How a ‘no man’s land’ is rocking a health time bomb

The landfill, which is approximately 10km from the CBD, is, however, a few metres from Woodlands Phase 2 suburb and it continues to be the single largest environmental health risk to more than 15 000 people residing in the high-density suburb.

ITAI MUZONDO SITUATED in the southwest of Gweru’s central business district (CBD) is the McFaden Landfill popularly known to the public as the ‘Gweru Dumpsite’.

The landfill, which is approximately 10km from the CBD, is, however, a few metres from Woodlands Phase 2 suburb and it continues to be the single largest environmental health risk to more than 15 000 people residing in the high-density suburb.

Residents around the dumpsite have been putting pressure on local authorities to speedily decommission the landfill.

Environmental health hazards

It has taken at least two decades for the local authorities to finally act after numerous complaints filed by the residents about the bad odour from the dumpsite, uncontrollable flies, and rodents getting into their houses.

Also of great concern to the residents is the contamination of the borehole water in the area, which poses a serious threat to their health.

Their fears were supported by Geovannah Environment Consultancy Company environmentalist Vimbai Mwanaka, who stated in an interview with Zimbabwe Independentthat having housesclose to landfill establishments was a great health hazard.

“Dumpsites contaminate underground water. When toxins biologically degrade in the environment, they form hazardous reactions which eventually contaminate water, both surface and underground, especially boreholes and wells. This then usually leads to the spread of water-borne diseases,” she said.

Playing the blamegame

Investigations we carried out in conjunction with Information for Development Trust— a non-profit organisation that promotes investigative reporting—established that after years of bickering and finger-pointing, Vungu Rural District Council and City of Gweru finally signed a Memorandum of Agreement in February 2021 to solve problems faced by Woodlands residents, one of which was the removal of the landfill.

However, more than a year later, there has been no movement.

The two local authorities have been playing the blame game for the environmental mess. City of Gweru, under which jurisdiction the landfill falls, argued that the waste-disposal site was commissioned in 1999, three yearsbefore Woodlands suburb was developed.

Woodlands suburb is administratively under Vungu Rural District Council (RDC).

However, the land developer, River Valley Properties, says all completed projects were handed over to City of Gweru, meaning the responsibility to service the area now fell under it.

According to documents at hand, Vungu RDC and City of Gweru signed the MoU in February 2021.

This led to the formation of a Joint Committee in charge of operationalising the agreement.

Although the committee meets quarterly, no updates have been publicly given on progress to decommission the landfill.

Plans for new project

City of Gweru, which plans to develop Mkoba 21 near the landfill in partnership with Shesham Investments, promised last year to decommission the waste disposal site within three years to allow for the new housing project.

This was after the Environmental Management Agency (Ema) warned the city council against developing another suburb close to McFaden Landfill.

During the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) stakeholder consultation meeting that was held on February 24, 2021, the city council indicated that “…it is no longer best to continue having the dumpsite at McFadden Farm since it is now surrounded by residential areas and residents are constantly being affected by flies which are vectors for diseases, smoke from fires and unpleasant smell from the dumpsite”.

Compliance failures

Our investigations have revealed compliance anomalies in the management of the landfill.

This was revealed in an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report dated August 16, 2021, which also stated that McFaden Landfill is on a wetland.

“The site clearly exhibits characteristics in terms of hydrology, vegetation, and soils, which are typical of a wetland. The location is also confirmed by the Ema 2021 Wetlands Map for Gweru,” reads part of the report.

Wetlands are principally protected by the laws of Zimbabwe and it is illegal to construct any infrastructure in a wetland without approval from Ema.

Wetland utilisation is governed by Section 113 of the Environmental Management Act Cap 20:27 which states that “…the Minister may declare any wetland to be an ecologically sensitive area and may impose limitations on development in and around the area”.

Statutory Instrument 7, Environmental Management (EIA and Ecosystems Protection Regulations) of 2007 makes provisions for the protection of wetlands and prevents the digging, draining, excavations, disturbance of surface, removal of vegetation, removal of animals, and introduction of invasive species in a wetland without approval from Ema is also breached.

The report also notes that the landfill has engineering irregularities.

“The area has no groundwater monitoring facilities, no landfill gas recovery system, no leachate collection and treatment system, and no weighbridge to quantify waste system.

“The dumpsite is also not fenced or manned meaning there is no control on who dumps and what type of waste is dumped.

“Haphazard dumping at the site is also rife and resultantly, waste is not compacted, there is no cell covering papers and unpleasant odourfills the environment. Uncontrolled fires are also a common site.

“Due to mismanagement, flies, rodents, and scavengers have been tormenting residents in nearby homesteads,” the report further reads.

The City of Gweru said it hadnoted all anomalies highlighted in the reports and was working on moving the landfill to a new location.

Snail’s pace implementation

City of Gweru director of Health Services Sam Sekenhamo said: “There were some grey areas noted on the current landfill, especially in light of the development of Mkoba 21. Identification of a new dumpsite has been done and we are just awaiting approvals from the government.

“As we await approvals, we have not folded hands as we have commenced the process of decommissioning the existing dumpsite.”

He, however, said progress was stalled by rains.

His claims were also supported by a 2021 report from a joint committee comprising of the Physical Planning Department, Ema, City of Gweru, and Vungu RDC, who were tasked to look for alternative sites to relocate the landfill.

“Five sites were identified by the team. Three met the suitability criteria but Starr Shire was recommended after evaluations,” reads the report.

Starr Shire is about 10km from the CBD along Matobo road. It measures 11 hectares.

Asked about what they had done as the responsible authority to curb further environmental harm, Ema Midlands spokesperson Oswald Ndlovu said his organisation made commitments to relocate the landfill.

“We have signed a written commitment with the City of Gweru that compels them to decommission the place in a period of three years. We have challenges with our local authorities concerning landfill management and most of them have been fined,” he said.

“Besides fines, we, however, feel we must also facilitate for corrective measures and thus we enter agreements with them so that we monitor progress towards compliance issues.”

Environmental morality

Gweru Residents and Ratepayers Association said it wassceptical about whether the decommissioning would be completed within the set timeframes.

“The stand-off gave service providers an opportunity to hide behind a finger on who is responsible for rescuing troubled residents,”the organisation programmes officer, Fadzayi Kanyai said.

“We are happy, however, that the authorities have come up with a way forward.

“Our worry now is whether this will be done within the set deadlines. If the deadlines are not met, it will impact the proposed development of Mkoba 21, which is closer to the dumpsite.

“Landfills also promote the life cycles of mosquitoes and tsetse flies. Such developments further expose residents to diseases like malaria and sleeping sickness. It is also sad to note that these diseases often lead to fatalities,” she added.

Mwanaka concurred saying: “In addition to causing these health problems, the dumpsites cause air pollution. Hence, residents living close to the dumpsite may experience health conditions such as coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and irritation of the eyes and throat.

“If the residents continue to breath in polluted air from the nearby dumpsites, this can be more harmful, raising the risk for many serious diseases including lung cancer and asthma,” she added.

Woodlands Ward Development Committee chairperson Obert Rupanga said despite efforts to have the City of Gweru put up a fence around the dumpsite, nothing has been done to limit the environmental health risk.

“We are also sure that dangerous chemicals are flowing into our boreholes. We can neither drink nor bath using water from the boreholes,” he said.

A female resident, Nyasha Nyoka weighed in saying “bad odour is also a daily challenge and this comes mainly from the liquid waste pool at the site. So, besides the liquid waste also flowing into our homes through drainage, the bad smell is unbearable.”

Another female resident, Otilia Mupalume pointed out that: “Women bear the brunt as they struggle to maintain a clean healthy environment under such circumstances”.

The Zimbabwe Environmental Lawyers Association (Zela) said the Environmental Management Act (Cap20.27), Statutory Instrument6 of 2007 Environmental Management (Effluent and Solid Waste Disposal) Regulations was meant to protect residents from such environmentalhealthrisks.

Environmental lawyer Effort Nkazimulo said to ensure compliance Ema should approach the courts.

“More heavy penalties should also be put in place so that violations are discouraged,” Nkazimulo said.

New York State Department of Environmental Conservation health researchers also submitted similar findings on the dangers of living close to landfills.

“Health effects associated with both methane and carbon dioxide result from the lack of oxygen rather than direct exposure to these gases. Health effects caused by a reduced oxygen level include a faster heartbeat and having to take deeper breaths, similar to the effects felt after vigorous exercise,” reads part of their findings.

“A greatly reduced oxygen level (that is when the oxygen level is well below its usual level of 21% of the total air volume) can cause reduced coordination, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, and unconsciousness.”

  • This investigation was produced in partnership with IMS and FOJO