How an old sewage pump station is a threat to Zimbabwe’s second largest inland dam

By Tatenda Chitagu

MASVINGO-It is now like the proverbial black sheep in the family.

This sums up the Masvingo City Council (MCC)’s old Rujeko sewage pump station, which is now not only a nuisance to the residents or the environment, but to the local authority as well.

While the city is lauded in other areas like timely refuse collection, water provision and road rehabilitation, it is sewage reticulation that leaves a lot to be desired.

Last month, the MCC was fined by the Environmental Management Agency (EMA)-the country’s environmental watchdog-for discharging raw sewage into Mucheke river, which joins Shakashe River to form a single tributary flowing into Lake Mutirikwi/Kyle, the country’s second biggest inland dam after Tugwi Mukosi.

With a full water holding capacity of 1,4 million cubic meters, Lake Kyle/Muturikwi provides irrigation water for 40 000 hectares of vast sugar and citrus estates of the Lowveld in the towns of Chiredzi and Triangle where thousands are employed by Zimbabwe’s sole sugar producer, Tongaat Hullets. 

Fishermen also thrive from the wide variety of fish in the dam; about 21 species.

The local authority issued a statement on May 23, shouldering the blame over the sewer discharge, but insisted it was due to vandalism of sewer reticulation infrastructure.

However, HuMFOZ investigations revealed that the council had pumped raw sewage in an incomplete main sewer trunk line and it flowed into the two rivers, ultimately feeding into the lake, also the sole source of drinking water for the city’s estimated 200 000 residents. The dam is also a source of recreational facilities that draws both domestic and international tourists.

The main sewer trunk line has not been completed since 2012 as the contractor said the cost of the project was undervalued by the city’s engineers.

EMA fined the MCC and beverages manufacturing company Delta Beverages ZW$ 500 000 and ZW$ 300 000 respectively for polluting the two tributaries.

EMA released a statement on June 3, 2022 confirming that council and Delta were responsible for disposal of harmful effluent into Shakashe and Mucheke rivers and had missed the deadline to stop the discharge.

“Follow up inspections to check on the compliance of Masvingo City Council to the Environmental Protection Order (EP 0011377), which spelt out that the local authority had to repair Rujeko Pump Station, to ensure that the Biological Nutrient Removal Plant (BNRP) was working and to stop discharge of effluent into the environment by May 27 2022 was conducted.

“The inspections revealed that the local authority was behind the compliance timelines prescribed in the Environmental Protection Order. As a result of this, a level 14 ticket (No EP 014599) was issued to Masvingo City Council for the offence,” read part of the statement.

This was after a masive outcry by residents after the sewage discharge-which lasted for almost a fortnight-led to loss of acquatic life, with dead fish and other amphibians found floating in the two rivers. A carpert of water hyacinth- a free-floating aquatic plant that thrives in water rich in nitrate-is also choking the two rivers, and ultimately will invade Lake Mutirikwi.

Water hycinth along Mucheke River (pic by Tatenda Chitagu)

However, the local authority failed to meet the deadline, with mayor Collin Maboke saying repairs at the pump station were ongoing, while they had sent water samples to a Harare lab and were awaiting results.

History repeating itself

This is not the first time that the local authority has been fined for discharging raw effluent into the two rivers from the pump station.

In 2012, EMA fined MCC US$ 8 800 for the same environmental crime.

Sewer discharge in Mucheke river that feeds into Lake Kyle/Mutirikwi.

The local authority tried to appeal against the fine at the High Court, but the fine was upheld. It blamed power outages for failing to pump the raw sewage uphill to the sewage treatment works domiciled across Mucheke River near Eastvale surburb.

The city fathers in 2015 acquired a generator for power back-up during electricity outages through funding from the African Development Bank (AfDB), but it says the 300 litres of diesel per day needed to fuel it is out of its reach.

Everytime the Rujeko plant is not pumping, the sewage is released into the river as the waste cannot be pushed upwards, while the station has no capacity to store it.

While there is another pump station along Mucheke River-Number One Sewage Pump Station-which is located upstream, it has not had recurring breakdowns like the Rujeko Pump Station.

“It shows the Rujeko Sewage Pump Station is the elephant in the room. The local authority has to repair it-or upgrade it once and for all as the problem of raw sewer discharge into Mucheke and Shakashe rivers has always been recurring. While we are crying about pollution and loss of acquatic life in the two rivers, very soon the pollution will move to the lake, and it will be more costly to treat our drinking water. The lake itself will be affected by water hycinth-and this will make the problem multi-faceted,” said Fidelicy Nyamukondiwa, the director of Flora and Fauna Zimbabwe (FaFloZim), an eco-centric community-based organisation that advocates for environmental rights.

Long walk to pumpstation repairs

Since 2021, repairs and maintenance of the Rujeko Pump Station has gone through a stop start process.

The local authority bought some spare parts but said it had bought the wrong ones which it returned to the supplier.

“The repairs have taken longer to complete due to developments we had not expected. We got the wrong spare parts and we had to send them back and wait for the right parts to be delivered, and that is why the pump station took long to get it working again,” said Edward Mukaratirwa, the MCC town clerk.

This year in May, following the recurring raw sewer discharge into the two rivers, MCC, in a notice, said it was going to get the pump up and running, insisting its engineers were working flat out to rectify the situation by the 26th of that month.

But a full council meeting held on May 30 heard from Mukaratirwa that the pump station was still down as the engineers had not completed the repairs.

“The council is repeating the same mistake over and over again and the ratepayer’s money that should be channeled to other activities is being wasted on fines. They should prioritize buying a new pump since this one is no longer coping with the increased population,” said Prosper Tiringindi, director of residents pressure group Masvingo Residents Trust (MRT).

However, Maboke said the situation was now normal at the pump station.

“The Rujeko pump station has been repaired. We also urge residents not to vandalize sewer infrastructure to divert the waste water to irrigate their small plots. Last time, big boulders were found in sewer pipes,” Maboke said.

Asked if council does not consider buying a new sewer pump, he said the council had no money at the moment.

According to the Auditor General (AG) Mildred Chiri’s 2019 report on cities, the MCC is one of four local authorities with poor sewage reticulation and maintanance systems. The other ones are Mutare, Chitungwiza and Bulawayo, the second largest city.

A national survey commissioned by EMA in March this year reveals that close to 400 million liters of raw sewage is being dumped into water bodies that provide drinking water by local authorities due to run down sewer infrastructure.

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