Africa must tell the rest of the world that we are not their dumping ground

In 2006, residents of Abidjan, the Ivorian capital, knew something was wrong when they started to smell a strong odour. Unbeknown to them, a shipping firm had just dumped more than 500 tonnes of toxic waste at locations around the city. Within hours, people near the sites found it difficult to breathe. Others developed skin irritations. In the weeks that followed, more than 100 000 people sought medical assistance. At least 15 people died.

This is not an isolated incident – examples of hazardous waste dumping have existed across the continent for decades, from the thousands of containers of toxic waste dumped in the town of Koko in Nigeria in the 1980s, to Lagos’s Olusosun landfill and Ghana’s Agbogbloshie e-waste dump site. 

Globally, nearly 180-million tonnes of hazardous and household waste are generated around the world every year. At least 9.3-million tonnes of waste move from country to country each year. Africa is one of the continents worst affected by illegal dumping, targeted by countries and companies looking for cheap and easy ways to dispose of their waste.

In the same way that global warming hits those most vulnerable and least responsible for the crisis the hardest, the hazardous waste shipped from wealthier countries and dumped illegally on the African continent is damaging the health of some of the poorest people on Earth.

Unless we stop the export of hazardous waste to Africa, we stand little chance of fulfilling the United Nations’ sustainable development goals. If we want to halt global warming, for example, then we need to end the open burning of waste. If we want to clean up our oceans, alleviate poverty, increase food security and provide decent jobs for all, then we will need to overhaul the way we manage our waste.

Major efforts are already under way to make this happen. The African Union has set an ambitious target that African cities will recycle at least 50% of the waste they generate by 2023. African countries know that by investing in managing hazardous waste appropriately, they are also investing in human health, farming, food security and biodiversity. 

This month, African ministers from across the continent meet in Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo, for the third conference of the parties to the Bamako Convention. This treaty’s primary objective is to prevent the transboundary movement of hazardous waste and chemicals into Africa. The treaty, which is vital for the health of the continent and its people, has been ratified by 29 African countries.

That so many countries came  together for the conference highlights the promising growth in regional collaboration. The discussions under way to establish regional electronic waste and lead-battery-recycling centres across Africa are exciting. I am also encouraged by the growing collaboration between the Bamako Convention and the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal. It is clear that concrete progress is being made across the continent to tackle the issue of waste management.  

Yet more can be done. We need more countries to ratify the Bamako Convention, and we need to use the Brazzaville meeting to review and strengthen the list of prohibited chemicals, drum up support for co-ordinated action and garner the financial support necessary to turn decisions into concrete actions. And, crucially, we need to establish and strengthen monitoring mechanisms and regulatory frameworks.

Without political will and without governments taking ownership of the treaty, the Bamako Convention will fail to curb hazardous waste dumping on the continent. The consequences for the health of the continent, its people and the planet would be grave.

This meeting is Africa’s opportunity to send a strong message to the rest of the world that we are not their dumping ground. This will mean enshrining international agreements in domestic law and then ensuring the implementation of those agreements. It will mean encouraging companies to innovate and to invest in lucrative waste-management ventures. And it will mean working in unison with other countries and other conventions that deal with hazardous waste.  

Inger Andersen is the executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme

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