New chance to defuse Africa's toxic time-bomb

Posted: 17 October 2002

A toxic 'time bomb' is ticking in Africa and other developing regions, in the form of alarming large stocks of deadly obsolete pesticides, often stored in deteriorating containers. Now the United Nations has pledged $25 million to start the clean up in Africa.

A United Nations study, published in 2001, found that stocks of deadly, obsolete pesticides are five times larger than previous estimates and constitute a toxic "ticking time bomb" in Africa and other developing regions.

Now, the UN Global Environment Facility (GEF) has agreed to give phase one of the African Stockpiles Programme $25 million to start cleaning up some 100,000 tonnes of obsolete pesticide waste stockpiled throughout Africa.

The money was pledged by the GEF Council meeting in Beijing, in October 2002, on the understanding that another $35 million would come from co-financing sources, including government aid agencies, and that participating countries will ratify the global Stockholm persistent organic pollutants (POPs) convention.

Initiated by WWF and the Pesticide Action Network in late 2000, the African Stockpiles Programme is a 'multi-stakeholder' initiative that is expected to take 12-15 years to complete. The first phase, from 2003 to 2006, will involve about 15 countries.

Alarming figures

The alarming figures, released by the UN in May 2001, put the amount of prohibited and outdated pesticides at 100,000 tonnes in Africa and the Middle East, 200,000 tonnes in Asia and 200,000 tonnes in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union -- often stored in deteriorating and leaky containers without adequate safeguards for people and the environment.

According to FAO estimates, stocks of more than 48,000 tonnes of such pesticides have been identified so far in Africa, although the total is likely to climb as more survey data becomes available.

The stocks include some of the most poisonous compounds ever made, including dieldrin, DDT and chlordane. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that more than 1 million people are affected by exposure to pesticides worldwide, causing 20,000 deaths annually.

Forgotten stocks

"The lethal legacy of obsolete pesticides is alarming, and urgent action is needed to clean up waste dumps," noted Mr. Alemayehu Wodageneh, an FAO specialist. "These 'forgotten stocks' are not only a hazard to people's health, they also contaminate water and soil. Leaking pesticides can poison a very large area, making it unfit for crop production."

The problem is particularly severe in sub-Saharan Africa, where farmers and government regulators often lack the financial resources and technical capacity to handle pesticides safely and screen out substandard, banned and contaminated compounds. The FAO and WHO estimate that as much as 30 per cent of pesticides sold annually in developing countries - worth $900 million in the year 2000 - fail to meet international standards and are often mislabelled or entirely unmarked.

The scope of the problem is dramatically illustrated in Ethiopia, where some 3,400 tonnes of obsolete pesticides, much of it over 20 years old, is stored in 1,000 sites throughout the country. One of the largest dumps is in the centre of Addis Ababa, the capital, and contains over 30 tonnes of obsolete pesticides in leaking barrels near 40 grain silos.

In the western Ethiopian village of Arjo, FAO researchers found over five tonnes of DDT and malathion in a collapsing barn in the middle of the community - just yards from homes and pastures. Residents had long complained of nausea, respiratory ailments and headaches, and report a strong stench from the unprotected site. The Ethiopian government and the FAO, with funding from the Dutch, Swedish and US governments, began a clean-up effort in 2001, intended to destroy 1,500 tonnes of the pesticides - the largest decontamination effort under way in Africa.

Disposal difficulty

But with the cost of disposal of Africa's obsolete pesticide stocks estimated at $250 million, clean-up efforts have been slow. A preliminary FAO inventory of toxic sites in 39 African countries found that of 48,081 tonnes of chemicals reported, just 2,838 tonnes had been destroyed. Without high-temperature incinerators, African pesticides must be shipped to Europe, a costly and hazardous process that has hampered disposal efforts.

Greater involvement by the pesticide industry, which is dominated by a handful of US, European and Japanese companies, said Mr. Wodageneh, is indispensable. "Support from industry is crucial for the disposal of pesticides because aid agencies of donor governments cannot cover all the costs." The industry is committed to assist in the incineration of obsolete and unstable compounds, he noted, but so far has contributed little.

In the meantime, UN agencies are working with many African governments, including Nigeria, Uganda, Senegal and Ethiopia, to develop national action plans for the handling and disposal of pesticides, and to encourage adoption of environmentally-friendly alternatives to chemical pest control.

In May 2001, 122 countries adopted the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, banning 12 of the most dangerous compounds. The Global Environment Facility, managed by the World Bank, UNEP and the UN Development Programme, is charged with financing implementation of the convention.

Source: WWF press release 16 October 2002 and Third World Features Network, August 2001. This drew upon an article first appeared in Africa Recovery, published by the Library and Information Sources Division of the United Nations Department of Public Information.