Poisoning Limbe River: Minors carrying feaces

In the wake of intermittent water supply in cities and towns, residents especially those residing in flats at the hub of cities have two options to respond to the call of nature—walk down the flats for pay toilets or hold on. But at night, none of the options work. So, how do they survive? ALBERT SHARRA explores.

To many, Peter Pine’s Amakhala ku Blantyre hit came and vanished, but not the storyline.

Kids collect wastes in bottles and plastics bags and dump it on the river banks at K1000

The pride of living in Blantyre City, the country’s commercial centre, starts and ends on paper.

A day or two without water in Blantyre city, particularly Limbe, exposes the City dwellers to more than what Pine captures in his song.

We arrived in Limbe business district at around 1pm on a Saturday. As usual, everyone was busy. Both streets and paths cutting across the business area were congested. Vendors were on top of their voices marketing their products and buyers turning an item after another in the hunt for the best catch.

But while everyone’s eyes were on the formal business underway, a parallel informal market dominated by minors aged between eight and 16 was thriving. The minors are at core of managing sanitation in some of the flats.

On this day, the city dwellers, particularly those near Limbe mosque, were in their second day without water.

“When I called Blantyre Water Board [BWB], they said one of their pipes has a problem and they were fixing it, but now it is 48 hours,” lamented one foreign resident who identified himself as Ayubu.

By design, the flats have no pit latrines for use when the taps go dry. Most of the taps are also broken such that in most flats water is kept in buckets and can only suffice a family for a day. This is where minors come in to complement life of those living in these flats.

There are pay toilets within, but the residents, most of whom are foreigners describe them as untidy, unhygienic and unsafe for children.

Our investigations found that few pay toilets are made of bricks and most of them have no water let alone floors made of cement.

Most pay toilets have walls made of transparent plastics and muddy floors soaked in flowing urine which makes them uninviting to many, particularly women.

“Do you mean I should release my seven-year-old daughter to go down and use the untidy pay toilets? Have you ever used them yourself?” shouted Ayubu. 

It is survival of the fittest. The dwellers use buckets for defaecation and plastic bottles for storing urine ready for disposal later.

On a day of no tap water, a sight of buckets and bottles wrapped in plastics bags and placed behind the flats, signals business to some sections of the community, mainly minors. They carry the wastes and dump them along Limbe River at a fee.

“This is how we survive here. We have homes where we go and collect wastes for disposal,” says one minor we will identify as Bully for ethical reasons. “They usually need us more when taps go dry and we carry both faeces and urine for disposal.”

The 11-year-old says on a good day, he collects the waste twice and is paid K1 000 per trip. He says it is big business in homes with many family members.

Currently, the minor, who claims to be an orphan, says he serves three flats.

“We know each other and no one can go to my house and clear the waste. The boss won’t pay him,” says the outspoken lad.

Although the minors celebrate the opportunity to make money, they do this at owner’s risk. They carry the waste without any protective clothing.

At the dumping sites, the waste stays forever until rains come to wash them down the stream. During our visit, we found heaps of feaces in plastics and urine in bottles dumped along the river and producing pungent and irritating smell.

Ignored and killing people silently may be polluted air from the dumping site because just few metres away, restaurant operators serve customers.

This is the same story you find in Lilongwe, particularly in Area 2 also known as Bwalo la Njobvu. The residents rely on Lilongwe River to dump similar wastes when taps run dry for days.

These findings put to question government’s commitment in achieving Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly goals III and VI which centre on good health and well-being and clean water and sanitation for all, respectively. Failure by the councils to manage human excreta contributes to both air and water pollution which lead to the spread of air and waterborne diseases.

World Health Organisation (WHO) says annually over two million lives are lost globally to waterborne diseases only. In 2012, for instance 87 percent registered premature deaths were due to outdoor air pollution in low and middle income countries, says WHO.

Last year only, Ministry of Health (MoH) recorded over 830 cholera cases in which 30 lives were lost. Although Bully claims none of his team has ever suffered from cholera, but the practice of carrying other people’s faeces puts not only his life at risk, but also the communities that use river water downstream.

Blantyre City Council (BCC) public relations manager Anthony Kasunda is aware of careless waste disposal. He says the council, through the pollution control office, is doing everything possible to “control activities that contribute to water pollution of not only Limbe River, but all rivers in the city”.

As BCC delays with its interventions, Bully and friends in the business of dumping human excreta will continue to live dangerously. n

Next: Albert Sharra digs into what happens downstream of Limbe River.

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