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Sunday, June 23, 2024

Let me tell you a little about garbage

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With Aisha Jallow

Did you know that there was a huge conference in Dakar last year? This was called the African Ministerial Conference on Environment (AMCEN-18) 12-16 September 2022.

African environment ministers met in Senegal and they made one of the most important decisions in the history of waste management in Africa. The ministers made the foundation to end the open dumping and burning of waste. Putting this decision to action will have multiple, environmental and social implications. It could save millions of lives on the continent. How much have you been told about this conference and the decisions made there? How much results have you seen of it so far? Considering the state of the country, when I stayed there for one month this summer, everything looks the same as it has been for as long as I can remember.

Some weeks ago I wrote about the condition of the roads in Tallinding. The road outside my adopted daughter’s house was, at the beginning of my stay, a normal sandy road with some larger potholes that could be avoided. After the rains, these potholes became small ponds, but these could still be handled as we knew that there was only sand at the bottom of the holes. After some weeks, some person who hadn’t switched on his brain, had decided that the potholes should be filled with the stuff that had been dug up along the main roads. The stuff was sticky, stinky mud mixed with broken glass, plastic bottles, old car tires and whatever that had been thrown down the drainage.

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The so-called reparation of the street made it instead destroyed and impossible to use. The former potholes were now filled with garbage that could damage both vehicles and humans on foot. Some of the people living along the worst potholes tried to fix whatever could be fixed, but the work was hard and even dangerous. You see; a lot of the trash could be burnt, but most of the trash is actually causing a toxic smoke. When this smoke is inhaled, it can cause asthma, skin rashes and even cancer. Burning the waste makes it disappear, but it comes with a high cost. Burning waste is a common method, used all over the world, but the smoke is one of the main reasons for climate change.

In many African cities, up to 90% of waste is dumped in the open. Much of it is burned, sending plumes of harmful pollutants into homes, lungs and the environment. These emissions contain dioxins, hydrocarbons and black carbon, all highly toxic climate pollutants. Decomposing organic waste also generates methane, which triggers open burning and is a major contributor to climate change.

The impact on people and the environment is severe. Exposure to air pollution causes more than 1.2 million premature African deaths annually. Studies of children living near major dumpsites have reported chronic respiratory, gastrointestinal and dermatological illnesses. What these fancy terms mean is that the children are getting problems with their lungs, for example asthma. Gastrointestinal means problems with the stomach and the intestines. Dermatological illnesses mean for example severe rashes.

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Some years ago I wrote about the dump site in Bakau, the dump that is placed opposite the SOS Children’s Villages and the SOS School. There was a fire at the dump site and that kind of fire can be very hard to handle. The smoke from the fire is causing huge problems for all the people who live nearby, but it is also causing a lot of environmental issues. When all the waste is dumped in one place, and not sorted, the toxic waste is going in two directions: up in the air or down in the ground water. The water people use to drink, water their plants with, the animals are drinking that water and these animals are then slaughtered to feed the people.

The toxins goes around in an endless circle and is poisoning the Gambian people. The toxins can also cause infertility, which can be very depressing. If the women, who live near a dump site manage to become pregnant, the fetus is not growing as it should so the babies are too small when they are born. When the babies are very small they are also very vulnerable and their lungs are not fully developed. In bad cases, the babies can be born with defects. Some of these defects can be fatal, others can be dealt with through an operation, but who can afford that when you hardly have food enough every day? These kinds of operations require skilled doctors and nurses, at clinics that are far away from any price range common people can afford to pay.

Let us go back to the AMCEN Conference in Dakar in September 2022. Apart from health and environmental impacts, ministers recognised the huge economic opportunities in better waste management. Up to 80% of solid waste generated in African cities is recyclable, with an estimated value of $8 billion each year. Yet only about 11% is currently recycled, mostly by the informal sector. It indicates a major opportunity to create jobs and livelihoods from the re-use of waste.

The AMCEN ministerial resolution recognised how waste can be a resource for value addition and employment. It also recognised the need to integrate informal waste recyclers into African economies. This requires:

o          providing technical and institutional support

o          improving working conditions

o          building on their entrepreneurial spirit and expertise

o          creating possibilities that will turn informal waste pickers and small recycling enterprises into tax-paying businesses.

Ministers recognised underlying challenges such as:

o          a lack of public awareness

o          weak legislation and enforcement

o          insufficient budgets for waste collection and disposal

o          inadequate and malfunctioning equipment

o          lack of public participation

o          inadequate waste management governance.

I am sure that The Gambia was represented at the AMCEN Conference in Dakar, but was our minister awake during the processes or did he take a good nap, dreaming of the next meal instead of focusing on all the important matters? I think the nap he took was long and nice as we haven’t seen or heard anything since he came back from the Conference. The Gambian people are suffering in so many ways, isn’t it about time that we could finally have some kind of progress in the country?

One of the points the ministers agreed upon was the lack of public awareness. Well, that is true, but what to do when those who rule the country don’t seem to be aware either? Are they so blind for all the waste that is covering every open space in the country so they don’t see it? People in high positions have been abroad for their studies and visited other countries for conferences, etc. Surely they must have noticed that not every other country is covered with garbage? Can’t they see it or don’t they care? You live on a dump site! Does that feel okay to you?

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