Let’s face it. The benefits of community engagement are endless.
It is argued that effective community engagement allows service providers to tap into local knowledge to improve the quality of their services. It enables citizens and communities to better understand the issues affecting service providers. It also allows communities to build their capacity to participate in deliberative processes by gaining confidence, skills, knowledge, and experience. In Malawi, in the City of Lilongwe, a local NGO, Centre for Community Organisation and Development (CCODE) is working with communities living along Nankhaka River to combat the tendency of discharging toxic effluents in the river. This has resulted in industrial firms located along the Nankhaka River in Lilongwe being reminded to pre-treat their final effluent before discharging into the environment in order to prevent pollution and the consequences that would follow if they fail to do so. The warning is contained in a letter to the industries from the Lilongwe City Council.
The rapid growth in the manufacturing industry in Malawi has created both opportunities and challenges for the urban poor. On a positive note, residents of informal settlements surrounding industrial areas continue to secure both informal and formal jobs in various industries and this is key to the sustenance of their livelihoods. The industries are also key to the growth of the country’s economy. While this is so, poor industrial waste, handling has proved to be a big cause of pollution of land and water sources and therefore a huge threat to the sustenance of life for both, humans, plants, and animals.
To protect biodiversity from poor industrial waste management, it is critical for City councils and relevant government institutions to enforce all regulations on waste management. According to the local government act of 2010 councils are responsible for providing guidance, maintaining, and managing services for the collection and removal, and treatment of solid and liquid waste; and the disposal of such waste whether within or outside its area of jurisdiction. Additionally, councils are also responsible for enforcing the tenets of the Environment Management Act (2017), which contain provisions for pollution control and regulations of waste, including hazardous waste. However, due to limited finance and human capacity, councils have not managed to regulate proper waste management. Industries continue to discharge untreated waste in nearby rivers or unused land that however are close to human settlements.
The Kanengo industries in Lilongwe continue to generate a lot of liquid and solid waste. The tragedy however is that these industries do not have sustainable ways of properly treating and disposing of the waste. Cooking oil, textile, beer brewing, and soft drinks, production companies have for many years now continued to discharge untreated effluent into Nankhaka River. The river passes through five settlements of Mgona, Area 30, area 51, Ngomani, and Senti. These settlements have a combined population of more than 30,000 people. Due to general poverty and interment water supply by the water board, community members in these settlements depend on the water from the river for household use. It is against this background that CCODE started engaging people from these settlements to find a lasting solution to this challenge.
Community engagement is the process of building relationships with community members and interest groups to work side-by-side as long-term partners—building a coalition of support on a range of policies, programs and service issues — with the end goal of making the community a better place to live. The process involves a wide variety of partner–community interactions ranging from information sharing to community consultation and, in some instances, active participation in government decision-making processes.
This process was initiated in these informal settlements by the collection of community data and mapping of risk hotspots. According to settlements’ situational analysis exercises report – profiling, for the five settlements, dumping of various industrial waste products into water sources near residential areas around Kanengo industrial area continues to threaten the health of people who are dependent on the rivers for daily household usage. Industries dump poisonous and odorous substances in the Nankhaka River, making the water unsuitable for use. Over the years, there have been reported cases of strange skin diseases by people who usually take their baths in the river. It is believed that the skin problems are due to toxic substances dumped in the river by companies.
The situational analysis report findings were also validated by an analysis that was conducted by the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development, contained in the dossier file reference number WQPCD5/11. The report concluded that some firms are discharging their untreated effluent into the river. This means that some companies have failed to comply with environmental regulations governing the management of industrial waste.
To find a lasting solution to the threat from poor handling of industrial area waste, Community sanitation teams and community leaders from the five settlements where the river passes through, have been meeting and all agreed that they need to urgently meet with city council authorities in order to request for swift intervention by the authorities. As a support NGO for the organized poor, Center for Community Organization and Development CCODE supported the communities by creating a platform for the meeting with the City council officials
‘We’re not sure to what extent the exposure to hazardous industrial waste has impacted our health, but we know that our lives are not as healthy as they were in the past. We are using very unclean water, fish and other animals keep dying and if no action is done on this, our children are doomed.’
-Group Village headman Senti-
Before the meeting, City Officials were taken to various parts of the river to understand the gravity of the effects from the waste which is dumped three or four days a week into the river. After the site visitation, local governance structures and the community leaders agreed on the following
- The Lilongwe City Council to conduct a thorough investigation to understand the situation
- Lilongwe City authorities write more letters of warning to companies that are continuing dumping the waste. These will be warned on repercussions that would follow failure to stop the prohibited act
- Companies that will be found to be in breach of regulations will be fined
- The sanitation team has formed a taskforce that will be responsible for monitoring the activities of all companies that are discharging their waste into the rivers surrounding these communities. If companies do not change, the communities have agreed to seek legal redress over the matter.
This process was made possible with financial support from Cities Alliance and SDI