The proliferation of used cars in Harare is a ticking environmental time bomb. Dollarisation brought about some financial stability in many households, enabling the purchase of vehicles which were previously out of reach. While making Harare more mobile, the problem is that used cars cause much higher air pollution than new cars. They have older, less efficient engines with dated technology manufactured under less strict industry standards. The exponential increase of cars on the city’s streets has caused carbon dioxide emissions to rise. Not only do these cars emit higher amounts of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that causes climate change, but they also emit higher amounts of noxious gases like carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. The majority of these are used cars imported from Japan. They include private vehicles, taxis, commuter omnibuses, haulage trucks and buses.
These used cars are much less fuel efficient, making them more expensive to run for the driver. In addition, their high mileage and outdated technology makes them very susceptible to breakdown. Re-placement parts can be hard to find. This has led to many used imported cars sitting idle in Harare’s backyards because the new owners could not find or afford replacement parts. An unfortunate story of false economy.
Thousands of cars are being disposed of every year in Harare, very few through the proper channels, which would ensure all recyclable materials are reclaimed and pollutants are safely disposed. The old-est of the used cars imported from Japan are reaching the end of their lifecycle. In the coming years the number of cars needing to be discarded will rise.
Disposing of the associated metal, rubber and waste fluids is a huge environmental issue. There are currently no proper treatment facilities in Harare that have the equipment required to recycle what can be recovered and safely dispose of the many pollutants associated with motor vehicles. Most vehicles end up in driveways or in scrap yards, leaching heavy metals and toxins into the ground, or they rust by the side of the road where they have been illegally abandoned. At the same time, tonnes of oil and brake fluid are poured down drains in a city that depends on recycling its own water. One scrapyard owner said he buys accident-damaged and broken down vehicles to salvage the valuable parts, after which he piles the remains in his scrap yard and leaves them to rot.
On a more ominous side, there have been reports of vehicles that were contaminated by radioactive fallout from the Fukushima nuclear disaster that occurred in Japan in 2011, being exported to Africa. African policy specialist and journalist, Chika Ezeanya, reported from Nigeria: “Cars having up to twenty times the permissible level of radiation have found their way to African countries where several governments are clueless or unconcerned about such health risks.” There is no inspection for contamination at Zimbabwe’s borders and this leaves the general populace at the risk of contracting different forms of cancer from the exposure to radiation.
In 2010, the Zimbabwean government banned the importation of vehicles older than five years because they were polluting the environment. However this ban was revoked a year later, due to pressure from the car dealers who wanted to stay in business and people who could not afford newer models. “Japanese used vehicles are a blessing to us. Ten years ago I never dreamt that I would one day own a fleet of commuter omnibuses,”, says one transport operator.
The government faces a dilemma as it has to choose between allowing some of its citizens who would never have been able to own cars to do so and its constitutional obligation to ensure its citizens’ rights to a safe environment.
A ZIMRA official who preferred anonymity said, “It makes no economic sense to ban used cars as they provide much needed revenue for the government and many Zimbabweans can only afford used cars.”
Minister of Environment, Francis Nhema however disagrees, “The majority of these cars have been banned on the roads in their countries of origin. They are being dumped in Zimbabwe and it is up to us to aggressively stand up against exploitation. We have a duty to save lives, protect ourselves and the environment.”