The City of Windhoek’s bulk and waste water management division came under fire this week after Informanté discovered that most underground freshwater supply pipes in the capital are made from asbestos, a deadly material known for causing cancer.
Almost all residents in the capital and a quarter of the Namibian population could be at risk of contracting various forms of cancer through the pipes that deliver drinking water to their households. Already one single microscopic asbestos fiber can cause cancer.
According to Wikipedia and other sources, asbestos is a set of six naturally silicate minerals used commercially for their desirable physical properties. The inhalation of asbestos fibers can cause serious illnesses, including malignant lung cancer, mesothelioma, a formerly rare cancer strongly associated with exposure to amphibole asbestos, and asbestosis, a type of pneumoconiosis. The European Union has enforced bans on the use of most forms of asbestos since 2008.
Only six African countries - Algeria, Egypt, Gabon, Mozambique, Seychelles and South Africa - have banned the usage of asbestos in such forms.
Namibia has not yet passed a law forbidding the use of asbestos. According to Fred Brinkmann of the City of Windhoek’s bulk and waste water department, the use of asbestos is not recommended because of the health hazards associated with it.
“All the asbestos water pipes currently in usage in the capital have been there for more than 20 years. In case of a pipe burst we exchange asbestos water pipes with plastic pipes. The process will take a long time to complete and, so far, we are busy rehabilitating most pipes in the suburbs with the exception of Katutura and Khomasdal which have already been rehabilitated,” says Brinkmann.
Cecil Khoeseb from the capital’s water interruption division confirmed that the asbestos freshwater pipes are only being replaced step by step with unplasticised polyvinyl chloride (UPVC) ones that do not pose any health risk.
A local water expert who spoke to Informanté on condition of anonymity said Namibia has no clear guidelines on the usage of asbestos but at the same time disagreed with the perception that asbestos water pipes would pose a significant risk to human life.
“Never in Namibia did I attend a meeting where the dangers of asbestos pipes were discussed. Those pipes have a strong protective layer that is not easily damaged. I therefore don’t see the need to panic,” says the expert.
However, with hundreds of kilometers of asbestos pipes still in the underground and only replaced in the case of damage, the question remains as to how long it may take until the country’s asbestos network is rehabilitated. It took almost 20 years to accordingly replace the cancerous pipes in the capital’s suburbs of Katutura and Khomasdal alone. The area of Windhoek, for example, measures an estimated 30 square kilometers. The number or length of asbestos pipes snaking through Namibia could not be reliably established.
Both Brinkmann and Khoeseb could not provide a definite answer on the anticipated time frame but pointed out that the replacement of the potentially cancerous water supply network is one of their priorities.