Can Rwanda’s government avert Kigali’s sewage time bomb?

Can Rwanda's government avert Kigali's sewage time bomb?

An open waste water channel goes through a residential area in Muhima sector in the Nyarugenge district of Kigali on 20 February 2018.

(Rodrigue Rwirahira)

Repeated delays in the establishment of a liquid and solid waste system in Kigali are dragging the Rwandese capital ever closer to a sewage time bomb, according to experts who are calling on the government to take urgent action.

In many ways, the Rwandese capital is lauded is as a paragon of green and sustainable development: a 2008 ban on polythene bags, for example, helped earn Kigali the moniker of ‘Africa’s cleanest city’; the city has monthly car-free days; and its Kigali 2040 city masterplan lays out a roadmap to turn the city into a sustainable “centre of urban excellence in Africa”.

However, Kigali doesn’t have a comprehensive waste management framework. There is no central treatment facility for sewage, no system of sewers, and according to a 2016 assessment by the Office of the Auditor General, of the 300 tonnes of waste dumped daily at the city’s main landfill in Nduba Sector, only two per cent is recycled. The result, critics say, is that Kigali is like a “smartly-dressed person with dirty underwear.”

At present, most of the liquid waste generated by Kigali’s 1.2 million inhabitants is either disposed in sceptic tanks or pit latrines, except for the few modern housing or industrial estates that are equipped with small, decentralised waste stabilisation ponds. For refuse, Kigali residents who can afford it currently pay private refuse companies contracted by the city council anywhere between US$3 (3000 Rwandan francs) to US$10 (10,000 Rwandan francs) per month to collect their rubbish, depending on their location and household income. Everyone else simply disposes of their waste wherever they can, leading to open raw sewage and waste mounds.

Since 2013, the Rwanda Environmental Management Authority (REMA) has issued two reports on the environmental state of the city, with specific warnings about the impact that the city’s ever-growing population is having on its already strained waste management resources.

“Proper treatment and disposal of liquid and solid waste in Kigali is an issue as the amount of waste exceeds the capacity of available disposal locations,” reads part of the Kigali, State of Environment and Outlook Report 2013.

In the 2015 version of the report, which is the most recent, Rwanda is said to have failed to invest in collective urban waste-water and sanitation systems, except for three small sewerage systems that serve about 700 households.

The report also says that in most urban areas, storm-water drainage systems – which limit flooding during heavy rainfall events – are inadequate and haven’t kept pace with the rapidly growing population that largely relies on unplanned, informal housing. Rwanda currently has the highest rate of population density in Africa and Kigali is struggling to provide housing and services for its mostly low-income inhabitants.

This has led to the periodic erosion of unstable land, increased flooding, increased exposure to disease and threats to private and public infrastructure which, when combined with poor liquid and solid waste collection in urban settlements, is a major cause for concern.

Is a solution in the pipeline?

After various attempts at finding a solution to Kigali’s waste management problem over the years, in January, Rwanda’s water and sanitation body, WASAC, launched a call for proposals to construct Kigali’s first-ever central sewerage system. According to Gisele Muhumuza, the deputy CEO of WASAC, the project is currently at the procurement stage but businesses and services such as factories, hotels, restaurants, schools and places of worship will be the first to be connected to the new system before they move onto individual households.

The European Investment Bank (EIB) and the African Development Bank have both committed to contributing to the financing of the project, which will comprise 86 kilometres of sewer network according to the KT Press website. It will cost an estimated €95.5 million, of which city council officials told Equal Times that a 25-year loan agreement from the EIB worth €45 million had already been secured. It is estimated that the project will take three years to complete but according to Remy Norbert Duhuze, a director at REMA, “it may take about 20 years to cover the whole city of Kigali”.

Kigali City Council spokesperson, Bruno Rangira told Equal Times: “A lot of projects associated with that loan agreement are so far ongoing and the city will work closely with WASAC. The location of the sewage facility is so far known [Giti K’inyoni on the outskirts of Kigali in the district of Nyarugenge] and work has commenced.”

Once the sewage system is up and running, it is hoped that every household will eventually be connected, for which they will have to pay an annual service fee of around US$1,740 (approximately Rwf1,500,000). Although that figure is still just a proposal, it is one that has most of the city’s low-income households up in arms.

“If they were to charge that amount of money, just to collect liquid waste from our homes, we will have no option but to leave the city and live elsewhere,” said Joseph Gasibe, a resident in Kicukiro, one of Kigali’s three districts.

There are, however, some concerns about the feasibility of the project, as well as the proposed time-scale. The 2016 auditor general’s performance report highlighted some of the difficulties experienced during previous attempts by the City of Kigali to tackle its waste problem. For example, it noted that of four previously planned projects to manage solid and liquid waste – such as plans to transform solid waste into biomass briquettes that could be used for heating and cooking fuel – only one project (an incinerator) was successfully established in the last five years.

If funding should become an issue with regards to the viability of the project, Kenezio Muyima, an environmental analyst working for a local NGO called Air Water Earth, Rwanda (AWE), is urging the government to consider the implementation of small decentralised systems as a temporary solution, as the construction of a brand-new centralised system will require heavy investment and regular maintenance.

“Let’s say all the three districts have small decentralised sewage systems; this could solve the waste issue in the short run while the government secures funding for a much bigger system,” he advised.