/ 3 March 2022

‘South Africa must learn from its environmental disasters’

Safrica Unrest Environment Pollution
A member of a spill cleaning crew removes dead fish from the river in the uMhlanga Lagoon Nature Reserve in Durban on July 18, 2021. - South African authorities said on July 17, 2021, they were investigating possible pollution suspected to be linked to a spill at a chemical plant attacked during last week's riots after dead fish washed ashore. The spill was identified on July 15, after an agrochemical warehouse near the eastern port city of Durban storing chemicals used for making herbicides, pesticides and fungicides was set ablaze. African authorities are investigating possible pollution suspected to be linked to a spill at a chemical plant attacked during recent riots in area. The agrochemical warehouse which stores chemicals used for making herbicides, pesticides and fungicides was set ablaze during the unrest that started last week. (GUILLEM SARTORIO / AFP)

When Professor Rajen Naidoo did a Google search for recent environmental disasters in South Africa, the single incident he found was the 1994 Merriespruit mining disaster in the Free State. A tailings dam collapsed, gushing 600 000 cubic metres of toxic fluid into the town, killing 17 people and destroying 80 houses.

“We know that there’s been a string of environmental disasters … but because it’s not as catastrophic in that people die, it’s very poorly documented,” said Naidoo, the head of the department of occupational and environmental health at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. 

“Ourselves, as public health practitioners, government and others don’t really learn from the experiences and understand what the challenges in each instance are. So, it’s a situation where we go on to recycle all our challenges each time an episode occurs.”

He was addressing a recent webinar for the University of Cape Town’s school of public health and family medicine on South Africa’s Environmental Health Legal Framework — Who’s Protected? The UPL warehouse fire as a Case Study.

South Africa has a strong legal framework for environmental health, enshrined in the Constitution and the National Environmental Management Act, which cascades to municipal by-laws. But, says Naidoo, this framework is “fragmented” and “continuously undermined” by the government and its regulatory agencies.

“We have pervasive unscrupulous business practices. It’s not as if companies are doing business openly, transparently and focusing on protecting the health of communities.”

During the riots in July last year, the pesticide and agrochemical warehouse belonging to the multinational UPL in Cornubia, north of Durban, was set ablaze, unleashing a catastrophic chemical spill and fire that caused extensive air, water and soil contamination. 

The amount of waste disposed of included 18 232 626kg of contaminated solids, 58 658 420 litres of liquids and 3 900kg of dead fish. More than 700 chemicals were stored in the warehouse, including substances banned in both the European Union and the United States, said Naidoo.

The department of forestry, fisheries and the environment said UPL did not have the requisite environmental authorisation and the critical risk assessment and planning permissions it needed to operate.

“The question is how was this not small operation able to conduct its business right in the heart of Durban in complete breach of all these laws without any attention by any regulatory agency?” asked Naidoo. “Clearly, although we have very good frameworks around environmental health, because the legislative framework is so fragmented, things tend to fall through the cracks.”

The focus on the health effects of exposed residential areas “was poorly coordinated, if at all”, and any form of enquiry into the health effects “only began much later, long after the peak exposures,” he said. 

In the past four to five years, there have been several major pollution incidents in South Durban alone. “And in each one, the company basically washes its hands in protecting the health of communities. If people experience health outcomes, then it becomes the responsibility of the individual to prove this was related to exposure.” 

Companies, too, have large resources at their disposal, employing technical experts who are able to defend their position. And, although the law enshrines the “polluter pays” principle, it provides no financial mechanisms, particularly for health assessments, screening or surveillance services. “Local government hands service provision responsibility over to the polluter,” said Naidoo. 

He added that the polluter controls these services under internal non-disclosure agreements with “no oversight” over the scientific basis of assessments, service provision and the rights of people accessing services and no long-term commitment for chronic health outcomes, delayed health outcomes or transgenerational outcomes.

South Africa needs to consider an independent environmental authority, which is “able to respond immediately and urgently to a disaster and takes control of environmental management as well as health provision”, said Naidoo.

In February, a report by Airshed Planning Professionals, commissioned by UPL, showed that residents across Durban North were exposed to at least 62 toxic chemicals present in the smoke. UPL spokesperson Japhet Ncube, who said the firm has spent R300-million on mitigating the chemical spill, said the report models the worst outcome to identify which people may have been worst affected “which will inform an epidemiological study”. It appeared from testing that “there are very few, if any, chronic health impacts attributable to either the fire or the waterborne chemical spill”.