Some city councils and water boards—which are supposed to run the country’s water and sewerage systems—conceded this week that they have lost control of the solid and liquid waste management systems.
In the end, millions of Malawians are paying the price that may appear to be just a health and social problem for now, but could become an economic burden as healthcare costs rise, investors shy away to protect their environmental records and tourists begin to shun smelly destinations that should otherwise be tourism revenue magnets.
With no one apparently in control of the waste, The Nation has established—through observation, interviews with experts and a review of several study reports on the subject—that households are directly consuming the effluent in form of fresh vegetables as well as drinking and cleaning water.
In Blantyre’s Manase Township and Lilongwe’s Kauma Township, where sewerage systems in the two major cities empty, some people are using the waste water to nourish vegetables that end up in markets and eventually people’s tables.
At Kauma in Lilongwe and Manase in Blantyre, we observed untreated wastewater from neglected sewer pipes discharging directly into Lilongwe and Mudi rivers, respectively.
During the spot check at Kauma, one Innocent Ben is a happy urban farmer who makes money from the sale of his vegetables grown along the banks of Lilongwe River.
Ben uses water from a neglected sewer outlet located a few metres from his garden to irrigate his vegetables and uses dried faeces as ‘fertiliser’.
Whenever Ben wants to irrigate his garden, he opens a man hole on an outlet pipe of the Kauma sewerage ponds and lets the gashing water flow into his garden and those of his neighbours.
“If not satisfied by the flow of water, I use watering cans to draw the same water and irrigate the remaining parts of the field,” he told The Nation in an interview at the site.
Ben said he believes that this water’s nutritional content is so high that he does not need to apply organic fertilisers, saying the crops do well, especially considering that he also applies dried faeces as manure from the same sewer system.
Other members of the Kauma community The Nation talked to said it is the norm around the area that whenever a sewerage pond is filled to capacity, farmers collect the faeces, dry them up and apply to their crops after which they also irrigate the crops with water from the same sewerage system.
Ben sees nothing wrong in using sewer water.
He said: “I am sure the city council doesn’t mind because this is, after all, just an outlet of the sewer. The stuff was going out anyway, so why should they worry about our using such water?”
Ben started farming six years ago when the place had only two growers. He became the third. But today there are over 20 of them supplying vegetables to sellers in markets around the capital city, including Tsoka Flea Market in Old Town, Area 12, Area 11, Kauma and Area 18.
Noticing how much the garden owners are making from using faecal manure, some Lilongwe City Council (LCC) employees are making a killing out of the system’s collapse by selling the unprocessed and untreated human waste at K7 500 per tonne, which Ben and his friends say cannot afford.
In Blantyre, the situation is no different.
The Manase waste management centre in the commercial capital is almost a forgotten area, what with the poor road network that makes it hard to reach.
And when you manage to reach the place, as The Nation did last week, you are welcomed by a pungent smell and maggots that come from the three sewerage ponds.
During the visit, some women from the surrounding impoverished communities were seen picking natural vegetables such as blackjack (chisoso) and bonongwe (Amaranthus hybridus), ignoring the appalling smell along the banks.
Nearby, some youths have turned the evergreen yard near the sewer ponds into a playground.
We inspected a radius of roughly 14 kilometres and discovered that people in Pensulo, Manyowe, Mitsidi and other villages in Blantyre use water from the river for washing, bathing, drinking and watering vegetables that are sold at Blantyre Market, Limbe Market and Zingwangwa Market, among others.
And just about four metres from a tributary that connects the sewer to Mudi River, there is a well where some Manyowe residents draw water for household use, including drinking, according to Kondwani Mwale, a Manyowe resident.
He said people in the area know about the dangers of consuming the water infested with harmful bacteria, but said the area’s water supply—which the defunct Malawi Social Action Fund (Masaf) financed—is no longer functioning.
Said Mwale: “We have been waiting for the media to intervene in our situation. Our lives are in danger, cases of diarrhoea are refusing to die [here].”
A Blantyre City Council (BCC) official we found at the site manning the sewer area, Andrew Paononga, said the sewer system directly empties all the untreated waste water into Mudi River.
He said government delayed funding the rehabilitation works, leaving the workers with no choice but to empty the untreated wastewater into Mudi River.
“The primary sewer line stopped working about six years ago,” Paononga said. “This line receives and filters the impurities, but because the primary line is not working, we just diverted the channel into pond two, three and four, which empty into the river.”
Experts paint gloomy picture
Various studies and experts say the neglect of the country’s sewer and waste management system in general is directly responsible for most of the consumption of faeces and other types of effluent nationwide through contaminated water and fresh foods.
A Wastewater Production, Treatment and Use in Malawi study by Golden Msilimba and Elijah Wanda conducted in Soche and Limbe in Blantyre; Kauma in Lilongwe; Chikanda in Zomba and Moyale in Mzuzu finds that lack of adequate waste water treatment causes severe water pollution and outbreaks of waterborne diseases, especially in Traditional Housing Areas (THAs) and informal settlements in urban areas.
The study also found that treatment centres in urban areas remove just about 30 percent of the organic wastes and 50 percent of suspended solids and bacteria.
Overall, only 15 percent of urban dwellers are connected to waterborne sewerage system in Malawi.
Reads the report in part: “Sewage system breakdown, sewer lines blockages occur due to poor maintenance, improper design of some sections, and also lack of public awareness on use of the sewerage systems. In THAs and squatter areas, wastewater is usually discharged into storm drains, roadsides, streams and rivers.
“Agricultural wastewater reuse is an important supply source in Malawi’s urban food systems as well as a critical food security valve for poor urban households. About 20 percent of the [country’s] population live in urban areas where more than 50 percent of the urban population use wastewater for irrigated agriculture.
“The short-term benefits of wastewater reuse in urban agriculture could be offset by the health and environmental implications. Wastewater composition varies according to its origins; domestic, hospital and industrial. Wastewater contains chemical pollutants such as heavy metals, pathogens and helminths, such as roundworms, hookworms and guinea worm that threaten the health of humans as well as the environment. The worst-case situation occurs when untreated wastewater is used to irrigate vegetables or salad crops that are eaten raw.”
The study observes that wastewater treatment and disposal is thus a matter of concern that needs to be addressed.
“[There is need] for a wastewater management system, which can help reduce the potential public health risks associated with wastewater management,” the study says .
But head of Physics and Biochemical Science Department at The Polytechnic, a constituent college of the University of Malawi (Unima), Chikumbusko Kaonga, said in an interview that while organic components found in contaminated water—such as untreated sewer wastewater—are degradable, there are some undegradable chemicals and metals are sucked into the body of the vegetables.
“Eating this kind of vegetables could also be eating together with other elements that would accumulate in the body and cause cancer. There are diseases that can quickly be linked to drinking or eating contaminated food and there are some that cannot be directly linked to the food like cancer,” he said.
On the issue of risks associated with use of sludge in horticulture or agriculture, environmental resource management specialist at the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (Luanar), Dr Wilfred Kadewa, said in an e-mail response that there are two sides: either use of the untreated wastewater or use of the treated waste effluent.
He said: “For both cases, there are guidelines by WHO [World Health Organisation], MBS [Malawi Bureau of Standards] and even city by-laws, which are supposed to act as a guide, and there is also the Sanitation and Public Health Policies. Our biggest problem in Malawi has always been and still is enforcement of regulations.”
Kadewa said treated wastewater effluent is in most cases safe for use, depending on type of irrigation, but sub-surface irrigation is preferred.
He added: “If irrigation is on vegetables, the general advice is that the vegetables should not be used for salads on top of following certain precautions—from handling to transportation.
“From my Lilongwe studies, the treated effluent is generally beneficial for agriculture because of the high levels of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. However, the levels of pathogenic organisms and faecal coliform are above the recommended levels.”
Kadewa said the public has a part in problems associated with inefficient treatment at most of the treatment plants.
“In the case of Kauma treatment plant in Lilongwe, for example, people vandalise wastewater flow channels to divert the treated effluent to their vegetable gardens. In fact, quite a number have encroached onto the treatment site and even built houses where there should have been a wetland meant to contribute to polishing the treated effluent as it flows from the treatment ponds to the river. This is unacceptable, but it is happening,” he said.
Consumers Association of Malawi (Cama) executive director John Kapito described as “gross and unbelievable” the revelation on waste management.
He said: “Oh, my God! You mean for over six years we have been buying this [vegetables] and the council couldn’t do anything about it? That’s deplorable. In the past, places like the sewerage were very well secured.
“No one could get anything out of them without being questioned and to learn that even the staff members working there are also selling the faeces for manure is unbelievable! The council has the whole health department and you say they haven’t detected this issue for over six years?”
LWB says water quality deteriorating
Lilongwe Water Board (LWB) chief executive officer Alfonso Chikuni said in a written response to a questionnaire this week that water quality continues to deteriorate as most of the raw water sources have been affected by pollution.
He said: “Refuse management has not been handled well leading to recontamination of treated water. To ensure water quality monitoring, water supply and waterborne sanitation, including storm water, should be the mandate of one authority and control. Planning, design, development, operation and maintenance could then be coordinated and harmonised.”
Chikuni, an engineer, said wastewater disposal, including human waste, was not well managed, adding: “Therefore, the risk of contamination would manifest itself, especially where free flowing sewage is in contact with broken water pipes. It is also very cumbersome to detect such contamination, especially when it happens underground.
“Solid waste disposal is not well managed [either] and the likelihood of contamination is high, especially where solid waste is dumped over and close to pipelines. Any opening to the pipeline will allow seepage into the pipeline, thereby contaminating the water.”
Chikuni also said planning of services in developing areas is un–coordinated, leading to lack of proper layout and design of civil engineering provisions for road and drainage works—storm water drains along road—water pipe network, sewer line and on site sanitation provisions, including pit latrines and septic tanks. n