Poor communities continue to use the polluted streams and river endangering their health and that of the entire city
by BERNARD CHIKETO
Pedzisai Manzunzu rains a thick shower of sewage water on his vegetables by gently hovering a makeshift 5-litre plastic watering can, with a perforated base for a nozzle, over his garden.
He draws his water from a foul-smelling stream that passes to the east of his home in Mahalape – a squatter camp of hundreds homeless families without water connectivity.
“The water is rich and we don’t need any fertilizer,” Manzunzu an aging man with a crackling voice said. “We will just need to wash the vegetables thoroughly before we cook them.”
The Sakubva River tributary is fed from rolling sewer spews with Mutare city council practically transforming all its streams and rivers into an open sewer system as it fails to catch up with plugging holes and clearing blockages on its overwhelmed old and dilapidated sewage network.
Sewer bursts into riverine waterways ensures industrial toxins, hospital effluent, domestic chemical waste and human excreta of hundreds of thousands of its inhabitants evade any treatment to the helpless annoyance of downstream communities – south-west of the eastern border city.
Ironically it boasts of having the cleanest water among Zimbabwe’s cities as it draws its water at the heads of Pungwe and Odzi rivers.
As Sakubva gently meanders out of the city it is a stinking black discharge.
And to complete the script, the city’s three sewage treatment facilities – Yeovil, Sakubva and Gimboki with their combined capacity to handle 33.6 megalitres daily at full capacity were receiving 44 megalitres daily as far back as 2003, according to a Mutare city council Sakubva Rehabilitation taskforce report.
The volume of sewage has grown over the past 17 years.
Even if all sewer was flowing through the system at least 10 megalitres of raw effluent would still find its way into the river daily.
The situation is much worse as it with raw sewage in the entire Sakubva river basin in addition to at least one stream – Muneni, flowing directly into Mozambique just after the city’s dumpsite in Park road.
Pollution of streams and this river persists despite three court rulings going against the municipality. It always scapegoats the country’s comatose economy for failing to abide by the rulings.
Downstream communities through Zimbabwe Environmental Lawyers Association (ZELA) and Environment Africa won the first interdict at the turn of millennium before government institutions – Zimbabwe National Water Authority and Environmental Management Agency demanding an end to the pollution, the last as recently as 2014.
“We are doing everything we can to end all pollution by both our system and industries,” Mutare mayor Blessing Tandi says. “Some of the sewage pipes were laid as far back as the 1960s and 70s and will take time to be attended to considering the state of our economy.”
For Dora villagers, without alternative clean freshwater water sources, they are no choice but to use the heavily polluted Sakubva for everything from bathing, laundry to dishes and at time even drinking.
During dry seasons they even drink from the river, says Rachael Makoni, 57, a distraught villager who stays a stone throw from the river.
“I’m fortunate to be staying close to a wetland with a small stream which l use but it’s not everyone who is as lucky,” Makoni said. “People dig shallow wells along the riverbed and use the filtered water for bathing, laundry and washing plates and in some instances for drinking.”
Dora villagers began to see a deterioration in the quality of their water in 1994 according to interviews conducted in November 2006 during a University of Zimbabwe study by Solomon Mungure entitled The Power Politics and Water Quality Issues: A Case of the Polluted Sakubva River and Contending Stakeholders.
The study says the river “has been declared unworthy for domestic, agricultural, recreational and fishing uses.” Among the 100 households contacted in the study they were 26 cases of malaria, 24 of stomach ache, 10 of bilharzia and 6 of skin sores.
Kundai Ndota, 30, another Dora villager said the community is aware of the state of pollution of the river on the basis on perceptible indicators that include the black water, visible tap worms and the stench that comes from the thick turbid flow.
“If you stand in the water for a few minutes you will see tens of worms attached to your feet and legs and you might scream if you’re not used,” Ndota who also said she does not use the river in any way.
She does not eat cattle of goats that graze along the river even. “Most people here only slaughter sickly livestock and since they drink from the river l can’t bring myself to eating such meat,” Ndota said.
Most families along the river – like Manzunzu, use the river for irrigation not only for its water value but nutrient value. And there are no efforts to ban or regulate the practice as waste water carries microbial crop contamination risk, especially when it concerns food consumed uncooked.
“Use of sewage water is commonplace beginning right in the city in Chikanga, Sakubva, Dangamvura and Gimboki sewage works to Dora,” Ndota said. “Most of the vegetables are sold in Mutare to unsuspecting residents.”
Considering how children are sensitive to wastewater-related infections with diarrhoeal diseases the top cause of death among children in the developing world the effect on the thousands of tonnes of vegetables in the eastern border city and its environs using waste water needs to be explored, Moses Chimedza a local environmentalist said.
“We have an even bigger problem from this heavy pollution of streams throughout the city which is then used to irrigate vegetables if you factor in chemical pollution from household detergents, heavy metals from industrial waste, oil from garages and car washes and hospital effluent,” Chimedza said.
Amos Chiketo another environmentalist added that the consumption of livestock that drink from polluted water sources in and around the city are equally at risk.
“It’s unfortunate that there has not been any study to ascertain the health cost this level of pollution is having on the people of Mutare and its environs but its significant,” Chiketo said.
Human rights lawyer Passmore Nyakureba notes that it is now obligatory for the ministry of local government to end the pollution as demanded by the country’s new constitution.
“Section 73 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe Amendment (No.20) Act, 2013 dealing with environmental rights puts all the excuses to rest. It says:
“Everyone has the right (a) to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being; and (b) to have the environment protected for the benefit of present and future generations, through reasonable legislative and other measures that (i) prevent pollution and ecological degradation; (ii) promote conservation; and (iii) secure ecologically sustainable development and use of natural resources while promoting justifiable economic and social development.
The state must take reasonable legislative and other measures, within its available resources, to achieve the progressive realisation of the rights set up in this section.”
With a rich tapestry of streams flowing throughout the over 16 700-hectare of urban sprawl in mountainous terrain continuing to offer convenience for washing away burst sewer it will take political will to fund the upgrade of the city’s failing sewage network.
“Without a substantial government financing,” a senior ruling Zanu PF official former legislator Esau Mupfumi said, “the pollution challenge will be with us for quite some time.”