Monday, October 24, 2005

Africa Starts to Defuse Pesticide Menace

IOL -- An extensive project to rid Africa of thousands of tons of obsolete, but highly dangerous, pesticides is finally coming into full swing.

The problem has been a subject of growing concern and discussion over many years. Now the Africa Stockpiles Programme (ASP), as it is called, will start seeing trained operatives in protective gear entering places where the chemicals are held, to make inventories and set in train the process that will see much of the material exported to incinerators in Europe to be destroyed.

There are no facilities in Africa capable of destroying the chemicals at internationally required standards. They have to be incinerated at temperatures of at least 900°C to limit harmful emissions.

The ASP will include extensive training in the use and safer handling of pesticides to prevent similar build-ups and contamination dangers in future.

It is expected to cost $250-million (about R1,7-billion) and to take up to 15 years to complete. It involves the United Nations and the Global Environment Facility (GEF), governments, non-governmental organisations like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and pesticide manufacturers, through their international federation called CropLife. Its first phase, which will include South Africa, was explained at a media briefing in Nairobi on Friday.

Other countries involved are Ethiopia, Mali, Morocco, Tanzania and Tunisia. It will cost an estimated $60-million and take up to six years to complete.

Angela Mwandia, the programme's co-ordinator, said these countries had been chosen to start with because they had made inventories and were more prepared than most to start implementation. They were also participating in the international agreements regarding persistent organic pollutants.

The continent's stockpiles of poisonous chemicals, estimated at about 50 000 tons, have been accumulating over the past 40 years and longer, the result largely of lack of training, weak controls and aggressive marketing by manufacturers who sold countries more than they needed. The chemicals include brands like Dieldron, DDT and a range of organophosphate pesticides used mainly for crop protection.

Dr Jan Betlem, a specialist from Europe in obsolete pesticide elimination, told the Nairobi conference pesticides were normally obsolete after two years. They were then no longer good for the purposes for which they had been manufactured, although they remained poisonous in other respects.

Practically every African country holds quantities of obsolete toxins. South Africa is said to be sitting on an estimated 250 tons. Ethiopia has been one of the worst off, with an estimated 3 000 tons held at more than 900, often practically inaccessible, points. With the help of pesticide manufacturers, however, it has succeeded in getting rid of a considerable portion of these.

The estimates are based largely on stockpiles in government storage. There could be much larger amounts of obsolete pesticides stored on business premises, in farm storerooms and on shelves in urban homes.

Betlem painted a grim picture. He said many stockpiles were found in neglected buildings. Others were found in drums in the veld, under torn tarpaulins and plastic sheets, or buried.

Many of the containers are corroding, adding spillage to the already serious contamination problem of the stockpiles being incorrectly discarded. The toxins seep into the soil and groundwater, contaminating food, drinking water and the air and posing a serious health danger to many communities, especially the poor.

Betlem has often found dead cats, birds, snakes, goats and sheep inside and around buildings where corroded containers have started leaking. And it is not unusual to find children playing in the vicinity of such stockpiles.

The meat of animals grazing in such areas is sold in public markets, adding to the build-up of toxins that inhabitants also get through plant foodstuffs and drinking water.

The UN's Food and Agricultural Organisation started warning about the wrong and negligent use of pesticides and their danger to the world and to Africa in particular more than a decade ago. The Africa Stockpiles Programme springs from an initiative started in 2000 by the WWF. Its major donors are the World Bank and European governments. It has been endorsed by the African Union's conference on the environment.

Many of the pesticides supplied never had labels other than the name of the product and its manufacture. (photo courtesy: pan-uk.org)

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