Toxic waste export harder to control, despite Basel Convention
by Hira Jhamtani and Lutfiyah Hanim, Daily News (Sri Lanka)
1 July 2008 – Hazardous wastes continue to be transferred to developing countries and it is getting harder to control their movements. There is, therefore, a call for the strengthening of the Basel Convention and the implementation of an international ban on such transfers.
A meeting of the Basel Convention on hazardous wastes was told of the continuing transfer of wastes to developing countries, including the export of used condoms to Indonesia and electronic wastes dumped in China and Nigeria inside equipment such as computers and cell phones.
African countries also recalled the immoral act of a Dutch-based shipping company that dumped toxic chemical wastes at Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, which killed three people and hospitalised 1,500. These incidents were cited by participants as signs that the problem of hazardous waste movement has not lessened and are more difficult to control, despite the Convention.
The ninth meeting of the Conference of Parties (COP 9) to the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Waste and their Disposal was from June 23 to 27 in Bali, Indonesia. Like many multilateral environment agreements, the Convention faces problems including lack of funding, implementation, and inadequate capacity among developing countries to tackle hazardous wastes.
The Indonesian Minister for the Environment, Rachmat Witoelar in his opening speech said that after 16 years of entry into force, the Basel Convention is a mature environmental agreement but the problem of illegal transboundary movement of hazardous waste has not shown a sign of lessening. In fact, he said, it is more difficult to tackle due to globalisation and the increase in industrial waste.
The Basel Convention was adopted in 1989 and entered into force in 1992. It was created in response to the outrage of developing countries over dumping of toxic waste and hazardous wastes into their countries under the guise of trade and sometimes materials for recycling. It is ratified by 170 countries. The US has not ratified it.
The Basel Convention addresses management, disposal and transboundary movement of hazardous waste. Its guiding principles are: waste should be reduced to a minimum; managed in an environmentally sound manner; be treated and disposed of as close as possible to their source of generation; and be minimised at the source.
Witoelar expressed concerns that dumping of hazardous waste from developed to developing countries has not stopped, thus necessitating cooperation. Hazardous waste also has health impacts.
Witoelar said that Indonesia, as an archipelagic country, is vulnerable to movements of hazardous waste, and cited the illegal entry of used condoms that are still waiting to be re-exported to the originating country. Thus, he felt that the implementation of the Convention should be a priority to protect Indonesia from hazardous waste imports.
A film by the Basel Action Network that was screened for participants showed how electronic waste (e-waste) is being dumped into countries like China and Nigeria in the guise of equipment (particularly computers and cell phones) to be reused.
Some parties say that the export of used e-products into Nigeria is a way to address the digital divide and to provide more jobs for the people. In reality, a lot of these items are useless and end up in waste lots and burned, creating toxic fumes that can also pollute the water system.
John Njoroge Michuki, the Kenyan Minister of the Environment reminded the participants of the waste dumping incident in Cote d’Ivoire in 2006. A ship named Probo Koala, owned by Trafigura, a Netherlands-based company, sailing from Europe, dumped toxic chemical wastes at Abidjan.
Three people died and around 1,500 were hospitalized after breathing the toxic fumes. Ironically, nothing could be done for the victims because there was no information available on which drugs were required.
The Netherlands refused to accept back the waste, due to their toxicity and the cost of clean-up. The government of Cote d’Ivoire had to use its own funds to pay a private company for the retrieval, shipment and processing of the toxic waste in France. The cost was estimated to be US$30 million.
Michuki also said that one of the achievements of the last conference (COP 8) was the Nairobi Declaration on the Environmentally Sound Management of Electrical and Electronic Waste (E-Waste). But he added that a number of programs have not been implemented due to lack of funds. Therefore, it is important to have a mechanism for sustainable financing of the Convention.
Another longstanding issue is the interpretation of Article 17 (5) about entry into force of amendments in the context of the implementation of the Ban amendment to the Convention (referred to as the Ban).
The Ban is contained in Decision III/1 (at COP 3) in 1995 that adopted the OECD (and Liechtenstein) export ban as an amendment to the Basel Convention. When the original Basel Convention was adopted in 1989, it was primarily an instrument to monitor the transboundary movement of hazardous waste rather than to prevent and reduce them.
Many developing countries, particularly the African Group, did not sign or ratify it. But some 88 countries banned the import of hazardous waste through national laws or regional agreements. Some developed countries such as Norway, Sweden and Denmark pushed for a global ban. Thus, Decision III/1 was adopted and Decision IV/7 appealed to countries to ratify it.
At present, 63 countries have ratified the Basel Ban amendment (62 are required for it to enter into force) but it is not implemented because there is ambiguity as to the interpretation of its Article on ratification.
The newly-elected Executive Secretary of the Basel Convention, Katharina Kummer Peiry, said that COP 9 is crucially placed to take fundamental decisions to reposition the Convention so that waste management issues are integrated into policy decisions linked to the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
Management of hazardous and other wastes is not generally considered a priority topic at the national and international levels. We must ensure that our work receives the political and financial support it merits, she said.
She said the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the Convention in 2012 should be used to reflect on past achievements and address future challenges. With globalisation of trade, rapid emergence of new waste streams, development of new and complex technology, new solutions are required.
Nigeria noted that illegal trafficking of hazardous waste has continued. In 2006, 16 years after the initial discussions in the Convention process, the Cote d’Ivoire Coast experienced similar dumping. Thus, capacity of the regions in enforcing the Convention is needed.
Cote d’Ivoire, echoing Nigeria, said that crime is the right word to describe dumping of hazardous waste. Hazardous waste has ramifications on the health of the people of Cote d’Ivoire. There is a need for capacity building to deal with dumping and it thanked the international community for its support in dealing with the hazardous waste incident in Abidjan in 2006.
Egypt, speaking on behalf of Arab countries, said that it was concerned with increasing illegal trade of hazardous waste and the delay in the Ban amendment decision. It also raised the increase in illegal global trade of hazardous waste, particularly in areas of armed conflict.
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