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Soap, oil pollute lives in Dowa

Joseph Chikankheni has lived his life relying on farming for income. He has been growing tomatoes and onions.

But his enterprise has been failing in the past three years.

When Meru Manufacturing Company opened in the area in 2014, Chikankheni, like 50 other farmers in the village, thought this was an opportunity that would boost their businesses.

It would bring more activity in the area and boost income of the community. In the end, they would reap from the economic activities that would come.

Sadly, this investment ended to be the very killer of their source of livelihood. Today, Chikankheni cannot grow anything in his field. Reason? It has been contaminated by industrial effluent discharged from the Meru factory which produces soap and cooking oil, among others.

“It has been years now. Untreated wastewater was discharged into our garden,” he told The Sunday Times about how their troubles started.

When the company opened, people from Chanzi, Mbisawako, Mgubo, Mputeni and Nkamkwaba villages in Traditional Authority Mkukula in the district expected to get jobs and business opportunities from the company.

They saw this as an opportunity that would improve their livelihoods. And the company promised things.

It promised to construct a primary school block and a health centre as part of its corporate social responsibility.

Today, 10 years down the line, nothing has happened to that effect. What has happened instead is the crippling of their livelihoods and endangerment of their lives as they battle pollution through poor industrial waste management by the company.

The company, located somewhere between Lumbadzi and Dowa Turn-off, has no proper effluent treatment plant.

As a result, sludge is dumped all over the place, discharges of which seep into Ntovi River, which is a tributary of Lumbadzi River, where some people in the area have their vegetable fields.

The company discharges the waste water through the openings in its fence.

This untreated industrial waste has destroyed the environment in the area to the extent that plants and other living organisms can hardly be seen on the land they once used to thrive.

BURNING THE WAY—Sludge coursing through
towards people’s fields—Picture by Emmanuel Simpokolwe

During our visit, we found a staggering accumulation of effluent both within and outside the fence. Manesi Ntodwa said the people had expected the government authorities to go to the area to assess the pollution and its impact on the community. People there fear that this pollution is also making them sick. For example, Margaret Kalichero Chiponda said that her right foot developed unceasing pain days after she had stepped on some effluent.

Today, she no longer wears shoes because of the pain.

Village head Chanzi Mbisawako confirmed the suffering of her subjects at the hands of the company’s pollution.

“The sad part is that when the company was established in 2014, they promised a lot of things including a hospital and a school but till now that has not been fulfilled and instead the company is damaging our environment,” she said.

Dowa District Commissioner Stallich Mwambiwa admitted that communities around the factory have been affected by the pollution. He said the issue is being looked into.

“We have received complaints about the pollution that affected surrounding villages. The only challenge we have is that the company does not comply with environmental assessment guidelines,” Mwambiwa said.

Director of Administration at Dowa District council, Thomas Mwafongo, also confirmed that some farmers in the area complained to the council about the challenges they have been facing.

“We assembled a team of professionals to assess the impact of waste management situation in the village and nearby villages. The report showed that there was indeed contamination of water and gardens,” Mwafongo said.

He said the matter is yet to be concluded because the council needs confirmation from soil experts who are yet to test the soil and water.

The people further complained that although the company is based on their soil, no one in the villages has been offered a full time job there.

They said they are only allowed to do some piece works which pay them not more than K1,000 a day.

We contacted the company for its comment on these complaints.

Its Human Resources Manager, Happy Moyo, said he was new at the company and was yet to find out about the Memorandum of Understanding which the company and the community signed.

“I have to study the environmental assessment reports and the Memorandum of Agreement that the company signed,” Moyo said.

In January 2023, Malawi Environment Protection Authority (Mepa) closed Mount Meru Millers, the company’s Lilongwe-based subsidiary for poor industrial waste management.

Mepa ordered the company to pay a K5 million fine. It further ordered the company to compensate the affected community members and carry out maintenance of its effluent treatment plant.

Section 116 (1) of the Environment Management Act No.19 of 2017 provides that the Malawi Environment Protection Authority has the power to order the closure of any premises by means of, or in relation to which the Director General reasonably believes the contravention was committed.

Environmental commentator Mathews Malata said the best solution to industrial pollution is to change waste management disposal policy.

“Malawi needs policy changes and effective enforcement, controlled industrial growth and forward planning. We need investment in new, sustainable technologies,” he said.

Malata said without a holistic approach to industrial pollutants management, all other efforts will be redundant.

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