Garbage in Harare is a severe and seemingly perennial problem that now must be sorted out and permanent solutions found.
The Environmental Management Agency (EMA) has now issued mandatory orders to Harare City Council to clear the huge dumps in specified public places in Mbare, mainly in the markets and near the markets and terminuses, but this is just scratching at the surface of the growing problem.
While the city council is at fault for not collecting garbage regularly, it cannot be pinned with all the blame or even, in many cases, the bulk of the blame. The residents of the city who dump garbage and dump it in forms that makes it easy to be blown around are just as much to blame.
Mbare is a good example. A lot of that garbage originates from the markets concentrated in the suburb. Ideally it would be properly separated, with the vegetable matter dumped in compost making holding pens and later sold and the bottles and plastic and other refuse properly binned and bagged and trucked out from well-maintained collection points.
Instead the mounds of rubbish left by the markets is added to by every local resident within a kilometre dumping unbagged household garbage and ensuring that we get a stinking and slimy mound of filth spreading everywhere that someone is expected to clear up.
Municipal staff complain about a lack of protective clothing, and while Covid-19 is a possibility the main problem is that anyone assigned to move that filth will want something effective and serious in the way of waterproof garments.
Those just dumping garbage need to think how it will eventually be moved. Earth moving equipment might be the only safe way.
In some suburbs, the delays in garbage collection after the city council ran out of money to buy fuel for trucks have been bad, but far better contained.
Residents have bagged their garbage at the very least, with a number of bags ready for collection instead of just one or two per household, but at least when the truck comes the rubbish, rotting as it is, can just be heaved into the back of the lorry without leaving mess in street and with coating the collectors in slime.
And then we get the litter, despite the strenuous efforts by the President to change the culture of Zimbabweans and laudable efforts by many businesses to assist the city council, but funding the needed litter bins. But many people just dump litter and expect someone else to pick it up.
EMA, concerned at the pollution of water courses from the filth washed down the council’s storm water drains has actually provided council a tractor to help move what is dug out of drains and catch-pits.
To give the council credit, a major effort was made in the city centre before the start of the rains to empty the catch-pits, and mounds of garbage were removed, stacked on the roadside and then shifted to a dump.
And within a few weeks the catch-pits were full again, even with the lockdown, and drains were overflowing and flooding the streets and it was anyone’s guess what was flowing down the ditches towards the Mukuvisi and eventually ending up in Lake Chivero.
Perhaps more Harare residents might think more carefully about garbage if they realised that the raw water dams are downstream of the city, and their drinking water is filtered through the rubbish.
Fairly obviously we need a major rethink and a major overhaul of the whole garbage and litter problem.
For a start we could return to the old rules, enforced, that make households responsible for binning or bagging their rubbish. Piles on the roadside were not permitted. This would at least make the garbage less of an environmental and health threat, while it sat there waiting for collection.
Secondly, council must collect, and for residential areas this is supposed to be once a week on a set day. The truck must be there on the day. When this is done people do keep their garbage off the streets, where stray dogs and scavengers can tear the bags and spread it around, and bring it out for the few hours while the truck works its way round their section of the suburb.
All this immediately cuts the menace of loose garbage and makes the collection simpler and easier.
Littering must become something people simply do not do. Few people drop litter outside their own front door. They drop it elsewhere though, in large quantities. The switch to takeaways in plastic packaging, and even in quality cardboard, and the switch to non-return bottles and cans has added immensely to the quantities.
And let us not sneer at the poor for littering as they walk. You see garbage coming out of the windows of fancy cars,
Some of this garbage has value. There are people who salvage the metal drinks cans, because they can sell these to scrap dealers, and there are those who salvage empty plastic bottles because there is some sort of market for them.
Efforts were once made to get people to separate their garbage, and dump aluminium cans in bunkers and even bottles in suitable places, although that only made sense when we still had a glass factory that could use scrap.
Schools and churches used to collect clean waste paper for sale, and scrap paper merchants used to even collect from businesses that produced reasonable quantities of paper waste, just demanding it was clean and free from oil.
All that has vanished, although the city council, if it could change cultures, could fund quite a bit of its garbage bill from reselling salvaged waste.
It might take time to get the situation prevailing in some German and Swiss cities were households have five coloured garbage bags and really separate their waste, but in return for that modest effort their rubbish is collected for free.
At the same time, the land-fill operations for the rubbish that cannot be recycled or sold has to be sorted out. The Pomona dump is not well managed, as the fires now and again testify. And the journey to the dump is a long one, so trucks spend half their time taking rubbish to a dump rather than collecting it.
Suitable sites can and must be found nearer other parts of the city than the northern suburbs. Land fill can have value, but only when it is properly managed so there is no public nuisance.
The city council probably has to take the required lead, fulfilling promises to collect while it enforces its bin or bag rules, and that starts working with communities to ensure waste is better managed and, in the end, pays for its own removal.
What cannot be allowed to continue are the present piles of filth, made by residents and left by the council, and the waves of litter.