Poor waste management: Public health threat
AT the over-crowded Copacabana bus terminus in central Harare, smoke persistently rises from a giant skip bin, painting the sky bluish-grey hue that emanates a pungent and choking stink.
But the users of the bin, who comprise vendors of fresh fruit and clothes vendors as well as commuter omnibus crews, appear used to the choking smoke as they fight for customers.
The ever heavy human traffic that now characterises the Zimbabwean capital city also appears oblivious to the overpowering smell from the festering mounds of waste.
Next to the burning skin bin, a group of teen vagrants rummages for food from another overflowing skip. A swarm of large green flies swarming over the bins often settle on nearby fruits and vegetables.
As the street urchins plunge deep into the skip bin, they unravel all kinds of litter from plastic, paper, tins, glass and electronic gadgets, scattering the debris onto the pavements without care.
Why should they even care when the local authority and the citizenry of the city appear not bothered.
Poor solid waste management techniques have become the order of things in Zimbabwe’s cities and towns, a major health hazard that has given rise to many diseases outbreaks leading to the unnecessary death of hundreds of people every year.
Erratic solid waste collection by local authorities, illegal dumping of waste by residents and lack of accountability by solid waste generating companies are some of the many factors that have colluded to litter this once clean country, which was once described, 36 years ago by the late Tanzanian president, Julius Nyerere, as the “Jewel of Africa”.
While admitting that Harare, for instance, has not been consistent in emptying its skips, Harare Mayor, Bernard Manyenyeni denied that council has a policy of burning litter.
“We have no idea who is behind the burning of the skip bins. Burning is against council by-laws and the council does not encourage such practices,” he said.
Although the council officially disapproves of burning rubbish in public places, it lacks the political will to contain the problem.
Conservationist, Lisa Marabini, noted that burning garbage, as happens in Harare regularly, produces toxic contaminants that degrade the environment.
“Burning waste produces dioxins which disrupt hormonal balance in the body and cause cancer and birth deformities. When released into the atmosphere dioxins are ingested by people when they settle on crops and in waterways. They accumulate in the body’s fat cells and are passed on to the foetus in the womb,” she said.
The City of Harare uses these huge bins as central garbage deposit points in the central business district for forward movement to the city’s only dumpsite at Pomona, north of the capital.
However, most of the times, the city misses collection schedules resulting in the bins spilling over and getting torched.
In recent months, Minister of Environment, Water and Climate, Oppah Muchinguri, has been at pains trying to fight the culture of reckless littering, now apparently inherent in Zimbabweans.
At the end of last year, Muchinguri introduced a new stringent anti-littering regime, which gives police authority to arrest litterbugs who now risk being fined US$20 for littering.
Muchinguri also read the riot act to solid waste generating firms to be responsible for their waste materials. These include measures to compel manufacturers, traders, users and consumers to account for the waste that proceeds from their products, primarily those that make non-biodegradable consumables such as plastics, bottles and metal cans.
Government also gave mobile phone companies six months to phase out recharge scratch cards and migrate to paperless technologies that do not pollute the environment; while the food and retail outlets were given the same timeframe to migrate to bio-degradable materials that are environmentally-friendly.
Currently, most of them use kaylite and plastics that are highly polluting.
Government also wants manufacturers, retailers, importers and distributors to submit environmentally-friendly action plans by June this year, failure which will result in the introduction of punitive penalties.
The City of Harare, in particular, often blames lack of fuel and its broken down fleet of trucks for non-collection of refuse.
But whatever reason or excuse the southern African nation is already paying the price for poorly managing its waste as many people succumb to environmental-related diseases such as diarrhoea. According to 2015 statistics, released two weeks ago by the Ministry of Health and Child Care, diarrhoea accounted for 502 recorded deaths and 521 573 treated cases across the country.
In epidemiology, all diarrheal diseases are regarded as environmental diseases, which are those that can be directly attributed to environmental factors. They are also known as diseases of poverty because they affect poor communities more than the wealthier ones.
Environmentalists point to poor waste management as the major cause of these diseases.
Director of epidemiology and disease control in the Ministry of Health and Child Care, Portia Manangazira, appealed to members of the public to exercise sanity and local authorities to play their role in ensuring a cleaner and safer environment.
“We urge the nation to practice high levels of hygiene and we appeal to local authorities to avail clean water to residents all the times and to collect garbage regularly,” she said.
The unprecedented levels of pollution continue despite the fact that Zimbabwe has enough regulation to deter would be polluters, the most notable of which being the Environment Act, which created the Environmental Management Agency (EMA) responsible for enforcing compliance with the laws.
There is also a constitutional provision which gives Zimbabwean citizens the right to a clean environment and the right to clear water and air.
Section 73 of national charter says every citizen has the right to an environment that is not harmful to their health or wellbeing. It also states that people should have an environment that is protected for the benefit of present and future generations through reasonable legislation and other measures that prevent pollution.
Many, however, wonder why, with such seemingly tight legislation, is pollution so rampant.
In trying to come up with answers, some have suggested intensive community-based waste management trainings to equip citizens with requisite knowledge to better manage waste.
City of Harare, the worst in this scourge, has attempted to institutionalise this, often with very limited success.
It has set up pollution monitoring stations in some of its suburbs, most notably Mbare, Hatfield, Highfield, Southerton, Mufakose, Mabelreign and at Town House.
Yet, without enough resident education mechanisms, refuse continue to pile up in these areas.
As such, these litter monitoring stations are on the brink of collapse.
A City of Harare official commenting on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals, said the monitoring stations are collapsing due to lack of maintenance and support systems.
Residents, retailers and public place operators are yet to grasp the concept of three bin litter system, which places emphasis of separating waste at source.
This means that plastic, metal and biodegradables are each put in separate bins with distinct colours and labels.
Biodegradables such as food leftovers could be used in composts to fertilise gardens while recyclable matter like paper is put in a distinct bin for different destination from, say glass. In developed countries, most households have marked bins and their waste is managed from the home.
This remains a fairy-tale in Zimbabwe where residents simply throw litter anyhow and anywhere because they lack knowledge and support from local authorities that fail to provide the three bins.
Simon Muserere, the city’s waste water manager, admitted that many disposed solid wastes such as used condoms, baby diapers and plastic bags among others were finding their way into the main water bodies, which is why Harare is failing to supply clean water and is being forced to use so many chemicals to treat its water.
Harare is one of the very few cities in the world that seems to deliberately pollute its own drinking water sources.
Harare Residents’ Trust (HRT) director, Precious Shumba, said EMA faced challenges in implementing regulations on the protection of the environment, adding that there is need for collaboration with other community development players.
“EMA has policies that can help Zimbabwe have sustainable development, but implementing them is proving to be a challenge. There is need for EMA to collaborate with other players in community development who are into environment management,” he said.
EMA spokesperson, Steady Kangata, says the agency is lobbying for the creation of environmental courts to help expedite prosecutions.
At present, environment crimes are not prosecutable.
“We have given the City of Harare several orders to collect refuse timeously, but the problem still persists. We took them to court in 2010 for failure to collect refuse and releasing raw sewage into rivers, but to date the case is still before the High Court.
“Fines for contravening the Environment Act range between US$5 and US$5000 for different offences. But, while the latter is deterrent enough to individual offenders, it is not when applied to corporate and local authorities because they can easily afford the fines,” said Kangata.
According to EMA regulations, all local authorities are required to have properly lined and engineered landfill sites. These serve as the final destination for all the rubbish collected by the municipalities.
However, no local authority has complied with the regulation, with only 19 local authorities having submitted prospectuses of their proposed landfill sites for approval by EMA.
EMA has outlawed arbitrary dumping and has decommissioned Harare’s infamous Pomona dumpsite. Yet still, the local authority continues to use the site without processing, separating or treating garbage.
Pollution is a global problem, which many countries are grappling with.
While technology has helped countries to transform waste management systems from traditional methods of disposal to more effective and environmentally friendly systems, many developing countries, including Zimbabwe, still lag behind and lack the appropriate technology to do so.
Environment Africa communications officer, Sandra Gobvu, said they are working in partnership with the Harare City Council (HCC) to find ways of reducing the amount of waste produced.
“One of the ways is through promoting the so-called “reduce, reuse, recycle” concept. We also intend to do waste separation at source, making it easier to recover at the dumpsite, to reuse or recycle,” she said.
With the country experiencing rapid urbanisation, there is urgent need to put in place a robust solid waste management system if the country is to avoid being reduced to a country of mass rubble and rubbish.
According to HCC’s 2012-2025 strategic plan, the total population serviced by the city has increased to four million people, without utilities growing correspondingly, thus creating a serious supply deficiency.
Thus all these people are relying on just one dumpsite although the council recently indicated that it had submitted to EMA a prospectus for a new landfill site in Mt Hampden.
And without any system of garbage collection for the numerous informal settlements sprouting around the city; and with no religious refuse collection schedule in the formal suburbs; and coupled with no formal processing system for managing organic and inorganic waste, Zimbabwe is one huge health time bomb.
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