At the Maritime and Coastal Security Africa conference in Cape Town from October 26-28, 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. Here, 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, Ivory Coast. 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 while 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 that washed ashore a number of 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 needing urgent attention 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 well as toxins such as dioxin into the surrounding environment – often in large urban areas such as Abidjan or Lagos. Alternatively, the waste is usually buried to rot.
While 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. 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.
Timothy Walker is a consultant for the Peace Missions Programme, ISS Pretoria Office