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HEALTH-KENYA: Months After Dump Scare, Problems Persist

Kwamboka Oyaro

NAIROBI, May 13 2008 (IPS) - Every day, the Dandora dumpsite in the eastern part of Nairobi receives 2,000 tonnes of rubbish – about half of the waste generated daily by the capital’s 4.5 million people. The 12-hectare site is a low mountain of smouldering trash. Vultures and marabou storks circle overhead in anticipation of a meal.

As soon as a lorry arrives to dump refuse, vast numbers of children and adults run after it, ignoring the stench rising from tonnes of rotting waste. In the race to sift the rubbish for the most valuable items, they pay little attention to the risk of being pricked by sharp pieces of metal and used syringes. By the time the lorry leaves the site, the mound of garbage it dumped has already been flattened, sorted and scattered by unprotected hands.

A United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) study titled ‘Environmental Pollution and Impacts on Public Health: Implications of the Dandora Municipal Dumping Site in Nairobi, Kenya’, published last October, found that 42 percent of soil samples from the Dandora site recorded lead levels almost 10 times higher than normal.

Tests on 328 children living near the site found that half of them had excess concentrations of lead in their blood. Njoroge Kimani, the report’s author and principal researcher, said children near the dump are also disproportionately affected by anaemia, skin infections, asthma and other respiratory diseases, all conditions associated with high levels of toxins at the dump site, which receives plastics, rubber, wood, metal, chemical and hospital waste.

Because dumping is unrestricted, children and adults sifting the rubbish for valuable items could also be exposed to diseases such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis from syringes and other hospital refuse.

But about six months after the report’s release, Daniele Mosschetti, a Catholic priest who works with children who make a living from the dump, says nothing much has changed.

“At the moment it is business as usual and nothing is being done about the situation. The problem is still there and the exposure to infections is real.”

Children are still rummaging in the dump for food and other valuables to sell, at the same time inhaling dangerous fumes from burning waste. Mosschetti has summarised the dangers highlighted in the UNEP report in pamphlets in the local Kiswahili language and distributed them to the children and other people living near the site. But the need for money overrides caution over health.

“If these people who earn their living from the dump are availed an alternative means of getting income, perhaps then they will be more cautious about their health.”

Annemarie Kinyanjui of UNEP’s Urban Environment Unit told IPS that Nairobi’s city council has taken a decision to move the dump site.

“Immediately the report was issued, UNEP and the council began working closely in addressing the problem of the waste management in Nairobi. Although this process has been delayed a little bit by the post-election violence that was experienced in the country at the beginning of the year, we are now working on developing a complete new integrated solid waste management system.”

Engineer Ben Njenga of the Nairobi City Council told IPS that a site of about 80 hectares has been identified some 30 kilometres from the city centre; but money is an obstacle to relocating the dump immediately.

“Construction of the site requires hundreds of millions of shillings. We will need external help to realise this goal,” he said.

However, just moving the dump is likely to transfer old problems to the new site. So UNEP is recommending a re-examination of a 1998 study by the Japan International Cooperation Agency, which proposed the construction of a new dumpsite – at the time expected to cost about 45 million dollars – to achieve safe disposal of Nairobi’s waste.

Although the 10-year-old proposal will have to be modified to account for the much greater quantities of garbage generated by today’s larger population, the study’s plan to set up waste transfer stations where people would sort what can be re-used and recycled before the rest is disposed of remains valid.

An integrated approach to waste disposal will see more organised waste collection – segregating refuse according to type – and is expected to reduce garbage by 20 percent.

“This will ensure the new dump will fill much more slowly than Dandora, by receiving only what is of no use to anyone. Once people know there is nothing of value at the dumpsite, they will not scavenge as they currently do,” according to Henry Ndede, co-ordinator of UNEP’s country programme for Kenya.

In addition, new jobs will be created at the sorting stations and in related new industries, such as the manufacture of organic fertilizer and recycling of glass and plastic.

“Rubbish in Dandora is worth billions. Some people have become millionaires by collecting rubbish from the dump,” said Ndede.

Kenya’s new environment minister, John Michuki, has promised to act immediately on relocating the dumpsite. The minister is highly regarded in the country for bringing order to Nairobi’s chaotic public transport sector in 2003.

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