HARARE— Residents of Zimbabwe’s major urban areas tend to take a laid-back approach to their environment and rarely raise a finger when it is polluted.
It was, therefore, encouraging to hear residents of four suburbs in eastern Harare expressing their grave concerns at the environmental harm and public health impact as a result of pollution from one of the country’s largest fertilizer producers, the Zimbabwe Phosphate Company plant.
The residents of Park Meadowlands, Hatfield, Msasa Park and Epworth are bitter about the elevated levels of airborne particulate matter and ground water pollution all as a result of the unsustainable operations of the Zimphos fertilizer plant.
On April 20 this year, in the morning, a thick acidic haze formed as a result of emissions from the plant covered these four suburbs forcing residents to stay indoors and bear the brunt of the hellish mist.
“We are living under hell here,” said Rev Chamaita Machukera, the principal of the United Theological College in Park Meadowlands.
“The air from Zimphos is very toxic and irritating. On April 20 we suffered heavily under a thick acidic cloud.”
He said on that day in the pre-dawn hours when the air was still and moist, Park Meadowlands, Msasa Park, Hatfield and Epworth were shrouded in an acidic haze that lasted for several hours.
Rev Machukera said the airy bubbles of noxious acidic fumes led to serious coughing, eye and skin irritation among students at the college as well as many people in their homes in the four suburbs.
Rev Jim Dube, a lecturer at UTC, said the lemony taste of the airborne particulate matter which chemical experts say is made up of sulphuric and hydrofluoric acid, left lips tingling with a slight burning sensation.
“The delicate tissues in the nostrils tingled with a stinging sensation. It was difficult to breathe and this triggered some respiratory ailments among students at the college,” he said.
“Dust settled on roof tops, windows, vegetables and plants. You could not see anything outside. A thick haze covered all this place.
“We are now living in fear because we don’t know the health implications of this pollution that has been going on for years. We don’t know whether Zimphos is meeting or not the air quality control standards. It’s serious and some students have experienced miscarriages, others have suffered bouts of asthma and other respiratory ailments.
“We suspect all this is coming as result of pollution from the Zimphos plant. Is it proper to chase for profits at the expense of public health? Where is the corporate responsibility? Zimphos is doing nothing to alleviate our suffering,” Rev Dube said.
Other residents in Msasa Park complained that the floating and sparkling in the still morning air and the microscopic acid droplets that splash against the thin film of fluid protecting the eyes led to a burning and watering blur of one’s vision.
“On April 20, the smoke from Zimphos choked us and most people started coughing,” said Morris Chigwada of Epworth.
“The company doesn’t care at all about public health. They are happy to make profits when we are dying here from their pollution. The Government must force Zimphos to use technologies that reduce pollution.”
Health experts say the inhaling of the noxious smog causes choking and coughing. Sometimes, the misting hydrofluoric, fluorosilicic, phosphoric and sulphuric acids are so concentrated, they actually etch the windshields and eat the paint of cars passing through the acidic fog or those owned by residents in the area.
The adverse environmental and health effects from phosphoric acid production are well documented in numerous publications from the 1970s, 1980s and into the 1990s and now.
Toxic effects of chemicals on people exposed to them in most communities close to industrial and mining companies in Zimbabwe have not been studied and if so, nothing has been done to take corrective measures to protect public health.
Health experts suggest that hazardous substances from fertilizer manufacturing processes that pose the most significant threat to human health have led to immune disorders, toxic myopathy, chronic obstructive lung diseases with emphysema, chronic bronchitis, blood disorders, chronic fatigue syndrome, liver dysfunctions, polyarthritis, swelling of feet and lower legs, muscle weakness, cardiac arrhythmia, reactive depression and memory loss.
The situation is worse for workers and their families at the Zimphos compounds. Workers who spoke on condition of anonymity say most workers and their families have complained at different times of difficulty in breathing, sore throats, non-specific health problems due to, they say, excessive emissions from and constant exposure to the phosphate fertilizer plant.
They have also contended that fallout from the plants has damaged paint on their cars and crops.
“Nothing grows here. We have to survive by buying vegetables from the Mbare market. Everything here is contaminated and most people who retire have died from various ailments related to exposure from the dust,” said one worker who lives at the Zimphos compound.
The rights of the community to a clean and safe environment stand violated by Zimphos, which produces odours that unreasonably interfere with their comfortable enjoyment of life or property.
“In the 60s we grew vegetables in our gardens and we got water from boreholes here until around 1971 when it was found out that the water was no longer safe,” said Mr Noah Chimbwanda, who has lived and worked at UTC for 37 years.
“When they drink water from the boreholes people suffer from stomach problems and skin rash. Pollution from the plant has caused all this. Living here is no longer safe. Ground water is bitter and when you water the plants they die.”
He said in August when it gets windy, the situation gets worse with particulate matter affecting people in Park Meadowlands, Msasa Park and Epworth.
“It’s terrible. The dust will be all over and you can’t breathe properly. People will be sneezing and coughing every time,” said Tendai Chikura, a third-year student at UTC.
“I suffer constantly from headaches and breathing problems. I have to survive from medication prescribed by my doctor. This is expensive and I feel Zimphos should also meet part of my health bill.”
Environmental Africa rights officer Selestino Chari said there must be dialogue between Zimphos and the communities living close to the plant so that solutions could be found to some of the problems facing the communities.
“Sustainable development is critical to ensure the rights of communities to a safe and clean environment are respected,” he said.
“Pollution has serious implications for public health and Zimphos and the communities must talk and find ways of resolving the differences.”
In areas close to the plant, tell-tale environmental damage is the legacy of the industry.
It is not uncommon to see ragged holes filled with low- level radioactive water left from the processing operations.
Phosphogypsum stacks are piled up to several hundred metres high and leach toxic chemicals into the ground and toxic dust into the atmosphere.
Spills from toxic waste-water ponds dump hundreds of millions of litres of highly acidic water laced with toxic FLUORIDEs, radionuclides, heavy metals, sulphites and phosphoric acid into rivers and streams.
Massive fish deaths are not unusual when these spills occur and flow down stream to Lake Chivero. People passing through wetlands near the plant say they develop sore blisters on their feet when they step on the contaminated water during the rainy season.
An Environmental Management Agency official said communities had a right to a safe and clean environment and should not fear to present their case to the agency.
The officials promised to look into the case and to enforce the regulations. Lack of financial resources and manpower has hampered EMA’s efforts to effectively monitor and enforce environmental regulations in the country leading large polluting industrial and mining giants to get away with murder.
Zimphos has been operating in the area since 1942 and the cumulative effects of pollution on the environment have been grave despite efforts to address them. So far the company has agreed to supply water to UTC and to monitor air quality.
The college received large two water tanks from Zimphos but was still to get water from the company.
Economic hardships had also affected the company’s ability to buy equipment and machinery that could enhance its efficiency and reduce emissions drastically.
When contacted for comment, Chemplex group chief executive Mr Misheck Kachere was said to be locked in a series of meetings.
Zimphos is a member of the Chemplex group.
The wrangle between Zimphos and the communities who have shouldered the burden of the effects of pollution for close to seven decades raises the need to take practical steps to tighten controls on emission and odour generating processes, improve air quality monitoring and control and to set conditions for air pollution stack testing.
The allocation of adequate financial resources and strengthening the capacity of the EMA to monitor and enforce environmental regulations is critical if the rights of communities to a safe and clean environment are to be protected.
Other environmental experts say implementing the polluter pays principle, encouraging self-regulation, economic incentives, strengthening regulation and its implementation and promoting public participation in pollution control and management is important.
It’s a David and Goliath fight.
Zimphos has a lot to protect — its massive investment running into millions of US dollars and profits while communities on the other hand have to protect what Mahatma Gandhi said was one of the most precious gifts in life — health.