AS one approaches the Dema tollgate along the Harare-Hwedza Road, smog blanketing the hazy skyline is difficult to miss.
Bernard Mpofu/Elias Mambo
Visibility gradually reduces while the smell of burning diesel grows strong.
At Murape Secondary School, about two-and-a-half kilometres from the toll gate, the pungent smell of diesel hangs in the air while the whirring sound of generators has become the order of the day.
One wonders how pupils at the school can concentrate on their studies given the combined effects of the noise emanating from generators, the nasty odour of diesel and the dirty air.
Murape Secondary is about 300 metres away from the Dema Emergency Power Plant which runs on diesel generators to produce 200 megawatts of electricity when operating at full throttle.
The power plant has 230 powerful diesel generators which are switched on daily at 5.30am, burning 400 000 litres of fuel, while producing massive thick black smoke that can be seen from several kilometres away.
The power plant, erected without a mandatory environmental impact assessment, is less than 350 metres away from Chitate village, exposing scores of people to polluted air daily. There are no legally monitored emission control measures.
The evidence of pollution is unassailable. Other than the thick smoke emanating from the plant, trees around the area are covered in black soot.
An employee at the company, who preferred anonymity, revealed a massive three million litres of diesel are consumed by the generators weekly, hence the high pollution levels.
“We switch the generators on at 5.30am in the morning and switch them off at 10 pm,” said an employee at the power plant.
“Every week the generators consume three million litres of diesel to produce 200MW of power.”
The worker said although the generators produce bearable noise, it is the smoke and the black soot which covers the tree leaves and buildings in the area that are of concern.
“You can see the black soot covering the tree leaves and the grass. You can imagine the quality of air we are inhaling,” he said.
The employee revealed that the layer of soot has been steadily accumulating on trees and buildings as electricity generation continues.
According to the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, one litre of diesel used results in 2,68kg of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) being emitted into the atmosphere. In the case of Dema, which uses 400 000 litres every day, close to 1 072 tonnes of carbon dioxide are emitted into the atmosphere on a daily basis, causing serious health risks.
Emitted gasses can have adverse effects on health, particularly among people with respiratory illnesses. High levels of exposure to contaminated environments have been linked with increased respiratory problems, while long-term exposure may affect lung function and increase the response to allergens in sensitive people. The gasses also contribute to smog formation, acid rain, damage to vegetation, contribute to ground-level ozone formation and can react in the atmosphere to form fine particles.
A fortnight ago, a Swiss corporate watchdog, Public Eye, warned that some leading fuel retailers in Zimbabwe, partly owned by Swiss companies, are allegedly importing contaminated diesel which contains high levels of sulphur content for bigger profits.
In an investigation report titled How Swiss Traders Flood Africa with Toxic Fuels, the watchdog accuses leading fuel companies of importing toxic fuel.
On Zimbabwe, the report says Sakunda Holdings, Redan Petroleum and Zuva Petroleum, whose majority shareholders are Swiss-based oil giants Glencore and Trafigura, are contributing to the importation of toxic fuels into Zimbabwe.
Sakunda Holdings is running the controversial and corrupt Dema Power plant after being awarded the contract, initially pegged at US$194 million a year, without going to tender.
Sakunda proprietor, Kuda Tagwirei, partnered President Robert Mugabe’s in-law Derrick Chikore in the controversial project after circumventing laid down procedures such as conducting an environmental impact assessment.
Despite breathing dirty air, villagers of Chitate are also complaining that they have not benefitted much in terms of employment.
“Only four people from our village out of 50 Zimbabweans were employed during the initial stages of the project. Those employed were given three-month contracts which lapsed in September,” said a young man who worked for the project for the three months ending September.
“We approached the local councillor over this matter and he was promised that we are going to be re-engaged in future. All we can do for now is hope, but it pains to see that the majority of those left are foreigners, save for the security personnel.”
He said most of the employees at the power plant are expatriates.
Despite Sakunda being mentioned in the Public Eye report, the Zimbabwe Energy Regulatory Authority (Zera) insisted that Zimbabwean companies were not importing toxic fuel.
“Zimbabwe, through the Standards of Zimbabwe (SAZ) has set standards for all fuels imported into the country. The national standard for diesel is ZWS751 which specifies a maximum limit of sulphur content to 500 parts per million (ppm) to be imported into Zimbabwe. This limit is in line with the African Refiners Association(ARA)’s Afri-3 specification of 500ppm sulphur content for African countries by 2015.”
This, however, contradicts findings made by the Zimbabwe Independent this week with regards the level of sulphur content permitted by countries in southern Africa.
South Africa has since reduced the diesel and petrol sulphur to a maximum 10 ppm by the end of this year while Zambia is reducing to 15ppm.
Environmental Management Authority (EMA) spokesperson Steady Kangate revealed that his organisation was waiting for the environmental impact assessment document from Sakunda.
“Power generation, regardless of source, is a prescribed activity. It has to undergo environmental impact assessment. As of Dema we are still waiting for their document because it is prescribed in the law,” he said.
But for now, the Dema Power Plant continues to run under the management of the Office of the President and Cabinet, without the environmental impact assessment report.
The Dema project shows how corruption can endanger public health and compromise environmental policy.