Water transport has continued uninterruptedly on various lakes despite a presidential directive banning public transport across districts.
President Museveni issued the ban, which took effect on June 11, as a way of containing the spread of Covid-19.
A snap survey by this newspaper around fish landing sites on various water bodies revealed that passenger boats are still ferrying people from one district to another.
On Lake Victoria, several ferries such as MV Kalangala, MV Sigulu, MV Buvuma are operational, although they are only transporting cargo, ‘essential’ workers, and tourists connecting to various islands.
Mr. Moses Mahanda, a tour boat operator at Masese Landing Site in Jinja District, told this newspaper on Monday that many of the passengers using private boats are from Kampala and Mukono and they travel to districts including Namayingo, Mayuge, and Buvuma.
He said the President should have totally banned public transport like he did last year, saying even those moving within districts do not observe the standard operating procedures (SOPs).
“It seems much focus is put on vehicles and water transport has been left out. People are freely using private passenger boats here [Masese Landing Site] without wearing masks and connecting to different destinations without any interruption,” Mr. Mahanda said.
Mr. Andrew Kaggwa, a fisherman at Ssenyi Landing Site in Buikwe District, said if water transport is not restricted in districts around Lake Victoria, community infections are likely to increase among islanders.
“If government’s target is to curtail the spread of the virus, what is being enforced on the mainland should also apply on the water bodies. People on islands are behaving as if they are on a different planet,” he said.
Mr. Philemon Kudere, the vice-chairperson of Masese Landing Site, one of the biggest landing sites in Jinja where boats from Buvuma, Namaiyingo, Mayuge, and Buikwe dock, said private boat owners have been allowed to transport cargo with few passengers.
“We have some islands on Lake Victoria that entirely depend on other border districts for things such as food and drugs. Jinja and Mayuge are the main suppliers of commodities to most of the islands. So, if such boats are stopped, many people on the islands will starve and die,” Mr. Kudere said.
The situation is not different on lakes Kyoga and Wamala.
Lake Kyoga waters are shared by 15 districts spanning the regions of central, eastern, and northern, while Lake Wamala is shared by the districts of Gomba, Kassandra, Mityana, and Mubende.
Travelers using boats from the four districts are still freely accessing Bagwe Island in the middle of Lake Wamala.
“Our people on the lake live a miserable life and stopping them from moving from one island to another will be a death sentence. What we are emphasizing is the strict observance of SOPs,” Mr. Godfrey Sseguya, the chairperson of Kyengoza Sub-county in Gomba District, said.
Inland water transport is one of the oldest economically and environmentally sustainable modes of transportation for passengers and cargo.
On some islands such as Kalangala and Buvuma, it is the only means of mobility and access to basic services for communities.
Mr. Herbert Mutyaba, the head of ferry services at Uganda National Road Authority (Unra), explained that public ferries managed by the authority are still operational because they act as road bridges connecting islands to the mainland.
“The President did not close roads, those ferries are like roads and they facilitate movement of essential goods and services, which cannot stop. Unless there is a total lockdown, they cannot stop operating,” Mr. Muyaba said.
He added: “What ferry operators need to do is to screen those currently using the ferries. All those travelings must prove that they are essential workers, tourists, or have their cargo on board.”
The Buikwe Resident District Commissioner (RDC), Ms. Jane Francis Nagayi, said the majority of civil servants in Buvuma reside in Buikwe, and these are among the few people currently using the ferry.
Ssezibwa police spokesperson Hellen Butoto admitted that many passenger boats are still operating, but said police and sister security agencies are working closely to tackle this problem.
“We are also still faced with a challenge of people who work in Jinja, but stay in Njeru [municipality in Buikwe District]. We are yet to find a solution to that as well,” she added.
In Masaka, the two vessels MV Ssese and MV Pearl, which connect to Kalangala islands, are also fully operational. Some passengers from Kakyanga Landing Site in Masaka connecting to Bugoma in Kalangala are also still crossing Lake Victoria, although operators take them in the guise of cargo owners.
Mr. Innocent Ochan, the officer-in-charge of marines in Kalangala District, says vessels are free to operate, but strictly carrying cargo or tourists.
“Only vessels carrying cargo and tourists are allowed to sail and occupants have to strictly observe the SOPs. There could be some private passenger boats operating in some landing sites and islands, we are going to work with police to arrest those defiant operators because what they are doing is likely to further the spread the virus,” he said.
He, however, added that marine police had suspended all passenger boats from Kenya and Tanzania that connect to islands in Kalangala, Wakiso, Buvuma, and Mukono districts.
The Kabale RDC, Mr. Darius Nandinda, together with his Rubanda counterpart Rwakifari Kibondo say they are planning joint operations to ensure travelers on Lake Bunyonyi do not violate the travel ban.
Lake Bunyonyi connects Kabale and Rubanda districts and immediately after the presidential directive stopping people from crossing from one district to another was issued, the traders opted to use the water transport to continue with their businesses.
The head of the marine police unit on Lake Bunyonyi, Mr. Stephen Sanyu, said they are doing their best to sensitize residents on different on islands on Lake Bunyonyi on how best to move on the water without violating the Covid-19 guidelines that include restricted entries into districts.
“Unlike road transport where drivers move on known routes, water transport is somehow zig-zag, thereby proving a challenge on enforcement. The fact that daily markets were closed, including those on Lake Bunyonyi, we shall do our best to enforce the presidential directives,” Mr. Sanyu said.
However, some traders who preferred anonymity for fear of being victimized said crossing Lake Bunyonyi is the only way they can get essential commodities from Kabale Town to restock their retail shops in the villages across the lake.
Success in other areas
However, the enforcement of an inter-district travel ban on water transport in Kikube District has been effective. The travel ban has affected many business people who were using water transport to cross from Kikube to Hoima, Bulisa, Kagadi, and on to DR Congo.
“The President said he had stopped cross-border movements, meaning even water transport was stopped. As a district, we decided to stop water transport because many DR Congo nationals were crossing to Uganda, which is very dangerous” Ms. Faridah Ndagano, the Kikuube District communications officer, said.
In Bulisa District, which borders Lake Albert, travelers crossing to Pakwach District still use private boats. Currently, travelers from Bulisa to Hoima are charged Shs10,000 per trip. The ferry, which was working on Lake Albert from Wanseko Landing Site in Bulisa District to Panyimour Landing Site in Pakwach District, stopped operating some months ago due to rising water levels in Lake Albert.
Mr. Martin Bwambale from Kanara Landing Site on Lake Albert in Ntoroko District, said ever since President Museveni suspended inter-district travels, the number of people crossing from Ntoroko District to Hoima District using water transport has reduced.
He said passengers traveling from Ntoroko to Bugoma Landing Site in Hoima are paying Shs15,000 each, but they are few and there is only one boat operating.
“When President Museveni announced the ban on inter-district movement, many people who were crossing to Hoima District stopped and very few are now traveling,” he said.