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Addis Abeban’s potentially eating contaminated vegetables during Lent

Followers of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church are half way through Lent. One very basic practice observed during the fasting season is the change in the eating habit of the practitioners. During this time feeding upon animal products like meat, egg, milk, cheese, butter or any derivatives of animals is strictly prohibited. Some say that seafood consumption is allowed; however, this action is highly contested by the hardcore conservative advocates of the religion as being an act of cheating over the long standing culture of fasting passed from generation to generation traveling through time to reach to this day. So the question remains, what does one eat during the fasting season? The answer is cereals, fruits, and vegetables. However, recent study indicates that the vegetables are grown on land potentially contaminated with polluted rivers, writes Birhanu Fikade.

As controversies surrounding river pollution remain unresolved, members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church are in the final weeks of the Lent – one of the major fasting seasons set in the church’s calendar. During the two-month period of fasting, members of this Christian denomination are required to stick to a vegetarian diet, and refrain from eating animal-derived foods, including eggs and milk.

Apart from the devout, there is also a sizable number of metropolitans who go vegan or at least choose to eat vegetables as way of lifestyle change. Stores across the length and breadth of Addis Ababa can get swarmed by customers looking for mixed salads.

But there is a problem. The vegetables that are being consumed every day in Addis Ababa are grown on land potentially contaminated with polluted rivers. There are studies conducted by the Addis Ababa University in collaboration with the Addis Ababa City Government Rivers, Riversides Development and Climate Change Adaptation Project Office. The studies indicate that rivers are polluted with industrial and domestic waste. The major industries alone discharge an equivalent to 4,877,362m3 toxic water into rivers in Addis Ababa and its environs. Accordingly, textile factories, food and beverages plants, leather and foot wear factories, rubber factories and iron and steel makers are found to be the major culprits. Especially, textiles, food and beverage, leather and foot wear industries account for 96 percent of the entire industrial waste discharged into river systems.

The city’s rivers, riversides development and climate change adaptation project office (henceforth referred to as “the project office”) claims that household or domestic waste is of greater volume than industrial waste. Walelign Dessalegn, general manager of the project office told The Reporter that 80 percent of the waste discharged into rivers originates in households. However, the waste disposal systems that factories, hospitals, hotels, printing presses and the like use are either directly connected to the rivers or simply discharge into water bodies. The studies indicate that 80 percent of the clean water originally used by industries is finally discharged as toxic waste.

Making matters worse, industrial wastes have been found to be sources of high concentrations of heavy metals such as arsenic, cobalt, cadmium, chromium, copper, mercury nickel, and zinc. Researchers have found traces of these heavy metals in many of the vegetables cultivated on land along rivers of the city. In his research paper titled “Metals in leafy vegetables grown in Addis Ababa and toxicological implications,” Fisseha Itanna of the Addis Ababa University biology department indicated that “heavy metals are known to pose a variety of health risks such as cancer, mutations, or miscarriages.” In his research focusing on rivers such as Kera and Akaki, Fisseha warns that arsenic, chromium, iron and lead are the most hazardous metals that could lead to health complications. Accordingly, vegetables cultivated along the city’s riversides such as cabbages, onions, potatoes, red beets, lettuce, Swiss chard are some of the most contaminated vegetables that have been found exposed to toxic substances that mostly contain heavy metals.

Researchers underline that anthropogenic contamination of the environment has become a growing concern across the city if not the entire country. The studies have looked at the biological, chemical and physical parameters of the polluted rivers and have shown that long-term consumption of contaminated vegetables could potentially lead to serious health consequences.

The city administration for long has established an environmental authority that solely is responsible for the protection, safety and cleansing of the city’s overall environmental issues. Since 2010, the authority has put industries on notice, requiring especially the leather and leather goods manufacturing plants to install waste treatment systems. There are some 33 tanneries and manufacturing plants mostly situated around Addis Ababa but a good number of these factories fail to install a well-functioning treatment facility. Most of the tanneries and leather factories have been reluctant to install treatment facilities thanks to the backing they enjoy from the Ministry of Industry.

During the first quarter of the current fiscal year, the Addis Ababa City Administration Environmental Protection Authority made it public that the problem has become beyond its capacity to control since no single factory is willing to comply with the requirement to discharge waste below the legal limit.

According to Tsegaye Gebremariam, general manager of the authority, the factories have been told several times to mend their ways. The authority issued 20 warning letters over the past four years, but nothing has changed. The authority even issued an ultimatum to close those factories that fail to install treatment plants. That simply was ignored by many of the factories and the authority remains handicapped under the influence of the Ministry of Industry. Yet, water coming from the rivers is not to be of use in agriculture.

An estimated 10,000 households make a living out of cultivating various kinds of vegetables along rivers and their tributaries in Addis Ababa and environs. According to Walelign, some 4,000 hectares of land have been enclosed for the purpose of farming activities, mostly vegetables. A six-month report from the Addis Ababa City Administration reveals that close to 3,000 growers reaped 2,468 tons of vegetables from 340 hectares of land.

The general manager of the project office for rivers and riversides development notes that Italians introduced crop and vegetable cultivation along the banks of rivers during the five-year occupation in the 1930s. Local residents took over the farms when the Italians left, Walelign adds. According to Halilu Wolde Eyesus, chairperson of the Mekanissa, Goffa and Sarris Area Vegetable Growers’ Market Service Cooperative Union, the riverside farming practices date back 90 years. According to Hailu, commercial farming was introduced to his and fellow members of the cooperative union by the Greeks, and then the Italians. In any case, both individuals agree that rivers of the city were not polluted and contaminated when the practice was introduced. But Hailu admits that the cooperative was formally established 41 years ago with 244 founding members. Transferring ownership to family members, the cooperative is still owned by 244 members of the new generation, Hailu said. Legally registered with the Nifas Silk and Lafto Subcity, the cooperative union operates in six woredas.

Claiming to supply 75 percent of the vegetables cultivated in the city, Hailu and his fellow board members of the cooperative point figures at the city administration for failing to protect the water bodies from pollution and waste disposal. The original plot of land the cooperative held on to was 54 hectares. Lately, the size of the land has been squeezed as more and more polluting activities became intensified.

Soap and detergent manufacturing cottage plants, set up under youth job-creation schemes of the city government are one of the sources of toxic waste polluting the waters around the cooperatives that produce vegetables. Car wash services, a notorious leather factory situated around the area and woodwork workshops are polluting the waters, thereby potentially contaminating vegetables cultivated there, Hailu said. But they are also contributing to the pollution a great deal. The Reporter has learnt that most of the cooperative members use chemical fertilizers for their crops to grow. They have no means to reduce and prevent the discharge of chemical residues into the rivers. Yet, the increasingly high rate of contamination and pollution does seem worrying both to Hailu and the members of the cooperative union. It’s the only means of livelihood they know best, they argue.

There are certain varieties of vegetables that become no longer cultivable as a result of the pollution induced by the toxic discharge. In addition to that, frost and an unexpected rise in temperature have been having an impact on crop yields, they claim. According to Hailu, the city administration has been monitoring their activities and he argues that the crops they cultivate are not that toxic. The recent outbreak of acute watery diarrhea (AWD) that affected some parts of the city was not traced to the riverside farms.

Initiatives by members of the cooperative union to switch to a different economic activity, according to Hailu, have never been taken seriously by the government. Tigistu Gebregziabher, deputy chairperson of the cooperative, said repeated pleas they have made to establish other lines of businesses such as dairy and poultry farms as well as other business activities have never been favorably considered. They say they have asked for a fair and equitable benefits system as those enjoyed by small and micro enterprises. They say they have been denied permission to develop their own plot of land while some liquor factories adjacent to their farms have secured permission to expand, thereby shrinking further their farmlands.

According to Walelign, there is no way the government could take over the farms since some 50,000 to 60,000 people rely on the farms for their livelihood. As part of a project to revive the rivers and riverside, efforts are under way to clean up areas and expand greeneries across the city. With a cost of some 65 million birr, the project office is about to establish seven new parks. In addition to that, a campaign has been launched to cleanse a 5,000km-long land along river banks in Addis Ababa.

In his exclusive interview with The Reporter, Ned Mitenius, a senior expert in the area of food safety, food security and food defense was asked about the negative impacts of growing food on polluted waters.

Ned says that, “there are good agricultural practices that have been established around the world designed to reduce, if not eliminate, the risks of those kinds of contamination of food supply. Your officials are familiar with good agricultural practices”.

But the extent and intensity of pollution of water bodies that play a role in the food supply chain, according to Ned, is “a failure to follow what we know exists. It’s not a lack of understanding at the national level; may be there’s a lack of understanding at a local level. But it illustrates further there is a work to do in terms of good agricultural practices.”

Therefore, until the polluters and the city government agree on a mechanism to curb the contamination of rivers in Addis Ababa, vegans and members of the Orthodox Tewahido Church will continue to consume vegetables which have been potentially exposed to toxic chemicals.

Source: Ethiopian Reporter

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