Is Kigali sitting on a sewage time bomb?

A week ago I was at a restaurant (I will refrain from mentioning which one) when a waft of putrid, fetid air met my nostrils. I inquired after the sanitary conditions of a restaurant that cannot even keep their water closets clean, when I was casually informed that, “actually this area has a sewage problem”.
Alline Akintore
Alline Akintore

A week ago I was at a restaurant (I will refrain from mentioning which one) when a waft of putrid, fetid air met my nostrils. I inquired after the sanitary conditions of a restaurant that cannot even keep their water closets clean, when I was casually informed that, “actually this area has a sewage problem”.

That was not news: it is common knowledge that sewerage and waste water management is a prevalent issue in this country.

As Linda, a friend of mine, put it, “Kigali is sitting on a sewage time bomb” – and isn’t she right!

If completion of the promised central sewerage plant is not expedited, this growing city shall be in quite a bind; it doesn’t help that we only hear about the central plant and not the sewer line network/system that will feed it.

It is true that most developers plan for onsite sewerage systems, but little is mentioned about the lack of waste treatment in those plants, and the fact that soak pits are prevalent in sewer design.

These soak pits explain the stench in some parts of the city but also present a health hazard as waste contains harmful bacteria and suspended solids that are not good for the environment, especially our water table (depending on speed of natural purification by soil bacteria).

In fact a number of our rivers and streams are polluted everyday by human waste from under-served areas with poor sanitation facilities.  A city official was once quoted in a Rwandan paper saying that this city would drown in a sea of waste in the event of heavy flooding or intense earth tremors.

On the other hand, Kigali is repeatedly lauded for its management of solid waste. My perception was along that wavelength until I interacted with the neighborhood garbage collector: yes, they collect trash as long as it is not plastic, anything that has come into contact with human fluids, or ‘big books’.

This is not a joke by the way but it is most unfortunate because I (and 1.1 million other Kigali residents) am stranded with my trash.

I have often wondered why, if we cannot dispose of waste appropriately, we don’t use it as a source of supplementary fuel and/or as a source of agricultural nutrients.

Sludge can be incinerated and sold for agricultural use or for energy; waste water can be turned into reusable water; all the plastic bottles the garbage guy has refused to take from my home and all the paper clogging our drainage channels are just examples of waste that is in fact exploitable.

This seems far-fetched but I am willing to go as far as suggest that the government could provide incentives to citizens in exchange for waste.

However, maybe what the city really needs is an aggressive campaign for waste management and water-quality protection. The central sewerage plant is only one piece of the puzzle – what provisions are in place for construction of sewer lines (and replacement of old ones), water-quality regulations and assurance; or even control and management of existing decentralised plants that may be under capacity or not properly operated/maintained.

City authorities need to get past talking about the central plant and flex their muscle to ensure smells and water-borne diseases will not garrote our city; they should also manage solid waste collectors to ensure that they are capable of appropriately disposing ALL waste products from households!

I would be nothing but a gong if I turned a blind eye to the fact that financial constraints have inhibited extensive waste management development in our city. However the dichotomy between expenditure in waste management and public health – as well as long-term environmental – benefits means that we have to be ready to pay the price in one form (better waste management) or another (prevalence of diseases and child mortality).

Increased dialogue on how communities can work together to dispose and recycle waste should be encouraged as to effectively decentralise waste management and increase citizen awareness of their role in doing so.

Truth be told, I don’t have the solutions to this problem but I know that we have to defuse the ticking ‘waste bomb’ in the interest of our health, our environment, and our nostrils…

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