Waste management: The danger of a single story

Dumping refuse in undesignated places

By Titani Chalira*

Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie writes about the danger of a single story. Single stories could be more dangerous. This is not because of falsity but due to their incompleteness. When a single story is told consistently, it becomes or perceived, arguably, a true narrative. Everyone abides by it without questioning. Chances are that such a story could be misleading are left out.

Arguing that single stories are useful is valid. They give a specific perspective that comprehensive stories with all their completeness fail to put through. What is important though is to balance up things. There are things that can be achieved with single stories. Just as some things can be done with comprehensive stories.

Malawians could risk being at the bad receiving end of single stories. That is, if their appraisals of the leaders in the new government are consistently emphasizing skewed views of single stories. 

As times goes on, many people in Malawi are keen to see the new government delivering what it promised. A good number of people have been scrutinizing some of the decisions by the new leadership. For instance, citizens felt short changed by the composition of the current cabinet. In response the President justified his decision and went on to christen the cabinet a ‘transitional’ one. Ministers that belong to this cabinet have been given a probationary period of five months. There are set standards in place according to the President, which will be used to determine, if ministers have performed or not.

Without getting into a maze, it is important to single out a specific issue to give perspective of what a single story can do. Among other issues, waste management is particularly worth considering. Waste management is a crosscutting environmental justice component that has been neglected for far too long. But there is hope because of the renewed commitment and political will being shown by the new minister of forestry and natural resources, Honourable Nancy Tembo.

Who will lead in waste management?

In the media, what has been gaining currency is the minister’s and the enforcement agencies’ activities with regard to the thin plastics ban. This particular aspect of waste management is breathing a new lease of life, after facing enforcement bottlenecks in the past. Within the same period one conviction of Qingdao Plastics, which is the first in this respect has been secured.

Commending the minister for her efforts together with relevant authorities is therefore, timely and important. However, what could be the problem is the likelihood of citizens getting lost in the single story of platitudes. Forgetting that waste management at a broader level needs more tact and action. Focusing on the single story concerning thin plastics ban and the minister’s aggressiveness has to be contextualized. Malawi’s waste management situation is more than a single story it rather has a comprehensive angle.

While this single story is being repeatedly told to sustain the gained momentum of enforcement, it is important to appreciate the regulatory environment and what has been done so far.

Section 13(d) of the Constitution of the Republic of Malawi provides for the responsible management of the environment. It further states that, the living and working environment should be healthy and environmental resources should be sustainably managed. In the Environment Management Act, 2017(EMA) the tenor of the cited Constitutional provision is reiterated with regard to waste management. An environment that is clean and healthy is a matter of right as provided in section 4 of the EMA, 2017.

Management of waste falls under section 56 of the EMA, 2017. It is stipulated that the minister responsible with recommendations of the authority must ensure that rules and standards are set for sound management of waste. Waste management and Sanitation regulations provide for the management and segregation of waste into categories which include; solid waste, semi-solid waste, liquid waste and hazardous waste (chemical waste inclusive).

Even with the sound regulatory environment in place as indicated, there is a rising population which implies increased waste generation. Waste generation rate is at 0.5kg/capita/day. For instance, Lilongwe produces 109 metric tonnes of waste per day (Nyirenda, 2018:5). Of this waste generated, what has been done so far and is the waste management situation good enough?

Data of the generated waste for Lilongwe as cited is disaggregated in the following manner; 40 percent from residential areas, 25 percent from commercial areas, 15 percent from industries and 20 percent from hospitals. It is worrisome that, only 30 percent of the waste generated in Lilongwe is collected for disposal and the rest is indiscriminately disposed in open spaces, rivers, road sides and other places (Nyirenda, 2018:5).

At the national level two landfills are in place and they belong to Illovo Sugar Corporation and Kayelekera Uranium mine. All the City Councils except Zomba have places which were commissioned as landfills but are being used as crude dumpsites. There are no municipal incinerators mostly batch burners are in place. St. Gabriel Hospital in Namitete and Nkhotakota District Hospital are the exception in terms of incinerators.  This shows that solid waste management is still facing serious challenges (Nyirenda, 2018:6). 

With regard to liquid waste the Country’s status indicates that, Blantyre City Council has 5 waste water treatment plants, Lilongwe 3, Zomba 1 and Mzuzu has no sewer line network, it uses sludge ponds to dispose what is pumped from septic tanks (Nyirenda, 2018:14). In many of the municipal and district councils there are no sewer line networks, some use quarry sites for disposal of sewage. For those sewage plants available they are in many cases dysfunctional with a need for maintenance.

 Our waste disposal sites receive waste that is mixed up (both non-hazardous and hazardous) which means waste segregation as provided in the regulatory environment is overlooked. Because of this, liquid waste finds itself indiscriminately disposed in sewer lines and this adversely affects treatment processes which are predominantly biological.

An eyesore: Authorities must do more top stop this

Despite having a poor status of the waste management situation, the Environmental Affairs Department has made efforts to manage the situation. There was an integrated waste management plan which did run for five years from 2014 to 2019 (Nyirenda, 2018:16). In this plan new landfills were to be put in place and the old ones maintained. Procurement of incinerators and installation was supposed to be carried out. Maintenance of sewer lines that have not been in good shape was to be done within the given time frame. Government had to carry out awareness campaigns on waste management and promotion of public-private partnerships in waste management. And the thin plastics ban enforcement story making rounds was part of that awareness drive in the plan.

However, what has been pointed out so far, in terms of waste management challenges, seems to be persisting. It gives a sense of ineffective implementation of the regulatory environment. After the lapse of the five years plan of the government’s waste management plan, what has been achieved and how will the Country proceed from here is hazy. As the new minister has brought forth a surge of political will, a lot is expected to be done.

The country must embark on waste management

Emphasis on the single story of enforcement of the thin plastics ban should be taken as merely a part of the waste management drive. Attention must be given to the integrated management plan. It should be audited specifically focusing on how it was implemented and what did not materialize. Another plan to carry over the work of the integrated plan that phased out must be set up.

People should not equate the renewed commitment and political will in the thin plastics ban as everything. A lot must be done to make people aware that waste management is far from being a sorted issue. People should avoid the danger of single story which is misleading because of incompleteness by putting emphasis only on the enforcement of the thin plastics ban, insinuating that we are making headway. Instead it should be a springboard to understand the bigger picture of waste management in order to do better.

*Titani is a regular contributor to The Lamp magazine