Environment body averts a chemical spillage disaster in rural Zimbabwe

– According to an official, 148 goats, 10 dogs, 6 cattle, 6 cows, chickens, turkeys, donkeys, and aqua-life all perished after ingesting tainted river water.

John Cassim

Part of Murare River following the excavation of coal tar and oily creosote by EMA.

Harare, Zimbabwe (CZ) – Following a spill of 40 000 liters of a deadly creosote a month ago that killed aquatic life, cattle, and impacted the water supply for thousands of communities, Zimbabwe’s Environment Management Agency (EMA) has made enormous progress in the decontamination of the Murare River.

The Murare River is situated along the Mutare-Masvingo route, 80 kilometers south-east of Mutare, the capital of the east.

A tanker owned by Nzibar Investments that was transporting dangerous creosote was involved in an accident at the Murare bridge on August 22.

“We lost 148 goats, 10 dogs, 6 cattle, chickens, turkeys, donkeys, and aqua-life after consuming the contaminated water, had it not been for the swift reaction by EMA and other stakeholders, we could have lost more including human lives,” Robert Bande, a local councilor said during a media tour to the area recently.

Evaporation ponds created by EMA to help decontaminate Murare River, this coal tar will eventually be taken and disposed elsewhere

On the second day, several children who had picked and consumed dead fish from the contaminated river started to develop skin rashes that required medical attention.

The intervention by EMA involved blocking the flow of the river by creating a temporary dam upstream, creating evaporation pits lined with high-density polythene, and mechanically excavating contaminated soil from the river.

“The moment the chemical was introduced in the river it affected the oxygen retention capacity of the water, which then resulted in the immediate death of aquatic organisms.

Creosote is an oil-based chemical that also has some acute toxicity which is a category four, with respect to the globally harmonised classification of chemicals but is also in category one as it poses serious hazards to aquatic life,” Irvine Nyaguwa, EMA’s Hazardous Substance and Waste Unit Inspector said.

– Spillage response

“What we did first was to create a temporal dam upstream to try and stop water from coming in and transporting creosote downstream.

This river feeds into Odzi River which also feeds into Save River, so the extent of the disaster could have been worse without that mitigation,” Irvine Nyaguwa explained.

A Hazmat vehicle, one of only three state-of-the-art Hazardous Materials Emergency Response Vehicles in Africa last year, was deployed to Murare River.

The creation of the temporal dam helped stop the transportation of the buoyant oil that was sitting on top of the water and this is the one that was transported the furthest.

With the help of an excavator and two tipper trucks, from the Zimbabwe Consolidated Diamond Company (ZCDC), the response team pumped out the flouting layer and the whitish emulsion.  

The problematic coal tar had already sipped into the soil and about one and a half meters of the affected soil on the river bed was excavated.

The second phase involved excavating the contaminated soil and rocks into the makeshift pits that had been dug by brick molders in the area.

The third phase involves monitoring the quality of the water in the river and at the evaporation ponds with the aim of carrying the coal tar which is sitting at the bottom of the pits for disposal.

“After collecting the water sample on September 6, we found out that the Chemical Oxygen Demand (COD) and the Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD) are returning to the required level of water that can be termed normal.

This is important because the DOB is required for aquatic creatures to survive. In as much as these standards can be used as informers, they cannot be used to say that the water is suitable for drinking,” Irvine said.  

Currently, villages along the affected stretch are relying on bowsers for portable water in a bid to avoid a human catastrophe.

Irvene Nyaguhwa explaining how EMA averted a human catastrophe after some creosote spillage into Murare River a month ago.

– villagers’ testimonies

According to the councilor, Robert Bande, the intervention by EMA was timely as already some people had started eating the dead fish, and goats had already started to die.

Those who ate the dead fish developed some skin infections and this prompted the health officials to act.

Chakohwa is in Chimanimani South and is in agro-region four which is perennially dry, hence the villagers here rely on the sale of livestock for their survival.

ConserveZim spoke to David Dube a villager who is a farmer and was affected by the creosote spillage.

“I am a subsistent farmer and rely on livestock for my upkeep, we are in a perennial dry area Region Four, that does not produce enough harvest every year, therefore, the loss of my goats and chickens means I am financially affected,” David Dube who stays 300 meters away from the river said.

David lost a donkey, three goats, chickens, and turkeys, since the water was condemned for domestic use, he stopped irrigating his vegetable gardens where he produces, for sale.

53-year-old and a father of six children, Aaron Machisi also said the intervention by EMA was timely, although he lost some livestock.

“My 11-year-old daughter developed some skin rash after consuming the dead fish, that’s when I realised the river water was no longer safe, but in no time 3 kid-goats died followed by chickens, for our daily water consumption the councilor is bringing a water bowser every day as the river water was condemned,” Aaron said.

At the time of the visit to Chakohwa courtesy of EMA, journalists witnessed some donkeys, goats, and cattle that were still sick and dying owing to the poisoning in Murare river.

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