Monday, October 09, 2006

Africa - Toxic Waste Dump for The West?

"Cash for crops" is a familiar phrase, meaning that the developing ("southern") world grows cheap food for the developed nations in the north, in exchange for cash. The issue is complex but it attunes the already precarious position of the former, and may hamper any real development as such, in the sense of drawing developing communities away from their roots and making them dependent on the dollar or the euro, eroding the foundations of a sustainable society. Once the foreign money is gone, what is there left? "Toxic waste" for cash is seldom drawn as a parallel, but that crop too seems well entrenched, albeit in more disguised form. The bones of the situation were washed bare by the 2004 "boxing day" tsunami. It is amazing that anyone living on the coast of Africa, specifically that of Somalia, 4,000 miles distant from Sumatra - close to the epicentre of the earthquake that triggered the huge wave, which killed almost 300,000 people - could also be affected by it. However, 300 people were killed outright in Somalia too.
The force of the wave was sufficient to lift a baby (300 kg) hippopotamus out of a river, and place him at a nature reserve where he made friends with a 120 year old giant tortoise, thinking it was his mother. On a far less amusing note it has now transpired that a number of sealed drums were broken open by its strike, containing radioactive waste, and other poisons such as lead, cadmium, mercury, flame retardants (e.g. PCB's - "polychlorinated biphenyls" and PBB's - "polybrominated biophenyls", both of which are linked to birth defects in animals and humans), along with a cocktail of other detritus from European industries and miscellaneous hospital waste. The United Nations has admitted that an unknown number of people died from breathing in air contaminated by toxic dust and fumes. There have been cancer "clusters" observed too, which are in all probability connected with this particular christmas gift from us, supplied by the tsunami, not Santa Claus.
There have long been rumours that certain western countries, notably Switzerland and Italy, had used the chaos in Somalia as a smokescreen behind which to make deals with local warlords to let them dump toxic waste there. Almost certainly, some of this money (running to millions of pounds) will have been used to pay for the Somali war: a sure incentive to turn blind eyes to environmental enforcement laws, and a real double-whammy on an already wounded population, now living with both legacies of war and pollution. According to the French environmental group "Robin des Bois (I make that: "Robin of the woods"; a reference to "Robin Hood"?) while it costs anywhere up to 500 euros ($600?) to dispose of a cubic metre of hazardous waste in Europe, in Africa it is anywhere up to 15 times cheaper ($40, say) becuase there is usually no treatment prior to disposal and no long term "depository" arrangements: i.e. it is just dumped somewhere or at most, buried in some perfunctory fashion.
"Garbage Cowboys", a term coined for unscrupulous traders who gather their ships in the straits off Gibralter to transfer poisonous cargos from other vessels and "fly-tip" them in third world countries. Most notorious is the Probo Koala which dumped its cargo of toxic black sludge (530 tonnes of oil residues and caustic soda) in the Ivory Coast capital, Abidjan, having been turned away from Amsterdam and several other African ports. The sludge was slurried over waste ground and poured into the sea and freshwater lagoons where it caused at least eight deaths, and 80,000 people were forced to seek medical aid for breathing problems, nosebleeds, diarrhoea and eye-irritation - all well recognised symptoms of exposure to certain toxic chemicals.
The situation is becoming commonplace. Much of Europe's toxic waste, including that from computers and cell-phones, allegedly taken for "recycling" is simply dumped or burnt on landfill sites, mostly in Africa. Around 500 containers (that's the big ones that you see being loaded on and off ships) arrive in Nigeria each month via the port of Lagos. According to Andreas Bernstoff, a German toxicology expert and former international activist for Greenpeace, who has identified more than 80 African sites where European toxic waste is being dumped, this will create health timebombs, where first world disaeses such as cancer will occur as epidemics in third world countries. In effect, we are poisoning the poor for profit.
On a final note, the Dutch had a problem with dumping pig manure in view of its high copper content, arising from feed containing copper compounds which increase the water content and hence the weight of piggy-products such as bacon and pork chops, when packaged and sold in supermarkets. When environmentalists objected to the material being dumped in the country's marshland, the government immediately struck a deal with Saudi Arabia to bury it in the desert. However, when the Muslim Saudis realised that the waste was principally pig-droppings they cancelled the contract. What is done with it now I have no idea, but I'm sure it has found another home elsewhere in this well-tramelled world of globalisation.