Science - October 5, 2006

‘We can deal with poverty, but this waste is an irreversible reality’

Last month, a ship dumped toxic waste in Abidjan, the economic capital of Ivory Coast, killing at least seven and making thousands of people sick. The disaster is far worse than the armed conflict that has divided the country since 2002, says PhD student Mariame Maiga.

Her PhD in Rural Development and Sociology is about the gender impact of HIV on food security. ‘Women in my country have to take care of HIV-infected relatives. They have less and less time for food production and this is a threat to food security,’ Mariame is concerned. But the dumping of 400 tonnes of toxic waste has made her even more worried about her home country. ‘This ecological drama has happened at a moment when Ivory Coast is already facing a political and social crisis,’ she says. ‘The armed conflict started in 2002, and Ivory Coast still is divided. One part is ruled by the rebels, the other by the government. Many displaced people have fled to Abidjan, which is now overpopulated and having to deal with poverty.’

The dumping of the chemicals has worsened the situation. The ship, Probo Koala, was chartered by a Dutch firm and illegally used as a floating refinery. It tried to discharge the waste in Amsterdam claiming it was harmless, but the waste contained a high concentration of sulphur. As the Dutch were asking too high a price for processing it, the ship continued on its way. When thousands of people became ill, it became clear that the ship had dumped its contents in Ivory Coast. ‘The lagoon, soil and air are polluted. You can smell it everywhere, my sister says.’ She is one of the thousands that have fallen ill. ‘Everybody is complaining about their health and at least seven people are dead.’ And the impact on economy is huge. ‘Imagine thousands of sick people not able to be productive. But even if they could work, the fields are now polluted. The impact on food security is enormous. Poverty will increase even further.’

It hurts Mariame to see her country like this. With pride she talks about how Ivory Coast used to be. ‘For a long time Ivory Coast was seen as the leading country in western Africa. Because it borders so many other countries, we are multicultural and known for being peaceful.’ But this has changed since political problems started in the nineties. And now a damaged environment awaits her. Although the clean up has started, Mariame is pessimistic about the future of her country. It is the direct impact of the waste in the long term that worries her. ‘We can deal with poverty, but this waste is an irreversible reality. No expert can know the impact. Look at Chernobyl – even today its impact is still present.’

‘The government is advising people to go to hospitals and saying that medicines are free. But what medicine? There is only aspirin.’ The government is not to blame though, she says. ‘We never even thought that an ecological drama like this could possibly happen as we don’t have the heavy industry that western countries have.’ Besides, she can’t even begin to think about who is responsible for accepting the toxic cargo. ‘My problem lies with who sent the waste: the Netherlands did.’

She finds it paradoxical that, at the same time, the Netherlands supports many development projects in developing countries. ‘Western countries in general give a lot of development aid. Yet, while they are helping us to overcome poverty, we are the ones receiving their toxic waste. Ivory Coast’s economy is based on agriculture. Sustainable development is only possible in a sustainable environment. This waste dumping makes it feel like western countries are not ready to give us respect in the global development process. It is breaking international laws and makes a mockery of development aid.’

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