By Leila Hall
Thousands of Abidjan residents recently protested in the streets of the Ivory Coast’s capital, with placards pronouncing messages such as “they are killing us for money”. Citizens are understandably angry and concerned as on August 19, 2006, a Netherlands-based company – Trafigura – discharged 500 tonnes of toxic waste around the city. Since then, there have been eight deaths and more than 85,000 residents have complained of health problems – including nausea, breathing problems and nosebleeds. The pungent smells and spreading illnesses in the city eventually led to the violent demonstrations and, in early September, the Prime Minister and his Government resigned, though much of the government was later reinstated. Prime Minister Charles Konan Banny blames severe corruption in the past government for the scandal.
Greenpeace has filed criminal complaints in Amsterdam against Trafigura, Amsterdam Port Services. Dutch environmental authorities, the city of Amsterdam and the Dutch Parliament have also opened inquiries. Six Ivorians and two of Trafigura’s officials have been jailed so far. However, a press release by the company claims that that it followed all international safety standards and the material disposed could not be defined as toxic by international health standards.
The incident in Ivory Coast has brought the issue of waste dumping to the forefront of environmental debates in Africa. Ivory Coast is not the only African country to have experienced toxic waste dumping. In December 2004, the tsunami that hit South-East Asia also unearthed massive quantities of toxic waste that had been illegally buried in the Indian Ocean, largely by European corporations. People on the northern coast of Somalia became affected with illnesses, including acute infections of the respiratory apparatus, mouth-bleedings and abdominal haemorrhages, all of which were immediately linked with the sudden emergence of the toxic wastes. Allegedly, unofficial Somalian authorities received large sums of money in exchange for the authorisation to dispose of the toxic waste.
In theory, toxic waste dumping is illegal and should not be happening. The Basel Convention on the Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal and various offshoot treaties were drawn to prevent it. However, there are sections of the Basel convention that remain un-ratified by countries, particularly the U.S and Australia, who prefer to dispose of their waste abroad – as this is much cheaper and easier than a clean disposal at home. Toxic waste dumping has been described as the underbelly of globalisation – a continued exploitation of developing countries by Western multi-national corporations. Corruption, lack of political will and the opportunities for money that toxic waste dumping provides to poorer countries remain severe obstacles to be overcome before such incidents are rendered unthinkable.
On a smaller scale, there were reports earlier this year of Grahamstown’s hazardous rubbish dumping, when residents in areas such as Fingo Village, Schotfarm Village and Robertson Street complained about the proximity of rubbish dumps to their homes. The stench of the rubbish, the invasion of mosquitoes and green flies in homes and the health risks posed were at the forefront of the residents’ concerns. Complaints were also laid on the dumping of medical waste such as prescription pills and used sanitary pads in Wood Street on a site often used as a play ground for local children. The municipality, however, has been very slow in responding to these concerns and dumping in residential areas in Grahamstown remains a serious problem.
Larissa Klazinga, the TAC Secretary at Rhodes, commented that rubbish is dumped “throughout Joza, Egazini & Rini as a last resort by communities that receive little or no municipal service”. Klazinga also remarked that hazardous rubbish dumping in townships throughout South Africa is mainly a result of people having been “under-served for decades and a continual lack of service delivery” in these areas. Though the municipality had been contacted on the allegations of inadequate service delivery, they refused to comment at this stage.