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Area 38 Dumpsite: Ticking Bomb

16-year-old James Adam ‘not his real name’ is a school dropout and is clocking two years into scavenging business. He is one of the youngsters who, in their haste leap into moving refuse collecting trucks and scatter garbage on the roads as they scramble for discarded items. “I come here daily to pick things I can eat or sale in order to survive. When I'm lucky, I get items like chicken and occasionally electronics." said Adam, who was hesitant to speak and had to be taken away from his colleagues in order to do so. He acknowledged that he and his colleagues occasionally fall ill, but they treat it as nothing unusual because it can happen to anyone. Adam is unconcerned about the raging cholera outbreak that killed over 1,000 and rules out the possibility that he will be infected because he spends most of his time at 38 "mtaya, a place he calls home.

Children at risk

His perspective contrasts sharply with that of Jack Kabwilo, a motorist and area 38 resident who believes the Lilongwe City Council's failure to manage the dumpsite has resulted in several inconveniences. "As you can see, the entire road is now closed” In spite of claims to the contrary we see several trucks during the day offloading the rubbish in the middle of the road and nothing happens to them.”

Some residents of the area 38 neighborhood who live close to the dumpsite have been urging the city council and other authorities to move the site for many years, but their efforts have always resulted in empty pledges and agreements that have repeatedly been broken. The group's chairman, Jacques Manon'ga, asserts that more than four persons in the vicinity of the dumpsite have died of cholera, which he believes is related to the condition of the dumpsite and believes it vindicates their demand to close the site.

The Lilongwe City Council (LCC) and Malawi Environmental Protection were instructed by a legislative committee on natural resources and climate change to permanently close the area 38 dumpsite, which is in poor condition and poses several health and environmental risks to residents. Area 38 people who live close to the dumpsite heard this as good news, but they chose to be skeptical because they had previously experienced multiple rounds of similar hollow promises. The dumpsite should have closed on 26th January if MEPA and LLC had executed the order. A recent visit to the site confirmed the ongoing, flagrant breach of solid waste management regulations. As it is still commonly known, Kumtaya is a chaotic, risky location with a number of health risks. Breathing offensive odours has evolved into the new standard for both residents and passersby. The Environmental Management Act (EMA) of 2017 and city bylaws are broken by the city council and majority of private garbage carriers, who still use open vehicles when transporting waste. In addition, scavengers, some of whom are children as young as 10, freely board moving garbage trucks headed for Mtaya and sift through the trash to find anything of value to them including plastic, cardboard, metal and expired food products.

When you first arrive, scavengers welcome you and seem to have more power as some of them have been around the site for more than two decades. They can even tell where the garbage truck should stop so they may separate some objects before unloading. The city council is powerless and unnoticed.

Scavengers sifting through the garbage.

“That place is a crime scene. The city council, scavengers, encroachers and private waste collectors have contributed to this avoidable scandal. You don’t see a fence, there is no security, and it is very difficult to spot city authorities doing anything on site” decried Innocent Sandram who is projects lead at Movement for Environmental Action – MEA

In a follow-up interview, Michael Makonombera, deputy director general of MEPA, disclosed that the agency had met with Lilongwe City Council and had made the observation that closing the dumpsite might not be the best way to address the problems being experienced at the site and that instead, the council should concentrate on managing the current dumpsite. Despite the fact that MEPA is legally permitted to shut down these locations, according to Makonombera, other factors are taken into account as well. “The dumpsite which is about 1 kilometer to area 24 road is not full, but people choose to dump their waste on along that road. All residential houses that surround the site were illegally constructed and the process of identifying and designating a new site is a long process which cannot be done in a week or two” explained Makonombera. He also said waste haulers complain the dumpsite is already too far and moving it further would encourage many to dump waste wantonly. After speaking with various residents, it became clear that there were two distinct groups that had come together to form one. The locals have now hired attorney Gift Nakhuni to assist them in pursuing justice since they feel cheated and taken advantage of. Manong’a confirmed the development.

Makonombera - We need more time

A recent post of the group’s Facebook page ‘’Movement for Relocation of Area 38 Dumpsite in Lilongwe” also confirmed frustrations within the group: “Today was supposed to be the last day for Lilongwe City Council to shut down the dumpsite and identify a new site. Unfortunately, they have ignored the recommendation by the Natural Resources and Climate Change Committee of Parliament of Malawi.”

Sandram described some of the justifications from MEPA as disappointing and terrible. Sandram has urged MEPA and LCC to reconsider their stance and continue to engage communities even though he has stated that communities have the right to seek legal remedy on the matter and have good cause to do so. “This is not a new issue, the council had all the time to provide alternatives and there is no way we can continue to operate the way we are doing now, we can’t afford that” said Sandram. The Environmental Management Act provides for the establishment of a proper landfill which a well fenced, protected managed facility with the right equipment for managing all kinds of waste but Malawi does not have one at the moment.

In contrast to the current situation, where hazardous wastes like plastics, metals, sharp objects, diapers, and contaminated medical waste are combined, a suitable landfill also encourages waste segregation. Proper landfills immensely contribute toward attainment of sustainable goal 11 which advocates for inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable cities by 2030. The Malawi Human Rights Commission recently made a commitment to look into how severely people's rights have been infringed, however no report has been released as of yet. Last year The UN General Assembly (UNGA) passed a resolution recognizing the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment as a human right. The UNGA called upon States, international organizations, businesses, and other stakeholders to “scale up efforts” to ensure a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment for all.

A truck offloading garbage at Area 38 dumpsite

The 2019 National Waste Management Strategy, which began was officially launched in in 2021 and expires this year, urges local governments to establish landfills as standard waste management facilities. According to the plan, Lilongwe produces 500 metric tons of garbage each day, of which 20% come from hospitals, 15% come from industries, 40% come from commercial areas, and 40% come from residential regions.

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About the Author
Mathews Malata Jr.
An ardent environmentalist, LEAD Fellow & versatile award-winning journalist passionate about SDGs

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