Kampala reels under burden of unbearable noise and air pollution

Early Sunday morning, a booming voice off the speaker of a church about 100 metres from my house in Kampala’s Kawempe suburb, wakes me up and keeps me awake all the way to 7am when I finally decide enough is enough.

I head to the church to ask whoever is responsible to reduce the noise. To my surprise – and dismay – there are only two people in the church: preaching to an empty house.

My pleas to have them reduce the sound fall on deaf ears, and I will have to endure their utterly unnecessary noise for the whole day.

Uganda’s Noise Standards and Control Regulations restrict noise levels to 40 decibels in residential areas and 60 decibels in commercial areas.

Sacred cows

In my estimates, however, this particular church – and indeed most churches in Kampala – emit noise levels not below 100 decibels at any one time. According to Ugandan law, this is an offence punishable by up to 18 months in jail or a fine of up to Ush18 million – or both.

There are many churches that send out preachers onto the streets daily or on particular days and the cacophony of noise from the speakers they use and hooting from vehicles.

“Places of worship, bars and schools that are set up in residential areas are always bound to emit unacceptable levels of noise, but it is Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA) that is mandated to regulate them because it is the body that issues the operating licenses,” says Tony Achidria, the senior communications officer at the National Environment Management Authority.

But it seems like KCCA lets many entities abuse their licenses and be disruptive. In February, Dorothy Kisaka, the executive director of KCCA, hosted over 1,000 Kampala bar owners to address the increasing noise pollution in the city.

She noted that most complaints to city authorities concerned “noise pollution, from operations of the bars and people of faith within the five zones of the city,” KCCA said in a news release.

Churches and street preachers seem to get away with noise pollution because people are afraid of inflaming religious sentiments.

In February, Hudu Hussein, the Resident City Commissioner of Kampala city, issued a 30-day ultimatum to street preachers. “Our good pastors, we love you so much but I am giving you an amnesty of 30 days to evacuate the streets. We want a more serious city. All pastors, vendors, beggars and other groups should leave the city,” Hussein said.

His decree got various reactions, with some people supporting him, and others condemning him. Preachers warned Hussein over his hard line he had taken.

Less than a month later, Mr Hussein was transferred from the city to Yumbe, 520km north east of Kampala, in a reshuffle announced by President Yoweri Museveni in March.

Away from the preachers, most Kampala shop owners now place loudspeakers in front of their shops advertising their range of products – exacerbating the cacophony already created by unrelenting motor vehicle horns and sirens that characterise Kampala streets.

The noise makers include more sirens from VIPs than ambulances, police and fire trucks as well as hooting from the thousands of commuter taxis and boda bodas.

Such sleep disruption can lead to sleep disorders while over-exposure to noise pollution can lead to hearing loss.

A recent report by the WHO estimated that up to 1.1 billon people aged between 12 and 35 around the world are at risk of hearing loss due to the noise pollution that now characterise many of the world’s metropolises.

According to Achidria, the major contaminants are dust from unpaved roads, use of wood fuel, burning of domestic solid waste and motor vehicle emissions.

He added that industries contribute the least pollution because they are regularly monitored, and that his organisation was ramping up monitoring across the city to collect enough data that will be used to sensitise the public.

Besides noise and air pollution, increasing water pollution also continues to threaten lives in Kampala, with the biggest offenders being people’s homes because of poor waste management.

“Again, industries don’t pose a serious problem in water pollution because they are few in number and are easily monitored. Monitoring at domestic level is difficult because the homes are way too many,” Mr Achidria said.

The National Water and Sewerage Corporation, mandated to distribute water and manage sewage in the country, says it spends hefty sums of money on treating water to make it fit for human consumption hence the high price of a unit of water, now at Ush4,300 ($1.1). This follows an increase in the past three months.

Still, researchers have found the presence of pathogenic bacteria in the water. The contamination is due to poor waste management and badly-designed pit latrines and release of waste into streams that flow to Lake Victoria.

The poor waste disposal poses a big risk of cholera, typhoid fever and dysentery breaking out in communities that rely on water from these sources, and Kampala has had many outbreaks of cholera in the recent past.


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