I will live here until I die,” says Mussa Kibwana, crouching in an ankle-deep pile of decaying garbage. The main road in his neighbourhood is made entirely of trash — plastic bags, bottles and far more sordid kinds of waste.
Kibwana lives in Magomeni, a small ward in the Kinondoni district of Dar es Salaam. The garbage is left over from last year’s rainy season, deposited there by the flooding of the Msimbazi River.
“When the rain comes, it floods the river and there’s a big chain reaction,” he says, wrinkling his nose from at the stench of the refuse. “The trees around this area block the dirt in the river, and when the water can’t pass through, it rises and flows into people’s houses.”
The Msimbazi is severely polluted, he explains, and its bacteria levels are as dangerous as the flooding itself.
But the pollution is both a gift and a curse to communities by the river — when the flooding starts, their only protection comes in the form of “waste walls.” They use trash found in the Msimbazi to build barriers along the banks which help keep the rising water at bay.
It’s a toxic cycle, says Kibwana, but the urban poor have no escape: They have nowhere else to put the garbage, and it just so happens that garbage is the cheapest way to fight the floods.
The Msimbazi is the longest river in Dar es Salaam, and flows roughly 36 kilometres from the Kisarawe Hills to the shores of the Indian Ocean. More than 65,000 people live downstream of its most polluted areas within 200 metres of the river bank. Based on census data, this means up to 232,000 living in adjacent wards also face serious health risks, as their food and water may be contaminated by the river.
“Fungus infection is very common,” says Happy Shaibu, clutching her six-month-old son Hemedi as she strolls through Hananasif, a ward next to the Msimbazi. “When there is water everywhere, I tell my children to stay in the house. I teach them not to go into the water because it is toxic.”
Abdul Omari, a river bank resident who has been infected many times, holds pollution directly responsible for his recurring illness:
“It has to do with the pollution because it stops the water from moving,” he insists.
Garbage blockages not only force the water higher during the flood season he says, but prevent it from flowing during the dry season as well.
A few years ago, Omari and his neighbours built a wooden bridge across the river but the flooding destroyed it in April last year. Now, the community has no choice but to wade through the Msimbazi on foot, unless they wish to triple their transit time by walking around it to the main road. On the other side of the river is a playground where children play soccer, and more importantly, the Muhimbili National Hospital.
“I find it easier to cross through the river, so I chance it,” says Omari. “I definitely feel disgusted entering the water and when I cross, I usually carry a bottle of clean water so once I get to the other side I can clean myself.”
According to World Bank environmental consultant Amy Faust, most people who live along the river are aware of its health and safety threats, but struggle to communicate their plight in a formal manner.
The World Bank funds an ongoing programme in Dar es Salaam that helps improve infrastructure, wastewater management and storm water drainage on the Msimbazi.
“It’s bad,” she explains, sipping a cappuccino at a coffee shop in town. “There’s no enforcement of anything. It’s completely uncontrolled and we’re just now getting to unpacking the reasons why.”
After all, the residents of Magomeni aren’t the only ones polluting the river — the Msimbazi is a discharge site for textile industries, municipal waste stabilisation ponds, and home sewage pipes.
A 2014 report by the Tanzania National Environment Management Council (NEMC) found no fewer than eight major industries releasing wastewater into the river including beer breweries, power companies, a soap factory and a paint manufacturer. This discharge was “partly treated,” along some stretches and on others, “not treated at all.”
According to Water Witness International (WWI), such major polluters are not controlled under the required discharge permits of Tanzania’s Water Resource Management Act 2009 or the compulsory environmental certification of the Environment Management Act 2004.
The Ministry of Water is ultimately responsible for Tanzania’s water, including the enforcement of these policies and handling of appeals.
“No one wants to have sewage dumped anywhere,” says Faust. “But it’s an almost insurmountable problem. It needs a champion — a big task force of people who are really going to do something.”
Last year, WWI reported that a ward officer in Kigogo, an area near Magomeni, tried to be this champion, but his appeals to the Ministry of Industry and Trade and Minister for Environment were never answered.
Most of the people living along the river are squatters, explains Robert Ntakamulenga, director of environmental compliance and environment at NEMC, which doesn’t provide much motivation for political interference.
“They have just invaded the land, which normally does not belong to anybody neither is it included in urban planning,” he says. “Most of these people are poor and cannot afford to buy land in planned areas.”
Adding fuel to the fire, he adds, are Tanzania’s poor solid and liquid waste management systems, inadequate infrastructure and a lack of funding for regulators and service providers responsible for environment and urban planning.
According to NEMC estimates, roughly 75 per cent of Dar es Salaam’s population lives in “unplanned” settlements that lack essential municipal services, including land around the Msimbazi, which has been deemed “hazardous” for urban development due to soil erosion, pollution and vulnerability to flooding.
The urban poor continue to settle there, however, due to its proximity to the business district, cheap property taxes and unlimited access to water for irrigation, washing, cooking and livestock.
“I will live here until I die,” Kibwana repeats, joining his neighbour Omari, who is still sitting in the doorway of his house by the river. “I will only move to another area if I am welcome.”
Flood season is just beginning and as usual, the residents of Magomeni are preparing for the worst. They spend their days clearing blockages in the river and using the garbage to build up their defensive waste walls.
“It’s not something that we like to do, but since the government is not willing to build any sort of wall to protect us, this is the easiest and cheapest way to do that,” he explains. Until then, he says, they will keep living with the side effects of the river’s pollution.
Kibwana nods his head in agreement but says nothing. In a few weeks, he’ll be back up on his roof, praying for the problem to float downstream.