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Waste water threatens Malawi cities

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Malawi’s sewer system has collapsed resulting into thousands of litness of wastewater, sludge and other debris to drain into streams and rivers which are a common source of water for a majority of the population.

The system was inherited from colonialists having been designed in the 1950s to cater for a much smaller population.

Sangwani Phiri, Public Relations Officer in the Ministry of Natural Resources responsible for Environment and Climate Change confirmed in an interview that most of the country’s sewer systems are outdated.

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“Our municipal and district sewer systems were designed during the colonial period. Malawi just inherited the same systems,” he said in an exclusive interview.

Phiri says while some wastewater treatment plants have over the years been improved by way of expanding their capacity, the problem is compounded because of the upgrading and declaring of some districts to either cities or town council status.

“This is why, up to now the city of Mzuzu does not have a well regulated sewer disposal site except for the one at Moyale Barracks and just a relatively new one for the Mzuzu Central Hospital.

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“Zomba faces a similar situation as it has one for the Cobbe Barracks and another one for the University of Malawi leaving the rest in dugout sewers which are emptied by way of pumping out the waste materials using disposal carrier vans. This situation is quite pathetic,” he said.

It has also since emerged that the Kamuzu Barracks sewer disposal site is in critical state emitting an odorous stench within the area.

According to information we have sourced, Soche Wastewater Treatment Plant in Blantyre, for example, was designed in the 1950s for a sewage inflow of 4,100 cubic metres per day. However, by 2005, the sewage inflow was at 5465 cubic metres per day, way beyond the design capacity.

The current sewer system in Blantyre was designed to serve about 200 000 residents but the population now stands at over one million.

Most of the treatment units such as trickling filters and anaerobic digesters have not been functional for years leading to sludge being discharged into Naperi River.

This is evidenced by the black coloured odorous water noticed downstream after the effluent discharge point. The three sand filter beds found at Soche treatment plant are not regularly used according to our findings.

It has also been established that pipes for Limbe water stabilisation ponds were vandalized about 10 years ago while Chirimba treatment plant has not been operational for about two decades.

“The challenge we face in Blantyre is that people have vandalized the sewer system. This

has led to water pollution because sewage ends up in the streams,” Blantyre City Council Public Relations Officer Anthony Kasunda said in an interview.

It has been observed that most companies and institutions in Blantyre have been dumping oils and grease using various private vacuum tankers without authorisation from the council, according to Kasunda.

He,however, says regular maintenances are carried out “and that is why we have sewage still going down to the treatment centres. The Council, with technical and financial assistance from the Ministry of Environment, is in the process of rehabilitating the sewer system. The process is at tendering stage”.

Lilongwe City Council’s Tamara Chafunya also confirms that Malawi has generally low sewer network coverage, ranging from 10 to 15% in the major cities.

“However non functionality of the treatment plants is mostly due to non or limited maintenance on the infrastructure which is mostly old and or operating above the designed capacity. Hence most of the blockages are due to aged and broken pipes, pipe capacity and vandalism among others,” she says

It has also been noted, according to Chafunya, that other newly identified or upcoming areas for residential development usually consider sewer network as an afterthought which makes it difficult to extend the network after the area has been developed.

A specialist at the Polytechnic in Blantyre said in an interview, “Be mindful that wastewater is being generated everyday and it is being discharged into rivers without treatment and people downstream are at a big risk of waterborne diseases such as cholera as the untreated wastewater contains very high numbers of pathogens. Treatment of such diseases is costly to the nation”.

He noted that waste water collected through sewers is only about 10% of wastewater generated in Malawi’s major cities of Blantyre, Lilongwe and Mzuzu. Most of the wastewater is treated through septic tanks and latrines which also contribute to groundwater pollution.

“Partially or untreated effluent discharged in rivers, is the largest contributor to existing high pollution levels. If nothing is done immediately, the repercussions will be too unbearable to handle,” according to him (the specialist).

Meanwhile, Phiri says the Department of Environment is currently in the process of rehabilitating a major pipeline running along the Mudi River behind Dairy Board in Blantyre costing MK51 million to receive effluents from Ginnery Corner, Blantyre Water Board, Makata Industrial area and from other lateral lines joining the pipe.

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