UN Enviroment Programme

Chapter 12. Status of soil pollution in sub-Saharan Africa


Author: Mariné Pienaar Blaauw (South Africa)

Acknowledgements: Andrew McCartor (Pure Earth), Chung Tran (UNIDO), Brandon McGugan (SLR Consulting, South Africa, (Pty) Ltd).

Sub-Saharan Africa includes 48 African countries that are located either south of the Sahara desert or includes a portion of the desert in the more northern parts of these countries (Figure 1). The regional countries can further be grouped into the sub-regions based on their geographical position:

  • - West Africa: Benin Burkina Faso, Cabo Verde, Côte d’Ivoire, the Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Togo. The Niger delta, a major source of petroleum on the continent, is part of West Africa.
  • - The central African region: Angola, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, the Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, and Sao Tome and Principe.
  • - East African Community (EAC): Burundi, Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, South Sudan, Uganda and the United Republic of Tanzania.
  • - Horn of Africa: Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, and the island countries of the Comoros, Mauritius and Seychelles.
  • - Southern Africa: Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Africa and the island country of Madagascar.

Figure 1. Countries included in the sub-Saharan African region as considered in this report.

Source: UN, 2020 modified with data from FAO, 2021.

The region has experienced dramatic population growth from an estimated 227 million in 1960 to 1.08 billion in 2018 (World Bank, 2019a). Between 1950 and 2015 there was a twentyfold increase in Africa’s urban population (OECD and Sahel and West Africa Club, 2020). It is estimated that in 2015, 567 million people were already settled in the continent’s urban areas and that by 2050, 950 million people will live there.

These major changes in the rural-urban balance have led to significant challenges in the management of soil pollution. For example, in 2012, approximately 81 million tonnes of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) was generated in sub-Saharan Africa. It is projected that by 2025, the volume of MSW will grow to 244 million tonnes (UNEP, 2018). There is a rising demand for electrical and electronic equipment such as cell phones and computers. With the fast rate of technological development, this equipment quickly becomes obsolescent, resulting in an increase of electronic waste. In addition to the waste that is generated locally, the region receives end-of-life vehicles, used tyres and electronic waste from countries in other regions. The average recycling rate of MSW waste in Africa is around 4 percent.

Chemicals, such as hazardous pesticides, persistent organic pollutants and products containing trace elements such as lead and mercury, are still used in the region to the detriment of both environmental and human health (World Health Organization, 2014). In some countries in the region, the lack of effective regulation, limited enforcement capacity and poor management practices in relation to chemicals and hazardous wastes are a significant barrier for the avoidance of pollution.

No large-scale assessment of soil pollution has yet been conducted for the region. This section has been prepared with information available from official reports, published academic literature, and databases. Consultations with members of the Network for Industrially Contaminated Land in Africa (NICOLA) also provided insights into the major contaminants and sources of pollution in Africa.