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Obsolete pesticides threaten communities in Ethiopia

This hut is a pesticide dumpsite containing 5.5 tonnes of hazardous pesticides (FAO/A.Proto)

This pesticide dumpsite is in the middle of the village of Arjo in western Ethiopia. Family huts surround the dumpsite where everyone is exposed to the pesticides (FAO/A.Proto)


Map of Ethiopia indicating pesticide dumpsites each with more than 5 tonnes of obsolete pesticides (FAO/A.Proto)

An ugly smell permeates the air of Arjo,
a village in western Ethiopia. The powerful stench comes from a pesticide waste dump right in the middle of the village. The pesticides were brought here many years ago to control locusts and other pests, but they were never used.

In a one-floor building and in a very dilapidated old barn nearby, around 5.5 tonnes of old pesticides, including DDT, Malathion, pirimiphos-methyl, and fenitrothion, are stored in drums, boxes and bags. Some of the walls are cracked and toxic waste is leaking into the ground. The waste sites are secured only with a simple lock; there are no special security measures.

Family huts, only a few meters away, surround the two dumpsites. Women are preparing food, children are playing and goats and sheep are grazing around the buildings.

"These pesticides were brought to Arjo by the Ministry of Agriculture 20 years ago," says Gamada Binagde, head of the local Crop Protection Service. "We have identified eleven types of pesticides, but there are more and we don't know about the rest. It is dangerous to keep these pesticides in the centre of the village. The people here can't wait for the stuff to be removed."

The villagers complain about health problems, including headaches, nausea and coughing. "Before they brought these chemicals here, we never had so many health difficulties," says a 90-year- old woman who lives behind the storage site.

Ethiopia has one of the largest stockpiles of obsolete pesticides in Africa, FAO says. FAO estimates that almost 3 000 tonnes of hazardous pesticide waste is stored at nearly 1 000 sites around the country, threatening the health of thousands of people and polluting the environment. Much of the stock is over 20 years old.

Obsolete pesticides are defined as old, banned or no longer identifiable. They probably have decomposed into other chemical components, which are sometimes more toxic than the original pesticide. Most pesticides expire two years after production, meaning they cannot be used unless they are tested and proved stable.

"The chemical time-bomb of obsolete pesticide stocks in developing countries aggravates the plight of the poor by causing serious health risks," says FAO pesticide expert Alemayehu Wodageneh. "They threaten food security by contaminating groundwater and soil, the most important resources for food production."

One of the worst sites in Ethiopia is in the centre of the capital, Addis Ababa, just 500 metres from 40 grain silos of the Ethiopian Grain Trade Enterprise. Around 30 tonnes of highly toxic chemicals have been dumped here over the past 30 years. Old metal drums are leaking toxic waste. Workers without protective clothing guard the locked-up storage site.

"The sites in Addis Ababa and in the village of Arjo have all the features that are common for obsolete pesticide stocks throughout Ethiopia: poor storage facilities, very poor stock management, large amounts of pesticides that cannot be identified and leaking containers that contaminate groundwater and soil," says Kevin Helps, FAO's project manager in Ethiopia.

The government of Ethiopia, assisted by FAO, has recently started to clean up toxic waste in Ethiopia, in the biggest project of its kind in sub-Saharan Africa. So far, for the disposal of 1 500 tonnes, or half of the total, the Netherlands has donated US$ 2.5 million, the United States has provided US$1 million and Sweden has pledged US$ 1.25 million.

The chemicals, together with more than 1 000 tonnes of contaminated soil and huge quantities of empty containers and contaminated sprayers, will be collected and shipped to Finland, where the disposal company runs high-temperature hazardous waste incinerators. There are no safe incinerators in Ethiopia or other African countries.

The build-up of pesticides in developing countries like Ethiopia is partly due to excessive donations made with good intentions, FAO says. Often insecticides were ordered in advance for the control of insects like locusts and army worms, but when the outbreak did not occur, the pesticides were not used. In Ethiopia, where pesticide use is generally low, many of the obsolete chemical products accumulated when the economy was controlled by the government.

"The government is planning to tighten the controls on the import of pesticides, to ensure that they are used only when needed," says Ethiopian Deputy Agriculture Minister Belay Ejigu.

The FAO Obsolete Pesticide Management Project will assist in initiating a national Integrated Pest Management framework for Ethiopia. Through this initiative, which encourages environmentally benign forms of pest control and minimal use of pesticides, farmers can avoid the build-up of unused pesticides.

In this interview Mr Kevin Helps, FAO project co-ordinator in Ethiopia, mentions three major ways to help reduce the use of chemicals in agriculture (1min13sec). In Realaudio (152Kb), in mp3 (574 Kb)

Kevin Helps, FAO obsolete pesticides project manager in Ethiopia, inspects an obsolete pesticide warehouse in Addis Ababa. (QuickTime video, 1.3 mb, 51 sec)

 9 May 2001 

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