Mbayani residents in Malawi’s commercial city, Blantyre, are sitting on a time bomb as an oil refining company (name withheld) is dumping waste in a tributary of Likhubula River.
On Friday, some women were spotted emptying pails of the blackish fatty substance into a stream formerly a reliable water source for vendors at Wenela Bus Depot. Grass on the greased riverbanks is scorched and such is the stench that some residents fear water and air is being polluted.
A chemist identified the slippery material as a by-product of oil production and a raw material for soap. However, the women call it wadawada.
A Chichewa buzzword for those who do not care about the effects of their dirty dealings on others, it reminds the group what their job entails.
“There are 11 of us employed to offload at least a pail per day. We have to get dirty to feed our children and families,” said one of the women.
After dirtying the water, the women go further downstream to wash their bodies and clothes. The group say the spills leave their skins “itchy and burning”.
They were seen entering Iponga’s premises, but the firm’s managing director Jesse Kitta said he was not aware of the environmental threat.
“Iponga does not dump waste in any river. Neither do we refine cooking oil in Blantyre. We carry crude oil from Zalewa and Salima. Sometimes, we bring it here for temporary storage,” said Kitta.
Peterkins Chisoni, chief environment health officer at the city council, could neither confirm nor deny Iponga’s involvement. However, he revealed that the council was investigating the matter after receiving complaints from Mbayani residents last week.
“We have been to the site and we feel the firm is not serious with waste management and its hazardous implications on people’s lives. Our major worry was spills from poorly managed factory waste, not companies deploying people to dump things in rivers.” said Chisoni.
A laboratory technician for a reputable manufacturer of cooking oil termed the substance soap stock.
“The fatty by-product of oil refinery is used to make soap. That is how we get rid of it. It can cause skin problems because it is rich in sodium hydroxide or caustic soda,” said the specialist.
Internet research shows it can also be converted into fertiliser and animal.
At Mbayani, it is not uncommon to see locals bathing, washing clothes and cleaning kitchen utensils in Likhubula.
Although the river looks clear, Maggie Chinseu, 29, said some water users experience itching and dry skin.
As the wadawada mystery silently haunts the high-density location, the council needs at least K11 million to clean Mudi River alone.
To stem costly environmental ruin, there are national laws and city by-laws prohibiting pollution of rivers and public spaces. Precisely, Section 16 of the Water Resources Act makes discharging waste into or near rivers a prosecutable offence.
Water and air pollution in industrial zones could be a pointer to weak regulation and cities incapacity to manage even household waste.