Smart clean-up acts in unlikely places: Some of Africa's top anti-pollution success stories

Major turn-arounds in Africa's most polluted places

KENYAN Phyllis Omido, was awarded the environmental “Goldman prize” last week and labelled “East Africa’s Erin Brockovich” for her efforts in battling to close a lead smelting plant that was poisoning the inhabitants of a Kenyan slum, including her own baby.

Her work demonstrates that in spite of numerous obstacles and lack of resources, with collaboration and commitment, there is hope for even Africa’s most polluted environments. 

Here are some of the most surprising clean-up acts on the continents, once thought to be impossible tasks, now a model for countries across the globe. 

Agbogbloshie, Ghana

Agbogbloshie, Ghana, used to be a wetland on the suburbs of Accra, today it is known as a toxic “digital dumping ground” with millions of tons of e-waste processed there every year. 

The presence of lead in the soil was at very high levels, posing serious potential health and environment hazards to more than 250,000 people in the vicinity. In fact, Greenpeace lab tests showed that the water and soil from areas in Agbogbloshie had concentrations of toxins at levels a hundred times more than the allowable amount.

Fortunately a recently launched project introducing modern recycling machinery is turning Agbogbloshie’s environment around. The project, will not only make the recovery process safer and more efficient, it also creates a sustainable source of income for local residents.

The mechanised recycling facility has four automated wire-stripping units that allow workers to strip the plastic coating off the wires in a considerably more efficient, profitable and safer manner. Officially inaugurated in October 2014, it is expected to be able to extract approximately 10 tons of copper per month and employ 50 workers.

How it works is that local recyclers bring in the cables and wire they’ve collected to the centre and, for a token amount of money, all the plastic is stripped off and the wire bailed. Recyclers therefore get better prices for this cleaner wire and as a bonus the plastics, which previously used to be burned, have become another material they can sell.

The project’s main objective is to scale up the recycling facility so it can process an even larger amount of waste, within an even shorter time, and also increase the number of people it employs. The ultimate goal is to eliminate the dumpsites open burning altogether.

Abattoirs, Uganda

Abattoir effluent is a major source of pollution entering Lake Victoria. The effluent originates from two slaughterhouses in Kampala discharging 700,000 litres per day of untreated effluent into the channel. 

This then drains into Lake Victoria via the Nakivubo wetlands. The wetlands do not have the ability to reduce the highly toxic chemical oxygen demand of the water, to make it non-polluting to the waterways and Lake Victoria. 

To address this issue, in 2011 Dr Joseph Kyambadde, the head of Makerere University’s department of biochemistry and sports science and his team, built an integrated recycle system, which takes in solid waste and wastewater from the slaughterhouse and passes it through a fermentation process to emit methane gas. 

The system has produced several successes. Once captured, methane is burnt to produce electricity - reportedly generating 18KW of electric power, which is used for security lighting, running refrigerators and deep freezers in the meat storage units at the abattoir. It also produces between 20 and 25 cubic metres of biogas daily. 

The biogas is used to power the abattoir’s generators, which were previously run on diesel fuels, reducing air pollution at the facility too. 

Thiaroye Sur Mer, Senegal

In Thiaroye Sur Mer, Senegal, to supplement their families’ incomes, women in the community had taken to breaking used lead-acid batteries and smelting the lead to extract it for resale.

Lead fumes and dust contaminated the community, killing children and impairing the health of others. At one stage there were reports that lead in the soil was off the charts, as high as 220,000 parts per million in the surface layers - in other words the soil was 20% lead. 

This tragedy was fuelled in part by a “lead-rush”, caused when a newly opened nearby lead smelter offered the women $100 for a day’s work of collecting lead from batteries and sifting through lead waste.

Project partners and funders, along with the Senegalese government, not only removed lead contamination from the village, but also trained the women in hydroponic agriculture as an alternative to this toxic work. 

To begin with, in 2009, three thousand cubic meters of contaminated soil were removed. Then over one hundred homes were combed with high-powered vacuum cleaners before being scrubbed with heavy detergents to remove the lead dust.

Today the lead concentration in the soil in ThiaroyeSur-Mer is at a level considered safe, but this wouldn’t have been sustainable without the provision of alternative livelihoods for the women in hydroponic agriculture - where food is grown without soil. 

The Blacksmith Institute for a Pure Earth provided the women with the hydroponic tables and taught the women how to farm with hydroponics. Where once they dismantled old lead acid batteries now stands hydroponic tables growing peanuts, onions, tomatoes, spinach-like leafy greens, beans and legumes and other easy-to grow fortified foods. The produce is either sold at the local market or used to feed their families.

Zamfara State, Nigeria

In early 2010, doctors from Médecins Sans Frontières were conducting field visits in Zamfara State, in northwest Nigeria, when they noticed an absence of children in several villages. They soon discovered that from November 2009 to May 2010, some 400 children died in Zamfara as a result of poisoning from lead dust, released during the processing of gold ore. 

In response, government agencies, in conjunction with groups like the Blacksmith Institute, are conducting environmental decontamination and remediation in several villages in collaboration with local authorities. 

Local men are being paid to assist with the cleanup operations. Cleanup crews take contaminated soil to a landfill site and bring clean replacement soil to the villages. In addition to soil removal, thorough removal of dust from all interior spaces and compounds is essential.

The difficulty however is in stemming the poisoning while finding an alternative livelihood for the families. What helped a great deal though was an education campaign which saw a drop in the number of families processing ore in their back yards - from 71% to about 5%. 

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