Timothy Walker, Consultant, Peace Missions Programme, ISS Pretoria Office
At the Maritime & Coastal Security Africa (MCSA) conference held in Cape Town from the 26th to 28th October, presenters frequently alluded to the problems posed by toxic waste pollution and the threat it poses to human security in Africa. What emerges from conferences such as these is the fact that there is a clear and lamentable dearth of knowledge in regards to the dumping, and trade, of hazardous waste in Africa. Despite these tacit acknowledgements the scale and severity of the problem remains largely unknown.
All too often awareness of the problems posed by toxic and hazardous waste is only noted when it literally leaks out and causes death, disease and environmental degradation. Lamentably such incidents are likely to remain marginalised unless they catch the attention of the media, governments, businesses and researchers in the aftermath of a preventable tragedy.
One memorably infamous incident, the Trafigura scandal in 2006, stands out in this regard, in which the Dutch company sought out a country or company prepared to dispose of waste in the tanks and hold of a chartered ship - the Probo Koala. After being turned away from Amsterdam it ended up off the shore of Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire.
Despite local opposition a willing company was found to take the waste, which was subsequently dumped at various sites throughout Abidjan, leading to the deaths of at least 15 people whilst thousands suffered a range of illnesses. However, this incident refers to dumping in places where people are directly afflicted. What is of equal consternation is the dumping of toxic waste that goes unnoticed.
An especially notorious incident, particularly in the contemporary security context in which piracy off the Horn of Africa is of global concern, occurred in the aftermath of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami which washed ashore a number dumped waste containers along the Somali shore. A United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report noted cases of deaths, disorders, diseases and malformed babies in Somalia. The UNEP report also listed substances such as lead, mercury, cadmium and nuclear waste as responsible for the pollution.
Illicit dumping of toxic and hazardous waste off the Somalia coast, which has destroyed many of the fishing grounds of the local population, has been cited as one of the root causes of piracy, as armed fisherman, gangs and groups tried to ward off ships that they identified as polluters of their coastlines and seas. This occurred prior to their resorting to the lucrative seizure of ships, their crews and goods.
This also occurred in an area renowned for the quantity and appeal of its fish. The lack of a functioning state to implement protective environmental legislation as well as the delicate environmental balance further compounded the problem. A significant proportion of the population, in East Africa as well as around the continent, are reliant on fish for daily sustenance as well as livelihoods for millions. Fish are especially susceptible to the effects of pollution - particularly through the bioaccumulation of harmful substances in their flesh, which are then spread throughout food chains - which mostly end at the point of human consumption. The sites at which dumping occurred are likely to have been harmed, perhaps irrevocably, for decades to come. It is a problem that needs to be attended to sooner rather than later, but who is actually responsible and what is being dumped or exported to Africa?
Toxic and hazardous wastes are inevitable by-products of processes involved in resource extraction and manufacturing, in addition to hospital waste and waste produced in the generation of electricity such as nuclear waste. Of growing concern is the harm posed to human and environmental security by the disposal of increasing amounts of e-waste (electronic waste) - mostly discarded or defunct televisions, DVD and video players, radios, computers and phones.
The disposal of e-waste in Africa is often carried out through burning, which releases carcinogens contained within the plastic casings as wells as toxins such as dioxin into the surrounding environment - often large urban areas such as Abidjan or Lagos. If it is not burned the waste is usually buried to rot. In one instance the Basel Action Network (BAN), an NGO established to monitor offences and compel greater safety, noted incidents where discarded e-waste was being used to fill in swampland. Women and children are often employed and most at risk in the hunt for recoverable waste. Once stripped of usable metals through dangerous procedures, there is significant evidence of the leaching of metals such as lead and cadmium into soil and groundwater.
Whilst the threats posed to the environment are relatively clear, the same cannot be said for the legal transfer and disposal of waste around the world. The prevalence of legal waste disposal sites in Africa reveals the fact that it has become an increasingly profitable enterprise. A global political economy of waste management and disposal has been established and Africa has become an important part of these emergent networks. This industry is set to become one of the prominent global economic processes into the future as resources diminish whilst environmental consciousness grows.
Any trade or movement of hazardous waste should be regulated by a regime of laws and conventions, both international and domestic that govern the networks of waste disposal and prohibit harmful practices. The relevant conventions in this regard are the London Convention, which prohibits the dumping at sea of hazardous waste and the Basel Convention, which places restrictions on the trade and trans-boundary movement of toxic and hazardous waste. The Basel Convention disappointed many African legislators who subsequently drafted the Bamako Convention, which bans all exports and movements of toxic waste to the continent. In addition the European Union (EU) places significant constraints upon the disposal of waste, but all too frequently containers of e-waste are offloaded legally but subsequently are shown to be full of illegal waste that becomes toxic during disposal.
A key word used in relation to waste is management, suggesting that it is possible for toxic and hazardous waste to continue to be produced in vast quantities and for it to be safely disposed of in a profitable and developmental fashion. Unfortunately at present the continuation of harmful disposal practices and the increase in the trade of e-waste show it is a far from manageable problem.
Furthermore the problem of e-waste in Africa also exposes a worrying feedback loop in which the extraction of minerals in Africa contributes to conflict and insecurity. These minerals, which are integral to electronic products, are quickly dumped or exported back to Africa once the product becomes obsolete or defunct and their disposal contributes to further environmental degradation and human insecurity.
The export and trade of e-waste has had positive spinoffs such as the Ikeja Computer Village in Lagos which supplies huge amounts of repaired equipment to local markets, generating significant levels of wealth and employment. It would, however, be a serious mistake to remain indifferent to the waste trade - legal and illegal - and the dumping of waste or to presume that the benefits will ultimately outweigh the costs.