Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Salt Miners of Lake Katwe in Uganda

Salt extraction has been a major source of economy and prosperity for decades in Uganda, but today's miners work in appalling conditions. In the good times, salt miners at Lake Katwe in western Uganda made a reasonable living. They earn $30 a week for their labors, a decent wage by Ugandan standards. But salt production has rapidly turned from boom to bust with the seasons, leaving the workers struggling to make ends meet, and climate change is starting to load the dice against them.

Workers extract three main products from the lake: blocks of rock salt; high-quality salt crystals that can be sold as table salt; and salty mud that is used as salt licks for cattle. The work condition is terrible. Extraction of the salt from Lake Katwe is done by hand by both men and women and involves standing waist or chest deep in water for hours at a time. The air is thick with the bad-egg stench of hydrogen sulphide mixed with ammonia. The equatorial sun beats down on his naked back, leaving a salty sheen. The hypersaline water sucks moisture from their bodies and infuses them with toxic chemicals.

The workers knows it is affecting their health but often they cannot afford to buy protective clothing. Many workers improvise as best they can. Men tie plastic bags around their genitals or wear condoms in an effort to avoid the extreme desiccating effects of the brine, while some women put flour inside their vaginas as a barrier to the toxic water. These improvised strategies have little effect and sexual health problems are rife among the Katwe workers.

Katwe, a volcanic crater fed by several streams, has no outlet, meaning that intense evaporation during the dry seasons concentrates minerals in the hypersaline water. To extract salt, the miners have constructed large semi-permanent pools around the edges of the lake to intensify the evaporation. These pools, or saltpans, are held together by sticks and mud.

The salt yield from Katwe, however, has dwindled in recent years and become more unpredictable because of Uganda's increasingly uncertain climate. Climate scientists predict that weather patterns in Uganda will shift as a result of global warming. This will result in too much rain and not enough evaporation to produce salt.

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