Oblivious of the dangers, twin brothers Tatenda and Tendai (5) play near a pool of sewage and a stone’s throw away, there is a burning rubbish heap where acrid smoke is scorching their eyes and throats along Rufaro Street in Zengeza 1, Chitungwiza.
social commentary with Moses Mugugunyeki
To them, it’s business as usual, but they are part of a myriad of children around the globe who are exposed to toxic air.
Children have rights to be supported in their health and wellbeing. These rights are articulated in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), to which Zimbabwe is a signatory.
While the articles in the UNCRC are not enforceable in their own right in relation to specific services, Zimbabwe’s ratification of the Convention committed the government to realise them through legislation such as the Hazardous Waste Management Regulations SI 10 of 2007 which regulates waste collection and management by local authorities, as well as the Air Pollution Control Regulations SI 72 of 2009 which provides for the prevention, control and abatement of air pollution to ensure clean and healthy ambient air.
Although armed with these pieces of legislation, the government has done little to address the issue of unsanitary and polluted environments, thus violating children’s rights as enshrined in the Convention.
Residents in Chitungwiza said there were no systems in place to deal with air pollution and waste management.
“The burst sewers and pungent smell emanating from it and the burning garbage are now our daily bread; we are now used to that. Our children grew up seeing the sewage flowing and as of the acrid smoke that you are talking about, it has become part of our everyday living,” said Miriam Dopora, a resident in Zengeza 1.
In its report titled Inheriting a Sustainable World: Atlas on Children’s Health and the Environment released last week, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said globally about 25% of deaths of children younger than five were caused by unhealthy or polluted environments.
The report added that unsanitary and polluted environments can lead to fatal cases of diarrhoea, malaria and pneumonia, which kill 1,7 million children a year.
The UN agency found that the most common causes were preventable.
Most residents in Chitungwiza dump rubbish in open spaces which they burn, resulting in pollution. But other pollution sources, including construction dust and cooking fires fuelled by wood or paraffin, continue unabated in the town, which is home to nearly half a million people.
“We hardly have running water in this area. Our taps are always dry and water is supplied twice a week. When supplies are restored, the sewer is overwhelmed and in most cases it bursts,” said Dopora.
More than 90% of the world’s population is thought to breathe toxic air, thereby violating quality guidelines set by the world health board.
“A polluted environment is a deadly one, particularly for young children,” said WHO director-general Margaret Chan in the report. “Their developing organs and immune systems and smaller bodies and airways, make them especially vulnerable to dirty air and water.”
Health experts say children face much higher health risks from air pollution than adults. They added that children breathe twice as quickly, taking in more air in relation to their body weight, while their brains and immune systems are still developing and vulnerable.
Chitungwiza Residents’ Trust director Marvellous Kumalo acknowledged that health risks from air pollution were taking a toll on children’s health.
“It’s true. We are having these health problems, especially in cases where children are exposed to air and water pollution, as well as sewage,” said Kumalo.
“When we approach council with these issues, they tell us that they don’t have enough resources to attend to these problems urgently. Our health delivery system is strained, considering that we have four clinics that serve a population of 400 000 people.”
Kumalo said the problem could be prevented by access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene in health facilities, as well as reducing air pollution.
Like any other overcrowded and poorly serviced settlement, Chitungwiza has over the years been one of the hardest hit by the typhoid outbreak and other respiratory diseases.
However, the town’s mayor Philip Mutoti said the local authority has improved tremendously in waste management.
“I think residents can testify that we have improved in both garbage removal and the sewer reticulation system. As council, we have tried to urgently attend to burst sewer and our garbage removal trucks are providing the services on weekly basis,” Mutoti said.
“We got assistance from the African Development Bank to refurbish the water and sewer reticulation system and the contractor is on the ground doing the job. As of the perennial sewer problems along Rufaro Street, the contractor is already rectifying it.”
WHO said investing in the removal of environmental risks to health, such as improving water quality or using cleaner fuels, will result in massive health benefits.
The world health body said top causes were respiratory infections, with 570 000 deaths in children younger than five linked to indoor and outdoor air pollution and second-hand smoke and diarrhoea, with 361 000 deaths in children under five linked to poor access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene.