The Herald (Harare)

19 September 2011

Zimbabwe: Dangers of Pollution to Health, Ecosystems

Photo: Stuart Price/UN Photo
Mothers sit with their malnourished children in the Somali capital Mogadishu.

opinion

Pollution in all its formats whether its air, water, pesticide, etc, is now a worldwide problem. Those policymakers who refuse to recognise the reality of pollution and take action to control it are just stubborn.

But the deterioration of our environment clearly threatens our physical well being and that of the ecosystem, present and future.

The causal chain of the degradation can easily be traced to its roots. Too many automobiles, too many industries, too much detergent, too much pesticide, inadequate sewage treatment plants, too little fresh water, too much carbon emission all can be linked largely to too many people, according to biologist Dr Paul Ehlrich.

My focus in this instalment, however, is that of water pollution and its impact on human, plant and animal health.

In 2002, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated that "more people die from unsafe water annually than all forms of violence, including war".

These horror statistics are critical in Zimbabwe's action plan to control water pollution, save lives and ensure the perpetual functioning of the eco-system.

Spokesperson in the Ministry of Water Resources Development and Management Mr Butholezwe Nyathi defined water pollution as "the introduction of substances (into water bodies) that are dangerous to human health, harmful to living organisms and ecosystems".

He said all waterways such as rivers, dams and lakes are at risk but the heavily affected were Chivero in Harare and Khami in Bulawayo.

Little wonder the mixture of filth, sewage and poisonous metals now pass for the water we drink in most urban areas. Several of Zimbabwe's water bodies can no longer support organisms, which require clean, oxygen-rich water.

Manyame and Mukuvisi rivers, which both feed into Chivero - Harare's main water source - have been transformed into a body of mess, more reminiscent of a sewer pool than the beautiful rivers they once were.

Dead fish are frequently washed on to the shores of Lake Chivero due to reckless discharge of effluent and industrial waste.

Chivero is just one example of a general problem of pollution of lakes, rivers and streams across Zimbabwe mainly from industrial processes, small-scale mining and other agricultural activities.

It is not preposterous to warn our fellow citizens against eating too much river fish. Polluted water systems compound the challenge of adaptation to the effects of climate change and global warming.

Scientists are generally agreed adaptation is the best human response to climate change. Yet the provision of safe clean drinking water is paramount in socio-economic development.

Clean water (and sanitation) is important for meeting Africa's Millennium Development Goals of halving water problems and disease by 2015 as well as keeping the continent's water bodies clear of pollutants.

But there are those authorities whose approach to water pollution is questionable and can be easily construed to be half-hearted.

Repeated efforts to gain crucial comment from the Environmental Management Agency (EMA) in the last three weeks were fruitless despite guarantee for a commitment to respond to the questions sent to the department.

EMA is responsible for regulating environmental concerns and punishing those who are found to be causing environmental degradation.

The provision of information from this department is key in educating the public on the importance of proper environmental governance, climate change and global warming.

The lack of ready and timely information is a betrayal to the environmental cause, which they purport to champion.

As such in this piece we are going to go without EMA's side of the water pollution story, neither shall we have a full account from the Zimbabwe National Water Authority.

Mr Tsungirirai Shoriwa, spokesperson for the water authority, could only say: "As the water managers, we naturally get concerned when water pollution takes place."

However, the problem of water pollution is very serious in Zimbabwe and this can be seen through the proliferation of aquatic weeds in the country's water bodies.

"Most of these weeds such as water hyacinth thrive due to nitrogen and phosphorous loading in our water bodies," explained Mr Nyathi.

"The major sources of these nutrients are untreated sewage and poor agricultural practices," he said.

Water-bone diseases such as cholera and typhoid are not uncommon. This paper has previously reported bizarre cases of bloody diarrhoea killing children.

The cholera outbreak of 2008 claimed over 4 000 lives, compromising the social stability in the process. Excessive pollution has also resulted in rising water treatment cost whose bills cities like Harare and Bulawayo are struggling to finance.

Population growth and rapid urbanisation have put pressure on Zimbabwe's waste water treatment that end up releasing partially treated sewage into the water systems.

For instance, Harare's Firle sewage works is handling 28 percent more than its installed 72 000 cubic metres capacity of waste water per day.

Such solid waste disposal and sewage treatment systems are unable to keep up with the pace of rapid urbanisation, which means that portion of waste not originally designed to be catered for at a station like Firle would end up in our water taps.

Everyday the United Nations says two million tonnes of sewage, industrial and agricultural waste are discharged into the world's water.

Statistics from the Ministry of Water show that access to safe water and sanitation in Zimbabwe has declined over the past 10 years.

In the rural water supply and sanitation sector, levels of access have decreased from over 90 percent in 1999 to around 70 percent for safe water, and 30 percent to 25 percent for sanitation in 2004.

These figures, however, do not reflect on the high rate of breakdown estimated at 65 percent in 2004 of rural water points, said Mr Nyathi.

"This sharp decline has had serious impact on the health and livelihoods status of the rural communities," he said.

Worldwide, unsafe water causes four billion cases of diarrhoea annually and results in 2,2 million deaths mostly of children under five, according to WHO.

Pollution from agriculture is equally critical. The use of such pesticides as DDT and organic fertilisers that are usually associated with nitrogen and phosphorous from rainwater and agricultural run-off suffocate other water organisms that require high oxygen levels.

This affects the structure and diversity of ecology. Industrial pollution has also discharged dangerous metals such as mercury, lead, arsenic and cadmium.

There are fines, of course, for those companies that wilfully elect to discharge organic toxins and a variety of other pollutants into the waterways.

EMA asks them to pay a pitiful US$5 000 fine. Indeed, five companies including giant beverage maker Delta were recently fined for water pollution.

Imagine a company like Delta, posting multimillion-dollar profits having to pay US$5 000 - equivalent of about 6 600 pints of beer, barely a fraction of the company's daily sales.

In nature, fines are meant to curtail law-breakers from repeating their sins. US$5 000 does not sound like much to a company like Delta whose water pollution will end up causing disease and loss of human life.

EMA must come up with practical industrial pollution control strategies to prevent scenarios such as the Delta one. Had EMA responded to questions sent, perhaps we would have gained insight on what they are really doing about this and other related matters.

The Ministry of Water understands the seriousness of water pollution, has started to do something about it and is also forthcoming about their plans.

Mr Nyathi said the ministry created a new section known as the River Protection Section in which they will work in conjunction with Ministry of Agriculture and EMA to protect water sources from pollution and siltation.

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