This past week, Kenya’s government pledged to root out public corruption and cooperate with other nations to further this goal. Kenya has long been working to improve its international reputation and economy, and is seemingly one of the more stable African countries to date. Yet, a serious problem surfaced recently that has shocked and repulsed observers. The United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) has exposed a dumping site in the city’s capital of Nairobi, known as Dandora Municipal Dumping Site, as a mountain of death that is currently poisoning children and adults alike (one apartment dangerously close to the dump shown in graphic to the left). Thousands of people not only make a living off of the dump rummaging through piles of waste for hours, but also live directly next to or surrounding this hazardous mound. Though the situation is egregiously in need of investigation and correction, it may not be as overwhelming an undertaking as it initially seems. While it is true that this dump provides income for many families, solutions exist through which environmental hazards could be limited without losing sight of the people’s economic needs.
The Dandora site’s waste comes from all over Nairobi, bringing in 2,000 tons of waste a day and making it one of the biggest in Africa. This garbage is composed of industrial waste such as unused chemicals and raw material, agricultural waste including pesticides and Persistent Organic Pollutants (POP’s, including DDT and PCB’s), and hospital waste consisting of old containers, biological waste, and even used syringes. Exposure to these elements has yielded horrific effects on the one million people living in the three slum settlements that encircle the dump. The UNEP conducted a study of the site, and uncovered what could only be described as devastating results. Of 328 children tested, ages 2-18, half were found to have lead concentrations far surpassing the international standard for what is deemed “safe.” Half were also found to have chronic bronchitis and asthma due to the exposure to the pollutants and low hemoglobin levels, while 30% were anemic. High levels of heavy metals were discovered in soil sample analyses, including mercury, lead, and cadmium, which can all damage internal organs and also cause cancer when in contact with the human body. , Other possible effects include skin disorders, eye infections, respiratory and gastrointestinal abnormalities, blood disorders, nervous and muscular system impairments, and even heightened possibilities of contracting malaria, hepatitis, and HIV/AIDS.
Achim Steiner, the UNEP Executive Director, explains that not only are the people inhaling and absorbing toxins through the “routine waste burnings and methane fires,” but since the Nairobi River runs right beside the dump, these poisons are leeching directly into the main water supply. Waste of all kinds ends up in the river that “many people use to bathe and to wash clothes,” and that farmers also use to irrigate crops further downstream, thus polluting and intoxicating the water supply for miles beyond Dandora alone.
Despite all of this, the people of Dandora depend heavily upon the dump. It acts as a source of income for many families living nearby, including “slum dwellers and [the] homeless.” Large numbers of children flock to the dump foraging for any valuable items they can possibly sell (see graphic at right). Sixteen year-old Rorechi Achieng collects plastic bags from the dump, washes them in the polluted river with soap left over on discarded wrappers, and sells the “clean” bags to make a living. Over an 18-month period, she has developed a chronic cough she cannot shake. Willis Ochieng, ten years old, has been coming to the dump with friends since he was eight. They collect plastic bags too, or anything metal they will be able to cash in. According to the Reuters article “Vast African Dump Poisons Children,” while the reporter speaks with Ochieng, “his friends [sit] nearby sucking on dirty plastic bottles of noxious yellow glue,” and rats scurry around his feet in search of tasty morsels. Ochieng also explains that he wants to go to school very badly, but he needs to keep collecting trash so that he can help his mother put food on the table. Without the income generated by the dump, many families would be lost and unable to eat or buy other necessities for daily life.
Monetary value aside, the dump cannot remain as is, poisoning thousands of children. Solutions exist that would balance refocusing the economic dependence with safer living conditions. The UNEP has triggered much interest through its report on the issue, and has also committed 200,000 EUR (roughly $283,000 USD) to helping improve waste management in cooperation with local and national authorities in Kenya. International donors must be called to action as well. Currently, waste dumping is “unrestricted and unmanaged,” but with the support of the UNEP and other organizations like it, correctional efforts will be more successful than if Kenya did not have aid from outside sources.
Many agree “the authorities need to clean up the site and deal with the health problems of the nearby residents” and “give these people a chance to live longer.” The people of Dandora, along with numerous others, want to see the dump closed and relocated to a non-residential area, while revamping the entire waste management system en route. It would devastate the people to take away their source of income without proper compensation. But this recompense could be achieved if the government created new, safer jobs for the people who previously depended upon the hazardous dump to make money. In the creation of a controlled and well-managed waste-processing facility, jobs would not only be safer, but would also offer long-term sustainable working conditions that do not depend on what the affluent decide to throw away that day. If there were better education on the processing of hazardous waste materials, and thus better treatment of the toxins and medical waste before it got to the dumpsite, exposure to health hazards such as the one seen to the left with kids playing in polluted river, could be avoided.
The one obstacle Kenyan officials offered is that “Nairobi doesn't have the money to manage the waste now but [hopes that] funds will be available by next year from international donors and Kenya's government.” This statement is commendable, with the government realizing this problem merits attention, and that Kenya cannot tackle it alone. This is why action from the international community is so vital. The Kenyan government, instead of ignoring the issue due to its complexities, is admitting that it does not possess the resources to properly handle the situation and is reaching out for a solution. This conveys great accountability and transparency on the administration’s behalf, and should be reason to praise and reward Kenya with its required assistance. Utilizing aid from outside donors, alongside continued government responsibility, it is possible for this problem to become manageable sooner rather than later.