'Africa is the world's septic tank'

Christophe Parayre, Business in Africa Online, September 26, 2006
Dakar – “We talk of globalisation, of the global village, but here in Africa, we are under the impression of being that village’s septic tank,” said Senegalese ecologist Haidar al-Ali.
A series of pollution scandals, ranging from the discharge of toxic waste in Ivory Coast to radioactive tanks in Somalia, show that Africa’s poverty, corruption, and non-existent or malfunctioning democracies make it the world’s preferred dumping ground.
According to the French environment protection group, Robin des Bois, the waste sent to Africa – such as old tyres, cars and broken computers containing toxic parts – was “very difficult, if not impossible, to recycle.”
“To Asia goes everything that can be salvaged and that is of high added value, such as copper wire and metal scraps,” said the group’s director Charlotte Nithart.
In Abidjan, Ivory Coast’s economic capital, seven people died, 24 were hospitalised and there were 37 000 calls for medical help after an Ivorian firm, Tommy, dumped toxic waste at 11 public sites across the city in August.
The company had been hired to properly dispose of 500 tonnes of a highly-toxic mixture of oil residue and caustic soda used to rinse out a Greek-owned ship’s tanks.
In the last days of 2004, the tsunami started by an earthquake in Asia hit the coast of Somalia where it damaged toxic water containers on the northern coast of this country, plunged into anarchy by 15 years of civil war.
Health problems were reported by the local population including “acute respiratory infections, dry heavy coughing and mouth bleeding, abdominal haemorrhages, unusual skin chemical reactions, and sudden death after inhaling toxic materials,” according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
Starting from the early 1980s and continuing into the civil war, the hazardous waste dumped along Somalia’s coast includes radioactive uranium waste, lead, cadmium, mercury, industrial, hospital, chemical, leather treatment and other toxic waste, UNEP wrote in a country report.
In 1996, the European parliament officially asked the governments of the United Kingdom, Italy and Spain to repatriate toxic waste exported to South Africa by Thor Chemicals Ltd.
The parliament noted that hundreds of tonnes of toxic mercury waste had caused damage to the environment and caused severe health problems amongst local people.
In the West African nation of Cameroon, about 5 600l of chlorine were dumped in 2005 in a village near Douala, the economic capital. Authorities tried to dilute the chlorine at sea, but the operation turned disastrous when the mixture exploded, killing a soldier and injuring about 10 people.
Africa was a favourite place to ‘treat’ or simply dump hazardous waste because treating such waste in industrialised countries was very expensive.
Robin des Bois said it costs between €300 to €500 to treat a cubic metre of hazardous waste. In Africa it was six to 15 times cheaper because there was no real treatment and no proper storage.
The Basel Convention, set up in 1989 to prevent dumping of toxic waste in countries without proper facilities for handling it, has helped regulate the flow.
But illegal traffic in toxic waste continues, Robin des Bois’s Nithart said, “because businessmen try to get around the regulations in order to save money”.
For the Senegalese ecologist “the waste is often accepted by corrupt people or factions who want money to buy weapons”.
To really put an end to this traffic, the affected countries “need sentries, people willing to get involved in protecting our environment,” he added. Nithart said lack of controls in Africa were part of the problem.
“If, in African ports, there were stricter controls to check that these wastes did not arrive, if the loops were closed in the health and environmental controls, then the Probo Koala (the Greek ship in the Ivory Coast) would not have arrived in Abidjan.”
But she also put the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of European authorities.
“A European country like the Netherlands, with an infrastructure, a port authority, specialists in waste disposal, customs and everything else, still let the Probo Koala go,” she said.
“It’s not when hazardous waste arrives that Europeans should try and control it, but when it leaves,” Nithart said.

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