The Sunday Mail
CRIMINAL GANGS have a new-found appetite for cast iron and are wreaking havoc around the country.
In some cases, they have become so brazen that they are preying on manhole covers and sewer grates.
Investigations by The Sunday Mail Society revealed that the most affected areas are Harare, Chitungwiza, Mutare and Masvingo, which have lost more than 1 000 covers in the past three months.
Local authorities are having to spend a fortune to replace them.
There have been cases of people falling into uncovered manholes and vehicles being damaged by gaping holes left by the criminals.
Similarly, open sewage systems have largely been blamed for water-borne disease outbreaks such as cholera and typhoid, particularly in high-density suburbs.
Michael Zaranyika of Sunningdale fractured his leg in August after falling into an uncovered hole.
“For six weeks, I had to stay at home on crutches, nursing my broken leg after falling into an uncovered drainage hole. This cost me dearly as I am the breadwinner and are self-employed. My family was starving, while, on the other hand, I had hospital bills to take care of,” he said.
There are many such cases around the country.
Naturally, the Government is concerned.
“The wave of crime has spread countrywide, with latest figures hitting a high in the past decade. It has left communities exposed to health hazards and serious risks. We are shocked by what is happening and this has left us in a fix,” said Local Government and Public Works Deputy Minister Marian Chombo.
“We are now being forced to divert funds set aside for other developmental projects to replace the stolen covers. Citizens have to be protected against the hazards associated with uncovered drains.”
The value of the stolen public property could not be immediately ascertained by the time of going to print.
It is, however, believed that millions have been lost through replacements.
The cost of a new single cover is anything between US$12 and $100 depending on size and weight.
It can weigh up to 140kg.
Local scrap metal dealers are paying at least US$80 per tonne for stolen products that are delivered broken while solid covers fetch more than US$100 for the same quantity.
Stolen lids are illegally exported to South Africa or resold to reputable buyers at a higher price.
Others use the material to make pots, plumbing pipes, among other products.
Chitungwiza Municipality spokesperson Mr Lovemore Meya argues that shared responsibility between authorities and communities could help solve the problem.
“Vandalism and theft of infrastructure has forced local authorities to prioritise replacements in key areas, straining our coffers and on the other hand disturbing service delivery. Residents need to guard jealously these properties because the replacement exercise is costly and affects a lot of other programmes,” he said.
The criminals have perfected the art of stealing the cast iron covers without getting caught.
Usually, they target spots that do not have much human traffic. While it used to be a nocturnal undertaking, daring criminals are now pouncing during the day by disguising themselves as council workers.
“Communities must assist authorities by giving information on known culprits. We have a team that is investigating this matter, but we need the community to play a role. They must help us so that we are also able to help them,” said Harare City Council spokesperson Mr Michael Chideme.
City of Harare, he added, is currently working on replacing some of the stolen covers.
Masvingo Municipality spokesperson Ms Ashleigh Jinjika said it has decided to reward those who provide the local authority valuable and viable tip-offs that helps to apprehend the culprits.
Eight suspects have so far been arrested.
“This year we have recorded an incredibly dangerous and draining act of vandalism which has cost us a lot of resources, time and finances at a time when our budget is already stretched,” Ms Jinjika said.
“We are aware some of the lids are being sold to scrap metal dealers and we have used the carrot-and-stick approach to avert thefts and vandalism cases.”
Local authorities are, however, trying to minimise thefts through strategies such as putting locks on manhole covers and roping in scrap metal dealers to ensure they do not buy stolen material.
Composite manhole covers that do not have a ready market have been adopted.
In 2015, the Johannesburg Roads Agency in South Africa introduced non-metal manhole covers and drainage grates to replace metal ones that were being stolen regularly.
The alternative manhole covers have no monetary value and are made of materials like ductile iron, plastic, fibreglass and polymer.
Also, the materials weigh about three-quarters less than the cast iron manhole covers.
Back home, Mutare City Council spokesperson Mr Spren Mutiwi said they are in the process of replacing the stolen cast iron manhole covers with concrete lids.
“There are slim chances that these will be stolen. But, the concrete lids are also heavy yet fragile, hence not user-friendly. The rising number of cases of theft has left us with no choice,” said Mr Mutiwi.
“The most disturbing thing is we do not know the actual number of covers that have been stolen. Some of these manhole lids are in secluded areas, hence there is need for a proper assessment.”
Mutare City Council has created an awareness campaign on the dangers of stealing the covers and drainage grates.
“This causes increased cases of blockages, dangers to human life and outbreaks associated with release of toxic gases. What is more disturbing is the fact that the same people who are stealing the lids and selling them as scrap metals are the same people who will be affected. Communities should develop a sense of belonging and ownership and safeguard their property.”
Purporting to be selling cast iron manhole covers, The Sunday Mail Society last week contacted Shorai Muchero, a known scrap metal dealer who is based in Hatfield, Harare.
She was initially hesitant, but greed eventually got the better of her.
“For intact lids, I pay US$95 and US$85 for broken pieces per tonne. However, you do not deliver the product to me. I have my guys who move around doing collections usually at night,” she said.
She even requested that we send her pictures of the product so that she “can choose the right truck” for the job.
Phillip, popularly known as Fidza Masimbi in Mbare, blew caution to the wind and was so eager to seal the deal.
“That is a good deal you have there. You can come to my workplace. I have capacity to take up to 50 tonnes of the product and I pay cash,” he said.