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Time to clean up the chemicals in Africa

WWF Global Toxics Programme Director Clifton Curtis writes on a strategic approach to chemical management, particulary managing chemical stockpiles in Africa.

By Clifton Curtis

If you are already worried about global warming, melting glaciers and rising sea temperatures as some of our planet’s most serious threats, there’s more. While largely out of sight and mind of most peoples’ daily lives, there is another threat that is silently fouling our air, food, water, soil, and overall health: toxic chemicals.

Just as it is the richest countries in the world which have caused a disproportionate amount of greenhouse gas emissions, the same can be said about the manufacturing and dumping of chemicals. Sadly, it is the poorer countries, especially in Africa, that are paying the price.

Modern society has developed an extensive array of synthetic chemicals over the last several decades — chemicals to control disease, improve public health, increase food production, and provide more convenience to our already busy lives. Ironically, many of these well-intentioned chemicals are now wreaking havoc around the world.

Humans, wildlife and entire ecosystems are threatened by chemicals that can alter sexual and neurological development, impair reproduction and undermine immune systems. Today, there is unequivocal evidence that a number of widely distributed synthetic chemicals — including PCBs as well as other industrial chemicals and pesticides — have already caused serious damage to our health and pose an ongoing danger, especially when they are discarded and mismanaged.

In Africa, more than 50,000 tonnes of obsolete pesticides and seriously contaminated soils have accumulated throughout the continent over the last four decades, with less than 5% of the stockpiles being disposed of. These dangerous chemicals are a serious threat to the health of both rural and urban populations — often the poorest and most vulnerable — and significantly contribute to land and water degradation.

Because many African and other developing countries suffer from weak import controls, lack of training on appropriate pesticide use, a lack of safe destruction technologies, and poor storage and stock management, the situation is only getting worse.

Removal of old chemicals is rarely perceived as a priority development issue. In fact, both international donor agencies and recipient countries alike are often reluctant to divert funds already allocated to poverty reduction, food security or other aspects of sustainable development to the issue of waste disposal. That’s a shame as the linkage between waste, health impacts and poverty issues couldn’t be more obvious.

Some are already responding to the need to protect African communities and the environment from the never-ending build-up of hazardous pesticide stockpiles. A unique partnership between governments, the private sector, institutions such as the World Bank, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, African Union, CropLife, and environmental organizations like WWF, are working with national governments and their local communities to clean up obsolete pesticide stocks and help prevent future accumulations.

By reducing and removing long-standing toxic threats, this African stockpiles programme is promoting public health and environmental management and safety, and in effect, contributing to poverty reduction — a goal that is at the top of the international community’s development agenda.

However, even with all the numerous international agreements that are addressing hazardous chemicals — agreements that cover how chemicals are traded and transported, and how they can be reduced and substituted with safe alternatives — what continues to be missing is an overarching strategic approach to international chemicals management.

As delegates gather at an international conference on chemicals management in Dubai this week (4-6 February 2006) to finalize a new strategic approach agreement, they need to commit to strengthening national, regional and international laws and programmes to reduce or eliminate stockpiled chemicals that continue to pose the most serious health threats to humans and wildlife.

Although this agreement is to be voluntary — rather than a legally binding instrument — it is widely seen as a moral and political necessity, in line with the UN’s goal of minimizing chemical-related harm to the environment and human health by 2020. While most governments have endorsed the strategic approach, a few have expressed reservations about committing to chemical management reform, opposing new or innovative initiatives, as well as references to the need for new and additional financial and technical assistance. Regrettably, these countries, for the most part, are the same ones that are equally reluctant to agree on targets and timetables for reducing gas emissions in another international agreement on climate change.

International chemical safety requires cooperation among all stakeholders. By adopting and implementing a strategic approach to international management of chemicals, the international community will be doing an enormous service to developing countries in strengthening their capacity for the sound management of chemicals and hazardous wastes and improving the quality of life of its citizens.

* Clifton Curtis is director of WWF's Global Toxics Programme