…As waterborne diseases health time bomb looms
THE green belt view in the sprawling high density suburb of Hobhouse Phase Three will no doubt catch your attention with the vegetables of all kind being grown, from rape, tomatoes, spinach, covo, onions to mention a few that are looking fresh and succulent to eat.
However, as the old saying goes, all that glitters is not gold, after being told of the health hazard time bomb that is looming from the peri-urban agriculture practice, where an unusual canal irrigation method is being practiced using sewage effluent to water the vegetables. The effluent irrigation practice is common before the rain season when residents are desperate for water for their crops, but to Mutare City Council, it is bleeding them thousands of dollars weekly to rehabilitate the water and sewer infrastructure being vandalized and stolen because of such practices, EasternTimesZim has learnt.
This was revealed during a recently held media tour organized by the local authority in the high density suburb of Hobhouse in Ward 17, where the propensity to block the sewer manholes is said to be most rife. The local authority revealed that there is a sharp increase in cases of sewer manholes being blocked intentionally with intentions of using the sewer water to irrigate vegetable gardens on reserved or idle land in several suburbs in the city.
MCC sewer jobbing superintendent Buckston Rugge said in his 30-years’ experience at the local authority, the rate of occurrence of vandalism and theft cases of council property was getting worrisome. He added that apart from blocking sewer manholes and vandalizing the asbestos sewer pipes by drilling small holes for effluent to flow out, the perpetrators are also stealing the manhole covers, which are made of cast iron that they crash into chips and sell to scrap metal dealers. Crashing the cast iron covers makes it difficult to identify them as stolen council property. The scrap metal rush hit Mutare early this year and saw a lot of people going all out in search of scrap metal to sell. This led to some vandalizing and looting council property to score the United States greenbacks as it was selling for US0.09 cents per kilogramme. So cast iron manholes which weigh between 10kgs (light duty) and 20kgs (heavy duty) became a quick target for fast cash.
The vandalism and theft during the harsh economic times in the country is syphoning the local authority which is already on its knees. In August MCC sanctioned a supplementary budget of $36.4 million to cover inflating costs, after initially having projected a 2019 budget of $31.1 million.
“Hobhouse is where the vandalism is extensive, but it’s happening in Dangamvura, Sakubva and Greenside Extension, mostly in areas where people practice peri-urban agriculture which often takes place on the fringes of urban areas. This is rampant before the beginning of the rain season. We build manholes after every 70km to 80km radius because we use the manholes for sewer blockage maintenance. The culprits throw sacks with sand into the manholes to block the sewer flow, so that the sewer water overflows from the sewer manholes where they build canals to channel the effluent water into their vegetable gardens,” said Rugge.
Mutare City Council public relations officer Spren Mutiwi said almost daily they are receiving reports of sewer manhole blockages and in some areas shortly after completing maintenance. He said what is even more worrisome is the health hazard of using the effluent to water the vegetable gardens.
“The sewage is water released from households after use for various purposes like washing dishes, laundry, and flushing the toilet, thus the name wastewater. The toxic compounds in the sewer water used for agriculture can also make their way up the food chain, contributing to various negative health impacts. Most vegetables grown in the gardens are also sold to the public in the city centre, so a ticking health time bomb threatens as well,” said Mutiwi.
According to the local authority Health Department the three main health risks due to the effects of raw sewage exposure are viruses, bacteria and parasites found in the human waste, such as E.coli that can infect the water and cause bloody diarrhea as well as cholera which is usually found in water or food sources that have been contaminated by feces from a person infected with cholera. Another bacterial disease, Leptospirosis, which is spread mainly by contact with water or soil contaminated by the urine of infected animals, which without treatment can lead to kidney damage, meningitis, liver failure, respiratory distress and even death. Hepatitis A which is a highly contagious liver infection caused by the hepatitis A virus can also be contacted when one eats or drink something that has been exposed to feces from someone who has the virus.
“We realized most recurring cases in areas where there is peri-urban agriculture were deliberate blockages because people are creating irrigation canals for the effluent to go into their gardens. This is serious if not dealt with which is why we need media awareness of the potential health hazards that may loom as well as the avoidable financial costs from the continuous maintenance that we are accruing,” said Mutiwi.
He added that what is sad is the lack of ownership by residents towards reporting vandalism cases to rein in perpetrators.
“We have lost a lot of money from such vandalism cases. We cannot quantify it but at this rate of daily faults being reported, it will amount into millions of money that could have been used for new projects to further develop our city. What is painful is the lack of ownership by the same residents that complain about poor service delivery from Council. Let us have a sense ownership and responsibility and work together to avoid such vandalism,” said the Council public relations officer.
As solutions, Mutiwi said they are now opting for cement manhole covers as replacements of the cast iron covers which are being looted citing that the programme is already underway and started in Sakubva. He also applauded the efforts of their municipal police officers that have been working tirelessly to recover some of the stolen cast iron through the assistance of scrap metal dealers in the city that they said were voluntarily cooperating to help rein in culprits.
During the tour the local authority through its Ward 17 Councilor John Nyamhoka had organized a meeting with residents where several issues emanated concerning the matter, which then turned out to be a chicken and egg situation where the City of Mutare was also found wanting. One resident an elderly lady in her 50s that requested anonymity summed it up by highlighting that the local authority was doing little towards stakeholder engagement especially in the wards. She said instead of the Council investing resources to just come and slash people’s crops, the same resources should be channeled towards educating the people and consulting on win-win solutions that are realistic and pro-poor.
“The truth is peri-urban agriculture is practiced because as citizens we are struggling and will anguish in poverty if we do not fend for ourselves. We want your municipal police and health officers to be visible like what was done in the past in the 1990s. We would see them educating residents on health hazards and engaging people and in-turn people used to pay council money for farming land instead of playing cat and mouse games like what is happening now. We are law abiding citizens but you should also treat us with dignity. People are struggling out there so think outside the box on how to help each other,” said the lady.
Mutiwi responded by saying his public relations office, which was created last year, was working tirelessly to foster synergies with residents and rebuild the co-existence relationship that used to be there. “We want you to be the eyes and ears of Council, and we will also work tirelessly to ensure service delivery is met. We are aware a lot of outstanding issues are there which are inherited from years back, but let’s all try bury the hatchet and work together to ensure service delivery,” said Mutiwi as he collectively responded to the barrage of questions and counter accusations against the local authority.
Residents complained that the blockages were also due to over population in the high density suburb caused by double dealings of corrupt council officials and also refuted that some of the covers of sewer manholes were never inserted from inception. They said they were also suffering from the unbearable sewage smell for years now that comes from the open sewer manholes regardless of filed reports to MCC.
Clr Nyamhoka urged the residents to work with the local authority especially on the health hazards of using sewage water for irrigating their vegetable gardens. “If there is a cholera outbreak it is us the residents that suffer so let us be our brothers keep and have ownership of our infrastructure and stop health hazard farming practices. The local authority is ending up inflating its budget towards chemicals like chloride of lime used as the disinfectant for sewerage services and transport costs for maintenance, instead of embarking on new water projects,” said the ward 17 councilor.