As the world’s environment ministers gather in Nairobi, one of the planet’s largest dumpsites on the outskirts of the city shows just how bad the waste problem can get.
World leaders gather this week at the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi, the world’s highest-level decision-making body on the environment, to address the environmental and social consequences of pollution.
Meanwhile, just 8 km from their shiny offices, it is just another day for the hordes of locals making their way to the Dandora dumpsite, known as one of the world’s largest and most harmful dumpsites.
The site opened in 1975 with financial support from the World Bank, and was deemed full by 2001 yet it continued to operate amid concerns for the health of local people. It is estimated that the related pollution affects almost a million people living in the surrounding areas.
People travel from nearby villages in the hope of making a living from scavenging tonnes of industrial and domestic waste that they can then sell to recyclers. But among food, plastic and metal scraps are toxins such as lead, mercury and cadmium which pose a threat to human health.
The Nairobi-based UN Environment Programme commissioned two studies showing dangerously high levels of heavy metals in the air and in the body of local residents. Lead and cadmium levels were 13,500 ppm and 1,058 ppm respectively, compared to the action levels in the Netherlands of 150 ppm/5 ppm for these heavy metals.
The situation in Dandora is indicative of the magnitude of the waste problem. According to EJOLT, a consortium of organisations working on environmental justice, the fumes coming from the dumpsite have made the air barely breathable and increased sickness and mortality rates in the area.
International and local organisations have called on the government to shut down the dumpsite, which breaches the Kenyan Constitution and Stockholm Convention on hazardous pollution limits.
But there is a social dilemma. Many locals have indeed become financially dependent on the dumpsite, which provides a daily source of scrapped materials that they can sell to recyclers and even food.
This is not a very profitable business, but it is in most cases all that people have. The lack of jobs and waste management solutions has locked people in a vicious circle, says Piotr Barczak of the European Environmental Bureau during a visit to the dumpsite ahead of the UN meeting.
“Due to high poverty in the area, some kids even escape school to come to the dumpsite to work. This is a disastrous short-term solution to a larger social and economic problem.”
Nick Meynen of the European Environmental Bureau notes that the people at the very bottom rungs of the socioeconomic ladder ultimately pay the price for one of Kenya’s most urgent health emergencies.
He describes the situation as
“…a very accurate example of environmental injustice whereby the poor societies of Nairobi are impacted by waste dumped from the whole greater Nairobi region, and are polluted with toxins.”
While the Dandora dumpsite has indeed been in the spotlight for years, partly due to its proximity to the world’s most important environmental agency, community representatives insist that a solution must be spearheaded by the people.
The St. John Catholic Church in nearby Korogocho has set up a special committee to address the problem. Their aim is to find a long-term solution that takes into consideration support for local communities and viable economic alternatives.
The group has also put forward several proposals, including closing the dumpsite, the relocation of waste management and proper recycling facilities. However, financial and political constraints have so far stalled any initiative.
As the UN Environment Assembly gets under way, many in Nairobi hope that both the international community and local authorities will commit to a tangible solution to restore social justice and end pollution in the city.