Published on: 01/12/2023
Uganda is undertaking several efforts to achieve SDG 6 targets and has made commendable progress, which were shared during the 2023 UN Water Conference held in March 2023 in New York (which I attended). But there is limited understanding and appreciation of the challenges faced and the required actions among key decision and policy makers as well as the local people. One of the issues discussed during the 2023 UN Water Conference is the problem of lead in water and materials used in provision of water services.
While Uganda was part of the international community that pledged to contribute to collective action to restrict the use of lead in drinking water supply systems, this pledge is not well known at national, regional and international levels.
There is urgent need to raise awareness about these efforts and commitments widely, to develop action plans and budgets to implement the agreed actions; and to mobilize support from relevant national and international stakeholders and partners to enable scaling up of the ongoing efforts, as well as to start implementation of new commitments.
The Ministry of Water and Environment in partnership with the National Planning Authority and IRC (www.ircwash.org) applied for financial support from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation to implement a one-year project on Water, Sanitation, Hygiene and Health (WASH). The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation has provided seed funding to the consortium to undertake the following:
I attended the 2023 UNC Water and Health Conference in North Carolina and gained several insights which could be of significance to our thinking process and planning for Water & Health at the National Planning Authority. Standing out was the presentation of the survey on rural water systems in Ghana, Mali and Niger done by the Water Institute at the University of North Carolina. They found that water from nearly 80% of the systems was contaminated with lead. In 9% of these systems the levels of lead contamination exceeded World Health Organization guideline values. These results were the same across all system types across all the countries. Perhaps most surprising was that the source of lead contamination were the pipes and parts used to construct these systems, not the water itself.
In most systems tested, at least one or more parts/fittings contained lead levels exceeding international guidelines and standards for lead in drinking water components. In fact, the Water Institute even demonstrated that a tank used in a handpump system that was certified by the manufacturer as being lead free contained over 1% lead!
I strongly suspect that water systems in Uganda may also contain lead at levels that are of concern. You may know this already, but there is no established safe level of lead exposure. Lead exposure is linked to cardiovascular and chronic kidney diseases in adults. It is particularly dangerous to children who absorb lead at greater rates. Elevated lead levels can reduce intelligence quotient, contribute to impulsivity and learning deficits, and is perhaps the leading cause of cognitive impairment in children worldwide. As the National Planning Authority, we ought to suggest the development of a national strategy or plan to reduce lead exposure in children. The Strategic Partnership that NPA has established with the Ministry of Water will partly focus on this.