POLLUTION: A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH (South Africa)
I live in Uitenhage, a town situated in the Eastern Cape in South Africa. Like many other communities around the world, pollution and illegal dumping are major issues in my community. Coupled with the lack of basic infrastructure and municipal intervention the problem seems to be going from bad to worse.
In January 2020, I read a newspaper article about four children between the ages of 3 and 11 who died after consuming a toxic substance at an illegal dumping site in a township called Motherwell in the Eastern Cape. A fifth child, a 7 year old boy, was also affected and presented with similar symptoms. He was successfully treated at a local hospital. It is believed that they ingested tainted chips and cheese that were found amongst the rubble and waste. The illegal dump site is about 100m from the children’s home.
The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996 — Chapter 2: Bill of Rights regarding the environment states that everyone has the right:
1. to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being
2. to have the environment protected for the benefit of present and future generations, through reasonable legislative and other measures that:
i) prevent pollution and ecological degradation;
ii) promote conservation; and
iii) secure ecological sustainable development and use of natural resources while promoting justifiable economic and social development.
Their senseless deaths are a direct result of poor waste management as the municipality does not provide adequate services like refuse collection and bins or plastic bags for proper waste disposal. This tragedy was unconstitutional and preventable and their blood is on our hands. As shocking as their deaths were, sadly, it was not enough to bring about any permanent change. It’s been six months since the tragedy occurred, but nothing has been done to ensure that it does not happen again.
I spent an afternoon in the centre of town. Recyclable materials like plastic bottles and packets as well as cardboard boxes and tin cans can be seen blocking stormwater drains. These items will ultimately end up in our waterways, like rivers, making them unsafe for swimming and threatening wildlife.
Open fields and vacant land are covered with discarded rubbish and includes broken furniture and car parts, construction rubble, medical waste and general household waste products. Dumped materials attract more dumping. The effects on the surrounding environment are widespread.
Firstly, aesthetically, it is a horrible eyesore that can decrease property value and reduce tourism and community revenue. Secondly, natural runoff of water during heavy rain is impeded, causing the build up of water potentially causing flash flooding and damage to property. Thirdly, plants, wildlife and marine life are at risk. Harmful chemicals and toxins can poison and kill plants, destroying the food source of local animals. Animals that ingest dumped waste can suffer severe health complications or even death.
Food waste that is disposed in landfills and dump sites are detrimental to the environment. When food rots it produces a potent greenhouse gas, methane, that has 21 times the global warming potential as carbon dioxide.
The effects of global warming are profound and long lasting. It includes increase in temperatures, extreme weather events, rise in sea level owing to melting ice, ocean acidification due to raised CO2 levels and migration of animals in search of more comfortable temperatures.
Decomposing food scraps are also a potential source of organic leachates that can contaminate surface and ground water. Diseases like cholera, dysentery and leptospirosis are known to be spread through contaminated water. This can lead to community epidemics and cripple an already overburdened healthcare system.
Despite worldwide campaigns, pollution and its far-reaching consequences remain a problem, particularly in underdeveloped countries. Many impoverished communities need to be adequately educated and given incentives in order to motivate them to adhere to the reuse, reduce and recycle campaigns. Individuals who are passionate about this cause need support in order to address these issues.
The Uitenhage Recycling Mula Swop-Shop Project was founded in 2015 by ex teacher, Quinette Goosen. Her innovative Mula Project was awarded PETCO’s coveted Public Campaign of the Year in 2018. The Mula Recycling Exchange Project focuses on two important challenges facing our community: saving the environment and alleviating poverty. Community members bring recyclable items like plastic containers and bottles and cardboard boxes to the swap shop. The items are weighed and exchanged for “mula” which can then be used to buy groceries like food, toiletries, stationery, toys and clothes. In 2019, the Mula Project removed 41 000 kg of plastic and 11 000 kg of cardboard from the community and brought considerable relief to thousands of people in impoverished communities.
South Africa faces many socio-economic challenges like extreme poverty and inequality, unemployment, high crime rates, substance abuse and corruption. Environmental conservation and pollution are not prioritised despite several pieces of legislation in the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa.
The threat of hefty fines has not curtailed the problem of pollution and illegal dumping. The police, health, environmental and sanitation departments must work hand in hand in order to achieve the Agenda 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that was adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015.
Integrated cooperation among authorities and community groups is crucial to achieve the desired results of SDGs particularly:
Goal 3: Good health and well-being
Goal 6: Clean water and sanitation
Goal 13: Climate action
Goal 14: Life below water
Goal 15: Life on Land
Environmental campaigns are worth nothing if we are unable to execute them and for that we need government intervention and community cooperation and support. Drastic steps must be implemented before it’s too late and we reach the point of no return.