28 November 2016

Zimbabwe: Businesses Make Progress On Cutting Water Pollution

Polluting Zimbabwean businesses have made some progress in cutting down water pollution since authorities threatened to shut down companies that failed to do so in 2014. This is according to Aaron Chigona, a director with the Environmental Management Agency (EMA). On the whole, the challenge of pollution, in all its major forms --land, water, air and noise -- is far from over, he said. The discharge of harmful waste into water systems by companies in mining, manufacturing, oil and food, including raw sewage discharge by municipalities, remains a major headache for Zimbabwe, a country already facing severe water shortages due to recurrent droughts linked to climate change.

Polluted water cost more to make it safe for human consumption. This is one of the key reasons why Harare has for the past 15 years struggled to supply its residents with clean water reliably, leading to sporadic outbreaks of water-related diseases such as typhoid.

As the water crisis deepened, a Cabinet committee led by Home Affairs Minister Dr Ignatius Chombo two years ago declared war on polluters, threatening to close down businesses that failed to prevent the degradation of water sources. Though no company was actually closed, the threat has somewhat worked.

"Marked progress has been achieved as most of the industries have actually taken hid and have put in place pollution abatement measures in compliance to the call," said Mr Chigona, by email.

Mr Chigona did not elaborate on what it is exactly that companies had done to cut pollution, but the Cabinet Committee stressed they install technologies that separate waste, preventing it from being flushed away into water systems on purpose, or otherwise.

It will take a lot of effort by everyone to end pollution, he added, warning that the existing penalty structure for environmental offences would not do enough to stop companies from degrading water. Without tougher laws, it will be difficult to enforce compliance, Mr Chigona said, "especially for large companies which may find it cheaper to pollute than install expensive cleaner production technologies".

"To end water and land pollution there is need for a deliberate move by all stakeholders including households and industries to stop un-sustainable consumption and production patterns since these are the major causes of pollution in Zimbabwe," said Mr Chigona, who oversees the environmental management services at EMA.

At a highly disorganised settlement in southern Harare, households do not need external help to make their underground water undrinkable, they do so themselves. Stoneridge is a badly planned settlement whose rapid expansion has choked any potential for it becoming orderly.

Little flat-roof houses stand crammed everywhere, anywhere, in their thousands in this sprawling settlement. Without basic public infrastructure such as sewer and water, desperate residents have resorted to building septic tanks or Blair toilets on very small pieces of land. A few metres away, lies a well to provide drinking water.

Now, this is what will close down Stoneridge -- the risk of frequent disease outbreak due to unsafe drinking water -- not the Government. Dirty stuff from Blair toilets built close to wells will likely make contact with the water underground -- called seepage -- depositing disease-causing organisms like e-coli.

Families in Stoneridge will never know what hit them. That's the complexity of water pollution in Zimbabwe, almost everyone is extending an unhelpful hand to its growth, however reluctantly, perhaps ignorantly, in the case of households.

Mr Chigona knows this all too well. "EMA, through the enforcement of Environmental Impact Assessment process that is mandatory for all developmental projects defined as specified that include housing development and urban expansion is prepared to ensure all these projects put in place pollution abatement measures before implementation," he said.

As climates change, water is becoming scarcer, causing agriculture yields to drop, households to go thirsty and conflicts between citizens and governments, villagers, humans and animals to rise. According to a 2012 World Bank report, water scarcity is predicted to worsen across southern Africa.

Dam and lakes levels will fall by up to 50 percent by 2080 due to the effects of climate change, it says. Zimbabwe, whose dry season runs for up to 8 months in a year and has seen an escalation in severe droughts in recent decades, cannot afford to continue to poison its finite water resources at any cost.

And that's why the polluter-pays principle should be scaled up that fines meet up with the scale of offence committed. Stiffer penalties, particularly for industrial polluters, or a kind of compensation based scheme.

A major aspect that prevented the ministerial committee from shutting any company down in 2014 despite threats to do so was that it made little sense to close down a firm in an economy desperate to create new jobs or revive old ones. Needless to say, if the polluting firm was closed, who was going to pay for the environmental damage they have already caused?

But without the back up of truly punitive penalty systems for environmental offenders, it is difficult to see how the Environmental Management Agency will rein-in water pollution, or any other form of pollution.

The highest possible penalty -- level 14 fine -- against corporate environmental offenders is only $5 000, EMA says. The lowest, level one, is $5. Mr Chigona believes a solution -- one of many -- lies in the creation of special courts for the environment.

"Environmental courts will specialise and speed up the finalisation of environmental crimes thus deterring the would-be offenders to commit similar crimes thus reducing pollution significantly," he said.

God is faithful.

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