It is 07:10 am and traffic is thick along Victoria Avenue in Blantyre.
Despite losing patience with the snail’s pace at which the vehicles are moving, passengers and motorists are clearly uncomfortable with the stench from Mudi River, which would easily be mistaken for a broken sewer or sewage pit.
Residents of such areas as Nancholi, Manyowe, Sunnyside, Mpemba, Chilobwe and Soche East cannot avoid this smell since all roads to the city centre have to cross the river at some point.
Blantyre Market vendors and customers, are not spared the stench since the market has one of the river’s catchment areas.
“I have to put up with this stench daily as I run my business,” says Patrick January, a vendor who sells second-hand clothes at the market.
Vendors at the market are supposed to use a pay toilet at a nearby flea market, but some feel K40 is too much to pay for toilet use. Such people relieve themselves along the river bank.
But the river is getting more than just human waste. All the market trash is dumped into it. The Blantyre City Council (BCC) sewer system, which was built in the 1970s, has not been functioning well. As such, human waste from septic tanks empty into the river.
This is what prompted the Rotary Club of Blantyre to launch the Mudi River clean-up initiative with the aim of cleaning the river and making it pollution-free.
On Saturday, the Rotarians conducted a clean-up exercise, one of many such activities they have held since the launch of the initiative in 2011.
Sunduzwayo Jere, a member of the Rotary Club, said the Saturday clean-up exercise is part of a long-term process that started with the launch.
“Apart from the usual stench in Blantyre CBD, many people downstream (Chief Manyenje’s area and beyond) use water from the river for their daily needs. We have heard reports of kids and people from that area developing sores on their skin,” said Jere.
He added that for the Rotary Club to effectively clean-up Mudi River, there are several challenges that need to be addressed.
“All steel pipes that were stolen (the pipes carry waste from the industrial area to the Blantyre sewer treatment plant in Manyowe) need to be replaced by concrete pipes. Concrete pipes cannot be stolen because they break easily if tampered with.
“The Mudi River catchment areas need to be free of waste and re-afforested. Examples of such catchment areas are Blantyre Market area, Clock Tower area and Namiwawa Primary School. Again, the manholes that are used to clear blockages along the sewer line need to be cleared of blockages and a small perimeter fence erected around each manhole from Blantyre Water Board [BWB] to Manyowe,” explained Jere.
He said so far, the club has cleared blockages along the sewer line and erected small fences around each manhole from BWB to Manyowe.
Executive director of Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy (Cepa), William Chadza, says the river has been poorly managed and urban residents and industrial companies have been disposing of waste into it.
“This has made the water hazardous to domestic users,” Chadza says.
Village Headman Manyenje says in recent years, the water in the river has been contaminated.
He worries that since the village does not have access to adequate safe water, people still rely on the river water for domestic purposes, thereby risking their lives.
“I don’t know the disease[s] we will suffer from in months or years to come as a result of the polluted water we are using,” says Manyenje.
A visit to Manyenje Village reveals that their part of the river has black water which stinks and produces a lot of bubbles. Despite the situation, people still use the water for washing, bathing and irrigation.
“My skin gets cracked and irritated every time I use the river water for washing,” says Cecelia Kambila of Manyenje Village, Traditional Authority Somba in Blantyre.
She adds that since the area has one borehole for over 300 households, it takes time for one to fetch water, hence people resort to using the river water.
“Of late, our children have been developing skin rashes and wounds which I believe is a result of bathing this water,” Kambila claims.
Environmental district officer for Blantyre, Nancy Chawawa, acknowledges that Mudi River is highly polluted due to what she terms lack of strict regulations.
Kambila, who has lived in Manyenje Village since 1987, says people used to fish in the river but there has been no fish since the late 1990s.
But there is hope. According to Jere, rehabilitation works started early this year through Non-Ferrous Industries (NFI) which is replacing all rusty equipment at the site.
“The city council finally signed the rehab contract with NFI through pressure from the Rotary Club of Blantyre. We have also allocated the river bank at Blantyre Market to florists as that will block waste disposers from dumping waste at the site. We also intend to build stalls for vendors at the market,” explained Jere.
BCC assistant engineer Simeon Chiwaya recently told the local media that the council is failing to rehabilitate sewer pipes because it is owed a lot of money in city rates.n
Additional reporting by Edyth Kambalame