Citizen-Engagement Circumvented: An Analysis of Liquid-Waste Information/Knowledge, Control and Environmental Policy-Perspectives in Zimbabwe. A Literature Review.

By Mark Nyandoro

Today’s blog trails Mark’s forthcoming article in Environment and History, ‘Citizen-Engagement Circumvented: An Analysis of Liquid-Waste Information/Knowledge, Control and Environmental Policy-Perspectives in Harare, Zimbabwe’, available in uncopyedited form on the WHP website,  presenting a broad and extended literature review for the main paper.

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Water Pollution and Liquid Wastes: A Hazard to the Environment. Public domain image

There is no scarcity of literature on the history of wastewater or liquid waste in the world, but so far not much work exists on Zimbabwe. Whilst a great deal of substantial and important work has been published on the politics and history of liquid waste, it is surprising that such a rich field of study has attracted less Zimbabwean scholarship over a 36-year period from 1980 to 2016. This review shows that significant international research related to the liquid waste problem has been carried out, and assists in understanding the problem at the local Zimbabwe level. In line with the more general literature cited here, as well as in the main article, this review finds that addressing the wastewater menace is an integral aspect of environmental conservation. Global environmental and waste-management history focusing on liquid waste has also been covered by prominent scholars such as Haynes and Grubbs, Kuo, Tihansky, Hrudey and Eng, Fien, Agthe et al and Nhapi.[1] Of these, Haynes and Grubbs analyse the conservation of fresh-water resources, not through the construction of large water treatment works, but by utilising so-called deep-well techniques for the disposal of liquid wastes.[2] Kuo, Tihansky, Hrudey and Eng all make a strong case for the causes of wastewater and the necessity of liquid waste disposal methods for industrial, domestic and other sources.[3] Agthe, Billings, Buras and Nhapi bring into the discussion a management focus for both water and wastewater. However, Fien, unlike his counterparts, goes beyond causation and impact of liquid waste on society to embrace environmental education and how it can be employed to promote a sanitary environment.[4] The education aspect is recognised in this article as a citizens’ interactive weapon with current liquid waste policy in Zimbabwe.

Environmental (conservation) history has also been studied and written in historical documents and books by Beinart and Coates, Carruthers, Beinart and McGregor, Mauch and Robin, among others, but liquid-waste history in Africa is a relatively new discipline with a different focus away from the usual bias on land and water studies.[5] Beinart has pointed to conflicting African and European perceptions of the environment, arguing that some important topics focusing on citizen-engagement and inclusion of African ideas are left unexplored. In his view, ‘The history of ecological change in itself or the nature of African ecological ideas … are touched upon but clearly demand more detailed attention’. Such occasional omissions are not uncommon among policy makers in Zimbabwe.[6]

Like Beinart, Carruthers laments South Africa’s inability to manage the environment and protect farmland and game in the early years of intensive agricultural practice in the Cape and in the contemporary era.[7] This failure has prompted Faulkner to assert: ‘The past is not dead. It’s not even past’.[8] South African environmental history confirms this, as its present-day society is still unable to manage its environment in a sustainable way by preventing environmental degradation through appropriate restraints. Old-fashioned monocultural agricultural practices remain dominant. Given Carruthers’ immense contribution, the work by Mauch and Robin is a tribute to her career as well as an exploration of South Africa’s contributions to world environmental history and related disciplines.[9] The two scholars concur with Carruthers that environmental history came of age in the United States on the back of the national parks idea.[10] However, none of these scholars focuses on the liquid waste menace.

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An example of Southern Africa’s precious Savannah environment, at risk of environmental degradation: Zebra and Wildebeest. Public domain image.

For CONEX Officers, Howden and Towns, whilst society relishes the obvious immediate successes of technology and the triumphs of the Engineer through admiring the big dam, the gigantic power station and the plane that flies faster than a bullet, ‘it is no longer enough for a thing to work in the simple sense that it runs, or flies, or kills [referring to indiscriminate use of pesticides or insecticides in agriculture – parathion, dieldrin and DDT] a certain insect’ or whole ecosystems of bird, animal and plant life.[11] Referring to the impact of technology on climate change, Laurie summarises the relationship between the two by saying man is sometimes aware of technology’s consequences but seems reluctant to address them, more so given the fact that technological-advancement and dangerous chemicals intensify global warming and environmental hazards.[12]

In agriculture, fertilisers for instance do more damage to the environment than modern pesticides.[13] Hence they need careful controlling and management through information/knowledge-dissemination and astute environmental policies, as millions of tons of nitrates and phosphates are used every year in the production of food. Agriculture production contributes to a significant proportion of hazardous liquid wastes. Agricultural run-off is a major polluter of water as it contains nitrogen compounds and phosphorus from fertilisers, pesticides, salts, poultry-wastes and wash-down from abattoirs. Contaminants are usually of varied composition ranging from simple organic substances to complex inorganic compounds with varying degrees of toxicity. Pollution of surface water, the natural habitat for aquatic animal-species, has far-reaching impacts on humankind, either directly or indirectly, since less than one per cent of the world’s freshwater (constituting approximately 0.007 per cent of all water on earth) is readily accessible for direct human use.[14] The pollution of surface water in any form is a critical issue in water resource-management, given that large water bodies in developing nations of the world, including Zimbabwe, are grossly polluted. Pollutants are the cause of water quality degradation around the world. The water quality situation therefore becomes very critical in such countries and is of great environmental and public health concern.[15] Rain washes pollutants off the land into rivers and down to the lakes where they kill fish and stimulate algae to unnatural growth (as happened with Lake Chivero, Harare’s main water source). Nitrate and phosphate contamination rob the water of the oxygen, which would otherwise digest sewage pumped into urban waterscapes for natural purification, hence compromises quality. Lake Erie in the USA is a classic example of water killed by fertilisers and sewage. Zimbabwe may avoid a similar mistake by tightening its own water policy and implementation as well as enforcing appropriate educative instruments about liquid-waste management.

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Natural Environmental Disasters may be caused or exacerbated by human actions: Mudslides. Public domain image.

Urban administration of waste-pollution in Africa by municipal councils is replete with cases of service-delivery inconsistencies. Not only are the role of the State and the policy instruments it utilises to address the question of liquid-waste (which includes wastewater) as well as the efficacy of municipalities (urban councils) and the by-laws they pass characterised by information and education-approaches dictated from above (thereby thwarting citizen-engagement), but it is impossible to differentiate their functions. Inadequate accommodation of waste education from below undermined coordinated consciousness on liquid-waste problems among stakeholders. The environmental history of major urban centres like Harare provides clear evidence of the current insufficiency of information/knowledge on liquid-waste. The inadequacy of information limits the city’s capacity to predict future environmental harms. However, the mere existence of educative-information on the evils of liquid waste, in itself, is not enough. For greater impact, knowledge must be embraced by society at large at the grassroots and all other levels with the State playing the role of facilitator.

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Environmental and Coastal Waste Problems. Public domain image.

This literature review illustrates the impact of circumvented citizen-engagement in Zimbabwe where the focus on liquid-waste history is relatively new and low. Since the late 1990s and early 2000s, Zimbabwe has joined the great age of environmental conservation and awareness through the adoption of legislation to combat wastes, disease and human health problems, but not at all levels of the educational curricula. Hence the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education responded to national and international initiatives to integrate waste education into the school curriculum. This was in line with the Nziramasanga Presidential Commission of Inquiry into Education and Training.[16] The commission recommended that Environmental Education (EE) be integrated into the school curriculum as supported by Zimbabwe’s sustainable development goals, which state that in order to achieve waste (and climate) education it is imperative to make sustainable development a national priority. This was not new, as challenges in managing information and education on wastes in general and liquid-waste in particular had persisted long after the Victorian period, which Cooper (a scholar at Exeter University) covers in his numerous works on the history and politics of waste in Britain.[17]

According to Agthe et al., the quantity of wastewater (sewage)[18] generated by a community depends on its population, its climate and people’s lifestyle. In general, it is estimated that about sixty to eighty per cent of the total water supplied to an urban community becomes wastewater.[19] As a result, wastewater may be considered as a source of water, if treated appropriately, or as a municipal burden because it needs treatment and disposal.[20] The purpose of municipal wastewater-treatment is to prevent contamination of the water bodies into which the treated effluent is discharged. Treated effluent is disposed of into rivers, lakes or oceans, or is used for irrigating crops.[21] According to Viessman and Hammer, wastewater-treatment consists of a chain of processes of varying complexity, usually activated in series, leading to improved quality of the treated effluent.[22] Wastewater can be treated to the extent that the effluent is fit to be supplied as drinking (potable) water, albeit this being a rather costly proposition. For example, much of the drinking water supplied to Windhoek, the capital city of Namibia (formerly southwest Africa), originates from treated wastewater.[23] In almost all cases, the treatment of municipal wastewater is quite short of drinking water standards. Most common is a combination of primary and secondary treatment, which removes about fifty per cent of suspended solids while the remaining organic matter is extracted with biological-processes.[24] Thus, the re-use of treated municipal wastewater, for whatever purpose, involves significant public health risks. This has been one of Harare’s major problems as raw sewage which ended up in the city’s water bodies has not been sufficiently treated to make the water meet acceptable drinking water standards as prescribed by the United Nations (UN). The result has been sporadic outbreaks of cholera, typhoid and other water-borne diseases.

In conclusion, while recent international historians have continued to write about the liquid waste menace, most sections of Harare seem not to have embraced the clear warnings. Part of the problem was caused by a State that did not effectively implement its liquid waste policies, and at the same time, was also involved in the circumvention of citizen-engagement. Knowledge, information dissemination and citizen participation, if implemented, can play a vital role in shaping a city like Harare’s environmental destiny. Further, new local studies on raising awareness about the hazards of liquid wastes among the capital’s residents are needed. More work along the lines of Gandy, Reid, Barnes, Alley, Zimmer, and many others (reviewed in the main article), which reconstructs both the history and politics of sewerage, and the social and health experience of ordinary citizens, would also be valuable. For Harare, the lack of significant advances in the 36-year period covered in the article is, therefore, deplorable.

[1] C.D. Haynes and D. M. Grubbs, Conservation of Fresh-Water Resources by Deep-Well Disposal of Liquid Wastes. Appendix A: Design and Cost of Liquid-Waste Disposal Systems (Montgomery: Natural Resources Centre, University of Alabama, 1970); C.H. Kuo, ‘Pressure Behavior in Subsurface Disposal of Liquid Industrial Wastes’, Journal (Water Pollution Control Federation) 44 (12) (1972): 2325–2333; D.P. Tihansky, ‘Historical Development of Water Pollution Control Cost Functions’, Journal (Water Pollution Control Federation) 46 (5) (1974): 813–833; S.E. Hrudey and P. Eng, ‘Sources and Characteristics of Liquid Process Wastes from Arctic Offshore Hydrocarbon Exploration’, Arctic 32 (1) (1979): 3–21; J. Fien, Education for the Environment: Critical Curriculum Theorizing and Environmental Education (Geelong: Deakin University 1995); Donald E. Agthe, R. Bruce Billings and Nathan Buras (eds) Managing Urban Water Supply, Water Science and Technology Library (London: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2003); Innocent Nhapi, ‘A Framework for the Decentralised Management of Wastewater in Zimbabwe’, Physics and Chemistry of the Earth 29 (2004): 1265–1273.

[2] Haynes and Grubbs, Conservation of Fresh-Water Resources.

[3] Kuo, ‘Pressure Behavior in Subsurface Disposal of Liquid Industrial Wastes’; Tihansky, ‘Historical Development of Water Pollution Control Cost Functions’; Hrudey and Eng, ‘Sources and Characteristics of Liquid Process Wastes’.

[4] Fien, Education for the Environment.

[5] See William Beinart and Peter Coates, Environment and History: The Taming of Nature in the USA and South Africa (New York: Routledge, 1995); Jane Carruthers, ‘Environmental History: Dynamic Engagement with Time and Place’, Inaugural Lecture, History Department, University of South Africa, 13 Oct. 2009; Beinart and JoAnn McGregor, Social History and African Environments (Oxford: James Currey, 2003); Christof Mauch and Libby Robin (eds) The Edges of Environmental History: Honouring Jane Carruthers (RCC Perspectives, 2014).

[6] Beinart and Coates, Environment and History; Beinart and McGregor, Social History and African Environments. See also Beinart, ‘African History and Environmental History’, African Affairs 99 (2000): 269–302; Carruthers, ‘Environmental History’, and, for a review of Beinart, Journal of Southern African Studies see Thomas P. Johnson, Environmental History Review 15 (1991): 102-104.

[7] Carruthers, ‘Africa: Histories, Ecologies and Societies’, Environment and History 10 (2004): 379–406; Carruthers, Game Protection in the Transvaal, 1846 to 1926: Archives Year Book for South African History (Pretoria: Government Printer, 1995).

[8] William Faulkner, ‘The Past is Never Dead: It’s not Even Past’, Requiem for a Nun (New York: Vintage, 1996).

[9] Mauch and Robin (eds) The Edges of Environmental History.

[10] Ibid.

[11] R.H.G. Howden, pp Director of Conservation and Extension, CONEX, to All Provincial Conservation and Extension Officers, 1 May 1969, ‘Indiscriminate Uses of Pesticides’, Mashonaland-South-Province GEN-Vol. 2, Oct. 1964-Aug. 1970 (NAZ-RC) 135183/4.11.7R/ICG 10/ICA; I. W. Towns, Group Conservation and Extension Officer to the Provincial Conservation and Extension Officer (Mashonaland-South), 8 May 1969, ‘Use of Insecticides in Agriculture’, Mashonaland-South-Province GEN-Vol. 2, Oct. 1964-Aug. 1970 (NAZ-RC) 135183/4.11.7R/ICG 10/ICA S/1/14/9/55.

[12] Peter Laurie, ‘World in Danger’, London Sunday Times, 30 Apr. 1969, Mashonaland-South-Province GEN-Vol. 2, Oct. 1964-Aug. 1970, National Archives of Zimbabwe-Records Centre (hereafter NAZ-RC) 135183/4.11.7R/ICG 10/ICA, p. 1.

[13] Laurie, ‘World in Danger’.

[14] UNESCO, ‘Facts and Figures: Water Pollution is on the Rise Globally’, World Water Assessment Programme (WWAP), 2006,, Accessed 20 Jul. 2016.

[15] Ibid; World Bank, Pollution Prevention and Abatement Handbook 1998 (Washington, DC: WB, 1999) http://wbln0018​.worldbank​.org/essd/essd.nsf/GlobalView/PPAH, Accessed 20 Jul. 2016; WHO/UNICEF, ‘Water for Life: Making it Happen’, 2005,, Accessed 20 Jul. 2016.

[16] C.T. Nziramasanga (Chairman), Zimbabwe: Report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into Education and Training (Harare: Zimbabwe, 1999).

[17] The Victorian period in Britain was one of huge industrial and technological change, and grand attempts to combat squalor and disease. Due to the poor environmental conditions, disease in the earlier part of the period was rampant. As the century progressed and laws passed to correct the health concerns, the death rates from various illnesses began to drop and there were far less instances of ‘epidemic’ proportion. Timothy Cooper, ‘Challenging the “Refuse Revolution”: War, Waste and the Rediscovery of Recycling’, Historical Research 81 (214) (2008): 710–731; Cooper, ‘Modernity and the Politics of Waste in Britain’. In P. Warde and S. Soerlin (eds) Nature’s End: Reconsidering Environmental History (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2009), pp. 247–272; Cooper, ‘Recycling Modernity: Waste and Environmental History’, History Compass 8 (9) (2010): 1114–1125.

[18] Wastewater is the spent or used water of a community, comprising water-carried wastes from residences, institutions, commercial buildings and industries. Sewage is the liquid waste of a community conveyed by a sewer i.e. a pipe containing or carrying sewage or wastewater. Thus, both terms have the same meaning. In recent usage, the term ‘wastewater’ has taken precedence. See Agthe et al, (eds) Managing Urban Water Supply, p. 20; and Nyandoro, Forthcoming Paper.

[19] Government of Zimbabwe, Ministry of Environment, Water and Climate (MEWC), Zimbabwe Third National Communication to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change/UNFCCC (Harare: Government of Zimbabwe, 2016), p. xv.

[20] Sewage disposal is the act of getting rid of by throwing away or disposing of sewage by any means.

[21] Agthe et al, (eds) Managing Urban Water Supply, p. 21; and Nyandoro, ‘Innovation Opportunities in Irrigation Technology for Using Virtual Water in 21st Century South Africa: Reflections from the Past to the Present’, New Contree Journal 61 (May 2011): 201–226.

[22] Warren Viessman and Mark J. Hammer, Water Supply and Pollution Control (Boston: Addison Wesley, 1998).

[23] Agthe et al, (eds) Managing Urban Water Supply, p. 20.

[24] Ibid., pp. 20-21.


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