soon it may be impossible for the residents living around the mountain to get safe drinking water.
Ms Sarah Bisikwa, the district environment officer for Manafwa District says what makes the water dirty is continued use of globally outlawed chemicals that endanger humans and the environment.
Ms Bisikwa said experts have detected deadly chemicals in the water collected from Mt Elgon.
“A number of banned agro chlorinated pesticides such as DDT, endosulfan, dieldrin and lindane that are used by encroachers have been detected in the water showing that they may be in use,” Ms Bisikwa said.
She said most of the chemicals, also known as persistent organic pollutants (POP), are listed under the Stockholm Convention as the dirty dozen because they persist in the environment and threaten human health.
The Mt. Elgon conservation area manager Mr. Fred Kizza warned of impending “human catastrophe” if the districts surrounding Mt. Elgon do not seek measures to address the increasing degradation of the natural environment.
“There is general decline in the quality of water at Mt. Elgon, the quantity has reduced and the water has become dirty, this explains why incidents of cholera, dysentery and other diarrhoea-related diseases are common in the areas surrounding the mountain,” said Mr. Kizza.
Mr. Kizza says UWA fieldwork survey reports and research indicate that the encroachment has soared to about 25,000 hectares as far as high altitude plants called Lubelia signalling great danger of environmental catastrophe for Pallisa, Budaka, Tororo and Butaleja districts, which are found in the plains.
According to Mr. Kizza, the forest soils have adequate physical, biological and chemical properties to maintain and improve vegetation growth, hydrologic functions, nutrients cycling and slope stability but that all the soil has lost its properties because of encroachment.
A study carried out by UWA in 2013 indicates that most rivers that flow from Mt. Elgon national park are drying up and that water from most of the rivers is now unsafe for human consumption once untreated.
An ecological study on the water quality analysis from selected rivers at Mt. Elgon national park signed by Mr. David Ogaram for Mbale area water manager then  also says massive encroachment beyond the bamboo zone were endangering the ecological functions of Mt. Elgon at a great rate.
“We took water samples from rivers inside the park, park boundary and outside the park for Physico-chemical and bacterial examination and it was deduced that due to massive encroachment, farming and settlement, the rivers had a high number of dissolved solids that contaminated the waters,” reads the report dated August 2009, in part.
The report says that River Manafwa that supplies water to Mbale municipality, Tororo, Mbale and Butaleja was the most contaminated water with a total of 59.7 mg per litre total dissolved solids while Chebonet River in Kapchorwa stood at 22 mg/litre, Sisiyi stood at 25.3mg/litre while Soloko River was at 32.3mg/litre.
Reports at UWA also reveal that the watercolour, turbidity, electrical conductivity, Alkalinity, hardness, iron content and manganese content have also been affected greatly.
The other affected rivers are Lwakhakha [Manafwa], Soloko [Sironko], Sipi [Kapchorwa], Sisiyi [Bulambuli] and Ririma [Manafwa] all of which originate from Mt Elgon.
Mr Charles Wakube, the environment officer for Mbale District also pointed out that Bugisu, Bukedi and Sebei sub-regions’ fertile soils are being eroded to River Nile, Lake Kyoga and various swamps in the low land areas without control because of the destruction of the vegetation cover at the Mt. Elgon national park areas.
“And this means that all the dirt collected in Mt Elgon areas is also being deposited into the low land areas making the water in those areas also unsafe to drink too,” said Mr Wakube.
The MP for Manjiya County in Bududa District Mr. John Baptist Nambeshe said there is very high bio-chemical accumulation due to massive encroachment, farming and settlement which also pauses danger to the entire bio-diversity
“This massive encroachment at Mt Elgon National Park coupled with deforestation, poor farming methods signals an environmental disaster for the region,” said Mr Nambeshe.
Dr Gideon Wamasebu, the DHO Manafwa says that the greed and reckless nature of human activities at the Mt. Elgon water catchment area is killing and destroying the quality of the rivers.
“The algae you see under the water and black particles are symptoms of heavy pollution and silting, the algae can disappear with time but leaves disastrous effects,” said Dr Wamasebu.
Dr. Tom Okurut, the Executive Director of NEMA blames primitive and harmful agricultural practices and indiscriminate felling of trees as some of the destructive activities that expose the land to erosive agents like rain, which wash the soils into the rivers resulting into silting.
Dr Okurut said restricted chemicals being used by untrained persons at the mountain like DDT could be the cause of the dirty water.
“The greatest factors contributing to dirty water at Mt Elgon can be summed up into poverty, apathy, ignorance, unsustainable population growth and weak law enforcement,” said Dr Okurut.
Without putting communities in the right place, the country is going to lose this water catchment mountain supplying millions of people in Uganda and Kenya and the livelihood of 30 million people in East Africa who depend on it directly and indirectly.
Mt Elgon is vital to the social and economic functioning of the area and is a water catchment supplying millions of people in Uganda and Kenya (van Heist, 1994). It is also an important area for species conservation due to the richness of endemic plant and animal species which can be found on the mountain (Howard, 1991).
Districts neighbouring Mt Elgon as a water catchment area are Kapchorwa, Bukwo, Kween, Sironko, Mbale, Manafwa, Bulambuli, Bududa, Kumi, Tororo, Butaleja, Budaka, Kibuku, Bukedea, Busia and Pallisa.