Harare residents’ health is at serious risk as no action has been taken to contain the proliferation of the burning of garbage in the central business district and high density suburbs where inconsistent garbage collection by the municipality has seen people opting to burn waste.
REPORT BY PHILLIP CHIDAVAENZI
Environmental Management Agency (EMA) director general Mutsa Chasi told a “Green Business” Indaba late last year that air pollution in Harare has reached critical levels.
This followed reports that air pollution in the capital has exceeded the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended limit of between 50 and 200 mg per cubic metre of sulphur dioxide.
Poor refuse disposal has been cited as one of the major contributors as individuals, corporates and Harare municipality employees have resorted to burning rubbish.
The problem has persisted since the beginning of this year with no action having been taken to rein in the culprits who resort to burning rubbish. Most bins provided by the municipality at commuter omnibus terminuses are often seen oozing smoke as the street sweepers would have lit fires in a bid to “minimise” the garbage and create more space in the bins.
One such bin, located at the Charge Office bus terminus, has been a cause for much consternation to Chitungwiza residents who board commuter omnibuses at the terminus.
Collins Mazire of Zengeza said he was forced to breathe in the smoke every day as he would be jostling for transport with other commuters and he feared that he was being slowly poisoned.
“Almost every day, especially in the morning, we have to breathe in the acrid smoke and that is bad for our health,” he said.
The bin was now a menace to commuters who are subjected to the strong smell of burning garbage on a daily basis.
Some commuters said council sweepers were responsible for setting the garbage alight so that they could create more space for new waste in the bin that is supposed to be emptied regularly.
“The bin is almost always smouldering, and this is the case at other ranks such as Copacabana as well,” said Sally Maengahama of Warren Park D. Another site that has been of major concern is the Pomona dumpsite.
Burning has become a common method of disposing garbage although experts say burning waste is a harmful practice to human health and the environment.
EMA spokesperson Steady Kangata said they had cautioned the local authority about the illegal burning of refuse. “It is quite disturbing to note that people are still ignorant of pollution, worse still, if those who are supposed to control it and educate the public are the offenders,” he said.
“They are replacing land pollution with air pollution which nullifies their efforts at cleaning. Ash released from the burning garbage irritates the eyes and throat and can damage the lungs and cause lung cancer.”
EMA is a statutory body responsible for ensuring the sustainable management of natural resources and protection of the environment, prevention of pollution and environmental degradation. It was established under the Environmental Management Act (Chapter 20:27) and operationalised through statutory instrument 103 of 2003.
A council employee who declined to be named confirmed that sometimes they were forced to burn the garbage in public bins to create space as the local authority was so overwhelmed that it was unable to timeously empty the bins.
“We are not supposed to be burning the rubbish in bins, but what else can we do if the bin is full and we still need to put some more rubbish there? It’s just a stop –gap measure,” she said.
The most common emissions include dioxins, ash, hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide. Dioxins are a group of 30 highly toxic chlorinated organic chemicals while hydrocarbons cause cancers. The exposure to carbon monoxide results in a variety of neurological symptoms including headache, fatigue and nausea.
Medical experts say air pollution could lead to emphysema (accumulation of smoke in lungs), chronic bronchitis, lung cancer, heart attacks and stroke.
“Research shows that most garbage contains the common food plastic-containers scientifically known as polystyrene which when burnt produce styrene gas which is dangerous to human health,” said medical doctor Kudakwashe Matsikidze.
He said it was unfortunate that pollution — associated diseases were often “silent killers” that destroyed people’s health over a long period of time.
Harare’s spokesperson Leslie Gwindi is on record confirming that unauthorised burning in the CBD was illegal and said action will be taken on culprits.
“Burning of waste within the CBD is illegal and council will take action against any offenders it catches,” he said. “City employees are not allowed by council to burn waste. We are not aware of such occurrences, but once found they will certainly be fined. Residents can also report them to council and help bring them to book.”
Harare recently acquired 27 state–of–the–art refuse collection vehicles that are expected to help change the face of the city by making sure all refuse is collected.
The trucks were purchased using funds sourced from a Chinese bank. Kangata said one of the major problems they faced in their attempts to contain environmental pollution was that the standard fines imposed on culprits were not deterrent enough.
“It is an offence to burn waste as this merely transfers pollution from land to air. The burning of waste affects the health of residents and jeopardises the life of those with respiratory problems,” he said.
“We have since begun lobbying for the setting up of environmental courts so that such issues are dealt with separately and perpetrators dealt with accordingly.
Mixing such issues with civil and criminal issues has led to comparisons resulting in perpetrators being fined lightly.”
Kangata said the maximum standard fine was pegged at $5 000, an amount that he said was too little to bring noticeable change to the attitude of corporates and local authorities who did not find the fines deterrent enough. Local authorities that have been fined by EMA include Harare city, the Bulawayo council.
Despite efforts by local companies that have provided bins around the city, council’s delays in collecting rubbish have spurned continued burning. Roadsides and street corners have been turned into dumping sites and other people have resorted to burning or burying litter.
Children and vagrants that live in the streets have also contributed to the problem especially through the burning of tires to keep them warm especially during winter nights.
Due to the soaring rates of unemployment in the country’s formal economy, enterprising youths in different high density suburbs said they burned vehicle tyres so that they can remove the wires in the tyres.
They use the wires to manufacture fences and door frames. The smoke from burning the tyres, however, has enraged residents in different high density suburbs were the practice is rife.
“It is difficult to sleep well, the black smoke from the burning of tyres chokes us,” said 32-year-old Mavis Tigere of Highfield. “I was once treated of TB and I am sure it is because of these guys.”
With the country’s unemployment rate in the formal sector estimated at around 80%, many youths have taken to this craft for survival despite the serious health ramifications.
The problem of waste disposal is, however, not unique to Zimbabwe as several other countries within Southern Africa are also battling the same menace.
Ever increasing population in South Africa has also exerted significant pressure on that country’s waste management system.
Although South Africa’s waste legislation is said to be in line with global trends, enforcement and monitoring have proven difficult due to both a lack of suitable waste expertise and practices. The South African Government has, however, mandated waste management as one of the critical areas it needs to address in terms of service delivery and sustainability.
In Botswana, the illegal disposal of waste has also been a matter of serious concern in government as it was detrimental to the environment. Efforts are currently underway to penalise those who caused pollution and widespread littering.
In many western countries, however, waste is seen as an opportunity since getting rid of it has become a huge business. Rich countries are said to spend over $120 billion a year disposing of their municipal waste alone and another $150 billion on industrial waste, according to a French research institute, Cyclope.
Waste handling firms are currently targeting countries such as China, India and Brazil, which at present spend only about $5 billion a year collecting and treating their municipal waste.