Uganda: Is it worth the salt? Despite health concerns, artisanal miners continue to work

Undocumented workers are doing their best to allay health concerns at Uganda’s largest salt-producing lake. The new law should provide protection. So far, there has been little progress.

At first glance, the tree branches scraping across the water of Katui Lake look like a mesmerizing piece of art as they create different shapes in the water. While their arrangement may appear random to outsiders, each branch serves the thousands of artisanal salt miners who depend on the lake for their livelihood, marking the boundaries of the salt fields.

“These sectors you see are properties we own,” said Sarah Tinditiina, a salt miner who has worked here for 13 years. Tinditina scrapes rock salt from the lake bed every day. “We spent many hours in the evaporating water, which is why I felt very thirsty.”

Lake Katwe, located in Kasese District in western Uganda, is the country’s largest salt-producing lake and an important resource for Uganda’s growing salt industry. According to the United Nations Commodity Trade Statistics Database (among others including the Democratic Party), Uganda will Salt worth US$7.4 was exported in the year. Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Sudan.

Artisanal mining refers to the manual extraction of minerals using simple tools by workers who are not formally employed by mining companies. The practice of extracting salt from Katui Lake is a centuries-old tradition that dates back to pre-colonial times. Many of the salt pans on the lakeshore have been owned by the same family for decades, passed down from generation to generation. The lake has attracted an influx of job seekers in recent years. Today, an estimated 10,600 miners work here, the majority of whom are women. This is an increase of almost 50% compared to a decade ago.

Salt miners, whose weekly earnings range from 40,000 Ugandan shillings ($10) to 1 million shillings ($272), see hope in life in the lake. But many people are also worried about their health.

According to a 2018 report by the United Nations Development Program, salt mine workers who have been immersed in water bodies for long periods of time face the risk of sewage-borne diseases such as typhoid, cholera and diarrhea due to a lack of toilets. The report also found that long-term exposure to salt water can cause inflammation of reproductive organs and affect miners’ fertility rates. Men reported genital malformations, and female miners reported frequent miscarriages and infertility.

However, local medical experts interviewed by Global News Daily expressed doubts about the link between salt water and low birth rates. “The miners were worried that their body parts would be affected, but nothing happened,” said Paul Kaduyu, a gynecologist at Kampala’s Mengo Hospital. However, medical experts confirm that exposure to salt water can cause skin conditions that, if not treated properly, can worsen and lead to skin ulcers and infections.

When the Ugandan government passes the Mines and Minerals Act in 2022 to regulate the work of artisanal miners, Kawe Lake salt miners hope the bill will address their concerns. Under the new law, the Minister of Energy, Mines and Mineral Development can introduce measures to make the work of artisanal miners safer. As a result, salt miners want the government to facilitate access to protective equipment. However, this has never happened for the thousands of salt miners like Tinditina who work in Katui Lake without the proper mining licenses. Many of them said the government did not take their health concerns into consideration.

Without the right equipment, miners continue to rely mainly on makeshift protective measures. Men wear condoms or tie polythene bags around their genitals, while female miners wear sanitary napkins or smear mixed cassava dough on their genitals before entering the salty water.

“If a man ties up his penis for more than seven hours, blood circulation in the blood vessels can be compromised, causing problems,” says Dr. Joel Mirembe, Chief Medical Officer, Mulago National Referral Hospital.

Because women may not be able to afford sanitary napkins, they often choose used clothes, which may not be hygienic enough and become a “breeding ground for infection.” Yes, he added.

Tourists and journalists flocked to the lake in recent years after news spread across the country that salt miners were using condoms and sanitary napkins as protective gear.

Nicholas Kagongo, a former leader of the Lake Katwe Cooperative Society, said: “Seeing people using condoms at work and women stuffing themselves every working day of their lives, it’s It’s entertainment for people.” The Kawei Lake Cooperative is an organization that supports local representative interests. Salt miners.

The craftsmen didn’t like this, so they decided to hide the practice and stop talking about it.

Ibrahim Bahati and Ronald Aguma sat on the sidewalk, lining up pans. They have worked at the lake for 25 and 10 years respectively. As a gesture of welcome, Aguma extended her hand to greet him. “These are lies,” he said, referring to the use of condoms by male salt miners for protection. However, he is aware that working in the lake poses health risks. He believes the new law will improve their situation.

“We thought they were thinking of us. We were trying too hard and risking our lives,” Aguma said. “We go into the lake at 9 a.m. and get out at 5 p.m. Our bodies naturally shrink when we stay in the water for too long.”

He showed off the effects of the salt on him – a few old and new cuts on his elbows – while Bahati, who has worked here for some time, showed off the scars on his legs.

“I didn’t have any scars at first, but look what my legs have become,” Bahati said. To protect fresh wounds from salt water, miners used a cheap metallic glue that was not suitable for human skin and could cause skin, eye and respiratory irritation.

Seka Abdullakarim has been working here for four years and plans to quit his job for health reasons.
“I have to protect my life. I need a generation to my name,” he said, referring to his desire to have children. When asked what equipment he uses to protect himself from the salt water, he smiles and avoids the problem by wading in, causing a chain reaction.

Margaret Akol, director of Women Salt Miners, a local organization representing female salt miners for 20 years, disagrees with miners’ reluctance to talk about their work condition.

“As embarrassing as it is, there are no solutions if the problem remains hidden,” she said.
Meanwhile, Vincent Keady, deputy commissioner for licensing and regulation at the Geological Survey and Minerals Bureau, said the government lacked sufficient resources to improve working conditions for salt miners. While medical experts say condoms and sanitary napkins can cause skin irritation and infections, Kedi said the government plans to start distributing the simple protective devices. “Condoms and pads kept her safe,” he said.

According to Kedi, some miners reported having their uteruses removed, claiming it was related to exposure to salt water.

Global News Magazine could not independently confirm this claim, and gynecologists interviewed for this article said it was unlikely that exposure to salt water would lead to a hysterectomy. Tinditina said three of her salt mine colleagues had their uteruses removed.

“We have more problems than people think. It doesn’t stop with our skin peeling or itching,” Tinditiina said. “Some of us unfortunately lost our uteruses.”

Not far from where the miners work, an abandoned salt factory stands beside the lake. It operated for less than a year in the early 1980s. Kagongo said construction equipment cannot withstand the corrosive effects of water. “The metal pipes used to drill for salt corroded within a month,” he said.

For salt miners, the abandoned factory is another painful reminder of the impact the lake’s water can have on their bodies. “If salt can destroy a machine in a year,” Bahati asked, “what harm will it do to the people who work in it for more than 40 years?”

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