Forget the economic meltdown and the disappearance of thick black smoke from industrial chimneys in Zimbabwe. There is a new industry in Zimbabwe that is ten times more effective at putting toxic smoke in our lungs and elevating our risk of getting cancer. As things stand, no one can escape the toxic fumes from this industry. It is located everywhere, and it has no chimney. It is a huge national company called Burning Waste Pvt Ltd, and every citizen, company, city council, government and NGO has shares in it. This company burns waste during any time of the day, and at any place.
In residential areas and at every bottlestore or butchery where they use firewood (deforestation is another matter) for braaing meat, burning plastic has become the standard method of lighting a fire. Companies use plastic waste to light up their coal-powered boilers, city councils clean-up shopping centres and burn the waste a few metres away and “entrepreneurs” burn tyres in broad daylight in Mbare and Gazaland to extract wires for making mesh wire. The list is endless; pre-schools, schools, clinics, hospitals, police stations, and even magistrates’ courts have pits for burning waste. At an early age, school children are taught by observation that burning waste is a good thing.
The habit of burning waste is so entrenched that magistrates, school heads, hospital administrators, government ministers, police commissioners and company executives do not even take notice of it. I doubt if the President of Zimbabwe has taken notice of it, because if he had, he would have spoken strongly against it when he launched the national clean-up campaign on December 5, 2018. During the demonstrations against fuel price increases in January 2019, tyres were burnt, but newspaper reports focused on the demonstrations turning violent, and not on the fact that burning the tyres was hazardous to the health of the demonstrators themselves and other Zimbabweans.
To make matters worse, exposure to toxic fumes from burning waste does not result in immediate illness or death. So, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence that it is harmful to health, many “highly educated” Zimbabweans argue all day that it is not harmful. In fact, to question the burning of waste is seen as a sign of madness by the majority of Zimbabweans. Very few people know that it is illegal to burn waste in Zimbabwe, and a negligible percentage of those who burn waste have been arrested and fined by the Environmental Management Agency (EMA) for burning waste.
Ceremonial right to a clean and healthy environment
In Zimbabwe, there are certain rights that start and end in the Constitution. When push comes to shove, these rights have to pave way for other “presumably superior” rights. The only place where those rights crop up is in the Constitution and at official ceremonial functions like the national clean-up launch.
Evidence on the ground suggests that the right to a clean and healthy environment (Section 73 of the Constitution) is one such ceremonial right.
If a thief is hungry and steals food from a shop and gets caught, they will certainly be found guilty and sentenced, and their pleas that they stole because they were hungry will fall on deaf ears. However, in the case of Manyame Park Residents vs Chitungwiza Municipality, where Chitungwiza Municipality was charged for disposing raw sewage into Manyame River, the High Court accepted Chitungwiza Municipality’s submission that they had no resources to remedy the sewage problem (Environment ministry). The residents’ right to clean water was, therefore, considered subservient to the municipality’s finances and budgetary allocation.
In the same vein, EMA have de-facto legalised the burning of waste in Zimbabwe, pleading a lack of resources to bring to book those who burn waste. On their website they claim to be “…overwhelmed by complaints from various quarters…” concerning the burning of waste.
Their plea is shamelessly paradoxical, given that the culprits arrested will be fined for their environmental crimes. Surely, how can an activity that generates revenue for EMA while protecting the right to a clean and healthy environment overwhelm EMA? Sadly, the police, who have the potential to substantially increase EMA’s capacity to prosecute the culprits, are also busy burning waste.
The second excuse that EMA gives is that people burn waste because city councils do not collect waste; therefore, they will only start arresting offenders when city councils start collecting waste on a regular basis. However, in December 2017 when I ran from Kambuzuma to EMA’s Bluffhill offices in protest, I put it to them that city councils no longer collected waste because they knew that residents would still dump and burn the waste, solving their unwanted problem in a fatal way. I also argued that people burnt waste because they knew that no-one would prosecute them. To date, they do not appear to be convinced. EMA itself is complicit in the waste generation problem, allowing intoxicating beverages to be packaged in non-returnable plastic containers that drunkards throw about, with only a tiny percentage being recycled while the rest is burned or finds its way into waterways.
Why EMA must give me their ticket book, air-quality monitoring machine
Reading this article, many would be tempted to conclude that I have an axe to grind with EMA. I do have an axe to grind with them in as far as they have neglected their duty to enforce the law against the wanton burning of waste to the extent that the habit is now entrenched among Zimbabweans.
For a long time, I have suffered physical and psychological harm at the hands of people who burn waste, with some of them even verbally abusing me. I have relocated from Harare to Chivhu in an effort to reduce my family’s exposure to toxins from waste burning. Sadly, in Chivhu three households surrounding us cook their meals using firewood, and light their fires using plastic waste. At two of the houses, the illegal drug Broncleer is sold, and the drug dealers burn the empty Broncleer bottles at night, exposing us to carcinogens even as we slept.
Those who follow me on Facebook and LinkedIn know that I am a passionate proponent of a healthy and sustainable lifestyle. I exercise regularly, eat lots of fruits and vegetables, drink lots of water, but I breathe air pregnant with toxins from the burning of waste on a daily basis. All my efforts at being healthy are being undone by denial of the right to breathe unpolluted air. Recently, I ran 21km in 1 hour 33 minutes at the Victoria Falls marathon, aged 43. Without chronic exposure to polluted air, I would have done even better.
I have suffered, and this suffering must come to an end now. I do not know if EMA officers have suffered as much as I have done, but if they had, they would surely be highly motivated to enforce the law. I am beginning to think that EMA officers have oxygen masks at their homes and offices, and that their children go to schools with such facilities.
Given EMA’s ticket book, no offender can bribe me into not issuing a ticket. I do not want a vehicle, a salary, or even commission, just the ticket book and air quality monitoring machine. Within a week, I will have raised millions of dollars for EMA, and the air quality in Zimbabwean cities and rural areas would be much better within a month. That, to me, is worth more than any salary, commission, or car. That, to me, means a better future for all Zimbabweans.
Macdonald Mamina is an experianced sustainability solutions specialist with a post graduate diploma is susitainable development from Stellenbosch Univesity and BSc Agric, social science from the University of Zimbabwe