ARUA. Mr Santos Andiku, a resident of Pajulu-Olevu village in Ajia sub-county, Arua district is one of the many locals residing in the neighbourhood of Meridian Tobacco Company.
Andiku who has lived on his ancestral land for decades now feels like abandoning his home due to the health hazards emanating from Meridian tobacco company, a multi-billion tobacco factory located in his village. But he has nowhere to go.
Andiku is not the only resident calling for the closure of the factory. At least more than 1000 residents of Pajulu-Olevu and Bongova villages in Ajia sub county are crying foul of their deteriorating health conditions as a result of the establishment of the factory in their area, 8 years ago.
“When the factory authorities acquired our land, we were duped that it was for establishing a fruit factory, only to be shocked when the officials started processing tobacco at the facility. Since that time, we have been complaining of the waste the factory has continued to discharge in River Enyava and River Ekarafi, the only water sources we rely on for domestic use. Some time back, our only spring water source was condemned because of the factory menace, but since we have no other option, we are still drinking the water,” Andiku said.
“We have been complaining to our leaders but none of them has come out to help us, every time they go to meet the factory authority, they come back to us with different stories. Now we are calling upon the government and environmental activists to come to our aide by closing this factory,” Andiku appealed.
Ms Stella Driciru, a resident of Bongova village said the smell of tobacco has covered almost a kilometre all-round the factory.
“I don’t know how we shall be in five years’ time if this factory is not closed. You can witness how the nicotine is smelling here and this is what we go through every day. My biggest worry now is the children because they are always coughing a lot,” Driciru said.
Driciru noted that despite the suffering, there is nothing this factory has done beneficial to them apart from a water kiosk they constructed in this village, but after three months of use, the factory officials dismantled it without any clear reason.
Similarly, Ms Anitazia Draru, another resident of Pajulu-Olevu village equally called for the closure of the factory, saying it has become a serious health problem to them.
According to Draru, from the time the factory was established, strange diseases have been affecting the locals in the two villages compared to the days before but we could not independently verify this claim.
Draru said tobacco residues are all-over their area and the smoke from the factory has affected aeration in the entire village.
“When the factory is operating, we the people who reside near it struggle for oxygen and the situation is worse at night. Besides, the factory authority established a dumping site near our residence and during the rainy season, flies from the waste normally cover the village, making it difficult for us to eat food outside. The only thing we want now is for the factory to be closed before we all die,” Draru appealed.
But when contacted over the matter, Mr Joseph Oculu, the Meridian Tobacco Company Human Resource Manager said those are their (locals’) concerns but they haven’t registered any cases within the factory since they are using the right procedures including giving one litre of milk to each worker to wash down tobacco residues after work.
“When they talk about the discharged water that goes to the community, we have a constructed wetland that sieves all the water that comes from the factory, and the water that is discharged after the wetland is normally tested at least two times in a year. The last test that we had, we found out that the water has no effect,” Oculu explained.
“I believe, we just need to change people’s mindset about their problems. We have done well to even have water points installed for the communities. Recently, we also drilled one borehole for them around Ewa trading centre and we are planning to drill for them another borehole in the next budget around August,” Oculu said.
When asked on how the factory was cleared to start operating before addressing the environmental concerns arising now, Joakim Andiandu, the Arua district environment officer admitted that the factory started without an environmental impact assessment certificate but later, they worked on it.
Andiandu, however, said he heard about the concerns raised by the members of the community against the factory, adding that to a large extent, they are not true.
“The effluent from the factory doesn’t pass untreated, we have a constructed wetland through which the effluent passes. The last results showed that the quality of the water was still good, however, arrangements are in place to have another two structures so that they are in series and we would prove to the community that the effluent is good by putting fish inform of a fish pond,” Andiandu stated.
He said for the last three years, he has been advising the factory on environment issues and they have now got all the legal requirements as the environment assessment certificate is concerned.
But Dr Paul Onzubo, the district health officer for Maracha and former Arua municipality health officer said the plant poses a health and environmental challenge to the locals who reside within Ikm of the plant.
“The air quality there now is different than what it used to be, you now have the carbondioxide, carbonmonoxide and many others depending on the chemicals the factory use but ofcouse whether they like it or not they are smoking nicotine, we expect the worst to happen there in the future”, Onzubo said.
He continued “People there can get cancers of the lungs particularly which is associated with smocking or tobacco content, tobacco by the way has 4000 different cancer causing substances but the greatest is the cancer of the lungs and parts that are associated with the inhalation of the tobacco content.
World Health Organization (WHO) statistics reveals that tobacco kills more than 8 million people each year. More than 7 million of those deaths are the result of direct tobacco use while around 1.2 million are the result of non-smokers being exposed to second-hand smoke. Over 80% of the world's 1.3 billion tobacco users live in low- and middle-income countries.