Pollution Threatens a Zimbabwean Town’s Waters and its way of life

Fishermen bemoan dwindling catches as contamination by industrial waste and other pollutants raises concerns about the safety of food and drinking water.

Paul Majoni stares at the fruits of his labor as the sun sets on another day of work: a bucket half full of a diverse array of fish.

The 44-year-old can’t help but reminisce on the days when he would catch over 50 kilograms (110 pounds) of quality fish a day. But those days are long gone.

Now, if he manages to get 15 kilograms (33 pounds) a day, Majoni, a resident of Norton town, considers himself lucky.

The father of four has been surviving on fishing for over 12 years. With this job, he has taken care of his family and sent his children to school.

For years, Norton, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) west of Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, has been known for its fish, which not only provide livelihoods but are also a major source of protein for the local population.

Two major bodies of water in the town are at the center of the fish supply: the Darwendale Dam and Lake Chivero. Besides fishing, water from both sources is used for irrigation and supplied to homes in Harare and nearby towns.

Contamination of these two sources by industrial waste and other pollutants is, however, raising concern about the quality and safety of its waters. Fishermen like Majoni worry about the effects of pollution on the quality and quantity of their catches, which have been dwindling over the years, threatening the very core of their survival.

Dwindling fish supply

Fish production in Zimbabwe has been declining, according to a 2022 report by the Ministry of Lands, Agriculture, Fisheries, Water and Rural Development. In 2017, Zimbabwe produced 24,318 metric tons of fish from dams. That number has declined steadily over the years to 18,738 metric tons in 2020. Overfishing, pollution and climate change have been cited as major contributors to this decrease.

Research published in 2019 in Oxford Academic, an academic research platform, sought to determine the safety of fish products from Lake Chivero and found high levels of microbial contamination in both the water and the fish.

Tests on water samples conducted by Global Press Journal this year revealed that water flowing in Darwendale Dam from the Norton Town Council sewage plant contained 18 milligrams per liter of phosphate. The recommended level should not exceed 0.3 milligrams per liter. Water from a nearby tile manufacturing company that flows into the dam and lake also contains high levels of phosphates at 37.89 milligrams per liter.

Such high levels of phosphates reduce the amount of dissolved oxygen, thus endangering the lives of fish, according to the Water Research Center, an organization of geologists and scientists who research water quality. In humans, excess phosphorus ingestion can starve bones of calcium, weakening them. High levels of phosphorus and calcium also cause calcium deposits in the blood vessels, lungs, eyes and heart that can lead to an increased risk of heart attack, stroke or even death.

One of the biggest threats to Lake Chivero is pollution from sewage effluent, industrial and domestic waste, as well as fertilizer and pesticide runoff from farms. The result is a loss of 20% of the lake’s storage capacity. Research has found that the lake is highly contaminated because it receives raw and insufficiently treated sewage, most likely containing antibiotic residues. A 2016 report published in Oxford Academic also confirmed that water from the lake is highly contaminated. According to a 2019 study published in the journal Food Quality and Safety, Lake Chivero is among the world’s top 10 most polluted lakes, as much of the raw sewage, industrial chemicals and other waste from Harare and the towns of Chitungwiza and Ruwa is dumped into river systems that flow into it. The study also found that both the fish and water of Lake Chivero are contaminated with E. coli and exceed international food safety guidelines for bacterial and fungal loads.

The Chinese firm

About a kilometer from both Lake Chivero and Darwendale Dam is Sunny Yi Feng, a Chinese-owned firm that manufactures tiles, tableware and other items. The company boasts of being the largest manufacturer and distributor of these products across southern Africa.

George, a company employee who wants to be referred to by only one name for fear of retribution, says the company disposes porcelain, ceramic and sewage-contaminated water into a stream that feeds both the lake and dam. He is aware that this is against the law and says the Environmental Management Agency (EMA) has sanctioned the company several times. Each time, measures to address the pollution quickly followed the sanctions, but normal operations resumed once the company paid the requisite fines.

Investigations by Global Press Journal revealed that contaminated water from the factory was released at least twice a week into the stream that feeds the lake and dam. Tests for industrial effluent found excessive levels of phosphate in this water.

Abel Mukumba, public relations officer at Sunny Yi Feng, blames some of the discharged wastewater that finds its way into Lake Chivero and Darwendale Dam on equipment failure.

“We work with a lot of water, which might result in a lot of pressure. Sometimes our system becomes overwhelmed because production and demand causes overproduction, and that overproduction causes faults,” he says. Mukumba knows the water the company releases into the environment isn’t always “environmentally friendly,” but says the company is learning from its mistakes.

“We are more like a baby, we need to continuously learn and be taught to maturity level to reach a level where we have learned and we are knowledgeable,” he says.

But Alphinos Rugara, the environmental officer responsible for water quality management at the EMA, says water from the tile company does not have high phosphate levels.

“We have taken samples from Sunny Yi Feng, and they don’t have high phosphates. Their tile-making process is a very inorganic process where they take different types of clays and mix to make tiles. Yes, they release water to the environment, but reality may be that the water may be coming from their toilets,” he says.

Rugara says results of water samples tested by the agency differ from those done by Global Press Journal.

“We have our samples that we take, and your results are not the same as ours, so it’s difficult to comment because we are not coming from the same level of understanding,” he says.

The agency, he says, has been keeping an eye on operations at the company.

“We have been monitoring them, even fining them … but we haven’t seen phosphates in the water, and our understanding of the pollution problem at Sunny Yi Feng is different,” says Rugara.

He acknowledges water the company releases into the dam may have high turbidity because it still contains clay from tile manufacturing and heavy metals like manganese.

Rugara says since the company was fined in July it has taken short-term measures to address the problem.

Majoni recalls a time when water from Lake Chivero was clean, even to the naked eye, but he is now accustomed to the regular appearance of dead fish floating in the water.

Spicer Munjeri, a chemist, explains a possible cause: “Phosphates accelerate algae and plant growth in water. This enhances eutrophication and [depletes] the water body of oxygen. This can lead to fish being killed and loss of other waterborne species.”

The situation worries families whose livelihoods depend on fishing.

Precious Munetsiwa and her cousin, Precious Sera, have sold fish since 2012. Both married into families that have for decades earned a living through fishing. “This is our job, and it has managed to sustain our families for a long time. The continued diminishing of fish from the dam and the lake really affects our livelihoods,” says Munetsiwa.

Both say the fish supply from these water sources has decreased over the years.

“In the past, there used to be a lot of fish, and our husbands used to catch a lot more than they are now,” says Sera. She cites past catches close to 100 kilograms (220 pounds) but says they now consider themselves lucky if they get 30 kilograms (66 pounds) per catch.

Munetsiwa also says she no longer sees certain types of fish in the dam.

“In the past we used to catch tiger fish, but now that breed is no longer there,” she says

Joyce Chapungu, the communications officer at the EMA, says the Environmental Management Act and Statutory Instrument 6 of 2007, the legislation that regulates disposal of waste, prohibit the discharge of effluent or liquid waste into the environment without a license from the agency.

Licensing allows for monitoring of what is going on in the environment, says Chapungu. “The environment naturally functions as a waste receptor. However, it must not be overloaded,” she says.

Chapungu says those found in violation of the law are fined up to 5,000 United States dollars.

Mukumba confirms the EMA has fined the tile company before. In April, for instance, the agency fined the company for releasing contaminated water into a stream that leads to Darwendale Dam.

But it isn’t only the fishermen who feel the effects of pollution on Lake Chivero and Darwendale Dam.

A few meters from a tributary that feeds into the dam lies the Norton Town Council’s sewage treatment plant, which receives waste and industrial water from the town.

Francis Nyakudya, a supervisor, has worked at the plant for 21 years. He says the system it uses to treat water cannot detect and remove all the nutrients such as phosphates. Nyakudya estimates that the plant can remove only up to 50% of the phosphates, while the rest is released into the environment.

“There is need for further treatment of our water or to use this water for other purposes like irrigation,” he says.

A more advanced system would detect and rid the water of nutrients such as phosphates, he says, but financial challenges limit the council’s ability.

The council maintains that it does its best to ensure the safety of water released to the environment.

Tongai Mandude, acting town secretary for the Norton Town Council, blames the sewage plant’s failures on an erratic power supply. But he insists that the water the plant releases into the environment meets EMA requirements.

“The treatment plant functions with electricity. When there is no electricity, it won’t be treating the water. So these are probably some of the challenges, but definitely the water we are discharging meets the standards in terms of discharge,” he says.

Increased water costs

Hardlife Mudzingwa, the national coordinator for Community Water Alliance, which advocates for the availability of clean and affordable water, says the two water bodies are heavily contaminated.

Mudzingwa says firms’ failure to conform to EMA regulations makes water expensive for the general public.

“For every chemical and effluent that is discharged in water, there has to be a corresponding water treatment chemical to be applied to purify it,” he says.

Former Harare City Council spokesperson Innocent Ruwende says the city incurs a large monthly expense for water treatment.

“Water pollution is rampant and has already increased our water production costs. We use up to nine chemicals with a monthly bill of between 2 [million] and 3 million United States dollars,” he says.

Mudzingwa says the concern is that local authorities will push the cost onto consumers in high-density suburbs who mostly rely on water provided by the council, making water services less affordable.

Tests conducted by Global Press Journal on water supplied to households in Harare revealed higher levels of total bacteria and coliforms than accepted by the EMA.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services for the U.S. state of Michigan, people exposed to these bacteria may experience nausea, vomiting, fever or diarrhea. The bacteria are especially dangerous to children and the elderly.

Mudzingwa says the issue of water quality is a cause for concern.

“The inadequacy of water treatment chemicals compromises water quality, and these issues can be controlled if pollution stops,” he says.

Rugara acknowledges that the Norton Town Council has struggled with inefficiencies in water treatment.

The Norton “water treatment plants don’t work to the level required; phosphates are rife in the water released by the council and have caused a lot of pollution. We have a pending case in court with them on the same issue that hasn’t been concluded,” he says.

While Zimbabwe is revising the environmental laws, Mudzingwa proposes that fines paid by polluters be used to improve the quality of raw water.

“The amount in fines paid by the polluters should be enough to deter them from polluting the environment,” he says.

Majoni has only one plea to those compromising the quality of water in the lake and dam.

“I urge all those people and companies to desist from polluting these water bodies because our families are depending on the fish for survival,” he says.

This story was first published by The Global Press Journal

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