The dump

Who cares about environment in developing countries.

« A quarter of all diseases affecting mankind are attributable to environmental risks, with children especially vulnerable » says the UN. Some 4.7 million children under five die each year from environmentally-related illnesses according to World Health Organization (WHO) figures.

If hell had to be described, Dandora would be its best representation. There are people who make a living out of it, though. The uncontrolled dumping grounds of Kenya’s capital city harms around a million lives, especially children.

At the beginning the idea was to fill an old rock quarry. But, 35 years later, it is one of the largest dumping site in Africa and one of the most toxic in the world. It took some ten years to fill the hole made by the quarry. Since then, the dumping site of Dandora, to the east of Nairobi city in Kenya, has been overflowing and now covers an area of 30 acres, just eight kilometers away from the city center. An average of 2,000 tones of unfiltered garbage arrive in Dandora each day, coming from hospitals, factories or private homes.

One would imagine that people avoid the area. Actually, about one million people live in or around the dumping site, eking out their living from the garbage they scavenge every day. An informal economy based on recycling other people’s garbage has been created. ‘Dumpers’, the name given to the people who work there, collect plastic, metal or food and factory waste to feed animals.

At an age when her western counterparts would be contemplating their university careers, Wangoï surveys the 20 feet hills of Dandora dumping site. She is now 19 years old and has been sorting the garbage of Nairobi for ten years. With a shy smile, the young lady explains she focuses on plastic packaging. ‘I sell them for 2 to 5 [Kenyan] shillings a kilo,’ she said. Every day, Wangoï hopes to earn 2 dollars ; her only source of income.

Nursing the poison

A study, commissioned in 2007 by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), found that half of the 328 children they tested near the Dandora dump had amounts of lead in their blood exceeding internationally accepted levels. Mercury and cadmium are ten to fifty times more concentrated in Dandora soil than in control samples taken from the other side of Nairobi. Diseases, such as cancer, may appear years after being exposed to the source, the UNEP said.

Lydia itches her skin every night. She went to see a doctor but he could not say what she suffers from. Now, in her forties, this single mother of 6 children has been living in the surroundings of the dump for twenty years. That ‘the rent is less than in other slums’ justifies Lydia standing in the entrance of her house which is just twenty meters away from the first traces of rubbish. All of her children cough. None of them work in the dump so the contamination comes from the air they breathe.

Lack of public will

In the middle of the dumping site, an excavator works hard to hide the rubbish in the ground. An useless move given the 30 acres of garbage. The million or so people living around the dumping site – all more or less involved in the dumping site economy – are a million times more efficient than the excavator. But no one looks interested in employing a few, giving them a protecting mask, some gloves, forbidding fires in the dump, and laying down some rules to sort out the rubbish faster and more safely.

As to where the fees that the trucks have to pay to enter the site of Dandora go, an environmental department worker of the town hall in charge of the dumping site merely replied, ‘You know our country’. Corruption seems to be another poison that no one listed. Africa’s fast developing cities – their newcomers flee conflicts or are attracted by an imaginary prosperity – should not wait to integrate the environmental matters before becoming an unbreathable hell for their inhabitants.

Philip Poupin, december 2008.

  • dump-nairobi
  • dump-nairobi