Defusing Ethiopia’s toxic time bomb

It’s the beginning of the end for Ethiopia’s stores of DDT, an internationally restricted pesticide. The East African country is moving to eliminate once and for all the largest officially reported global stockpile of the toxic chemical.

In fact, in just one warehouse in Adama, Ethiopia’s second largest city, about 500 metric tons of DDT are stored in a locked, disorganized warehouse piled high with plastics, cardboard, pallets and general rubble. Mixed throughout the rubbish are the tell-tale yellow plastic DDT pouches, many of them split and leaking. A stubborn metal sliding door, a padlock, some flimsy wire and a few paper “DDT” stickers are all that keep the toxic pile inside the building. Cows graze on the grass outside. The area is mixed residential-industrial.

Soon however, the site will be history thanks to a partnership between the Ethiopian Government, UN Environment and the Global Environment Facility.

UN Environment technical consultant Russell Cobban visited the site in October to conduct safety and inventory training with Ethiopian counterparts. Entering the building wasn’t possible.

“Unfortunately it’s a little bit chaotic, not as organized as you would probably like,” he says.

Mr Cobban’s visit is tied to the start of a five-year project to clean up Ethiopia’s DDT stocks. And if the state of the warehouse warns of the task’s difficulty, Mr Cobban is confident the Ethiopians he has helped train can meet the challenge: “I think it’s achievable particularly with the motivation the Ethiopian government is showing and also its capacity.”

Cleaning up the site will also prevent chemicals leaking into the environment while eliminating the risk of the pesticide being sold on the black market.

The war on Persistent Organic Pollutants

DDT, or Dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane, has been used as a pesticide since the 1960s. Its relatively low cost and a lack of awareness of the dangers fuelled its popularity. Like elsewhere in the world, Ethiopia used DDT to manage malaria and other diseases. It took the initiative to stop manufacturing the chemical eight years ago but still holds unused reserves.

DDT is a Persistent Organic Pollutant (POP) – a group of chemicals known for their acute and chronic toxicity, a long life in the environment and a tendency to bioaccumulate in the food chain. POPs are also known to cause some cancers, birth defects, and immune, reproductive and nervous system damage.

Global treaties like the 1992 Basel Convention and the 2004 Stockholm Convention prohibit and control POPs. These treaties underpin UN Environment’s work, in partnership with the Global Environment Facility, to implement projects globally that seek to build data on hazardous chemical use and strengthen partner countries’ policies and capacities in dealing with POPs.

The African ChemObs project is one such initiative. Of the nine regional countries involved, Ethiopia is the only nation with a POPs clean-up component. The greater part of the project is the establishment of nine health-environment “observatories” where data will be shared between ministries and analysed to provide country-specific environmental, social and economic arguments on the costs and benefits of immediate action on chemicals.

UN Environment programme manager Eloise Touni says the project is about more than just a toxic chemicals clean-up.

“As well as removing a huge POPs stockpile, the project should bring the issue of chemical pollution up the political agenda in Ethiopia and Africa, and hopefully stimulate the investment and stronger regulation that is needed to prevent the illness and contamination that toxic chemicals cause today,” she says.

The costs of inaction

Ethiopia’s 1,400 metric tons of DDT will be removed in about 70 shipping containers. No disposal facility on the African continent meets the environmental standards needed under the Stockholm Convention to destroy POPs molecules, so it will likely be shipped to an incinerator in Western Europe. Doing that safely doesn’t come cheap but Ethiopia’s existing expertise in the area means the $5-million price tag is cheaper than normal.

And if that still sounds like a lot of money to find, collect and destroy old pesticide stores, then UN Environment’s 2013 Costs of Inaction on the Sound Management of Chemicals report finds the alternative is worse. The report reveals that the costs of injury including lost workdays, medical treatment and hospitalization from pesticide poisonings in sub-Saharan Africa alone amounted to $4.4 billion in 2005. The figure is even considered an underestimation.

It’s a point not lost on Ethiopian State Minister Kare Chawicha Debessa from the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change: “The cost of inaction is much greater than the cost of managing [POPs] efficiently right now. And that’s why the government is doing its level best in collaboration with partners to address this problem,” he says in his office in Addis Ababa.

Ethiopia’s Environment Ministry however is only three years old and struggles to find the capacity it needs to meet its obligations under the multilateral environmental agreements, like the Stockholm Convention, that the country has signed up for. And while praise is often levelled at the Federal Ministry’s efforts, institutional capacity progressively weakens at the regional, zonal and local levels of government.

Of the 1,400 metric tons of DDT in Ethiopia, about 1,000 are divided across two easily accessible regional warehouses. The remaining stock is scattered across 460 small-scale stores around the country. It’s these stores that have State Environment Minister Kare worried.

“I know stockpiles which are stored at woreda [local government] offices, which are leaking into soil, and no one can do anything. So this is very critical really and it’s time to act,” he says.

UN Environment technical consultant Russell Cobban is also worried about the disbursed DDT stocks.

“The challenges are that Ethiopia is a massive country, and the conditions are somewhat uncontrolled,” Cobban says.

“Those [stores] will be out of the way, very difficult in terms of logistics to get there, difficult communications, dangerous in terms of not having many facilities close by to collect 450 tons of stock from. It’s going to be logistically difficult.”

Building expertise, enabling action

Back at the contaminated Adama warehouse, Mr Cobban conducts outside training with a group of Ethiopian technicians in the correct wearing of personal protective clothing and best-practice inventory models using tablets.

One trainee, Teshome Korme Oda, is a senior chemist at Adami Tulu Pesticide Processing SC. His factory was Ethiopia’s sole DDT producer. Production stopped eight years ago but the factory also stores about 500 tons of DDT, a fact that underscores the importance of the skills Mr Teshome is learning.

“This project is teaching us the model, how to inventory, how to safeguard, how to dispose [of] this DDT,” says Mr Teshome.

Standing just outside the closed door of the toxic warehouse, his trainer, Russell Cobban, also can’t stress the importance of the project enough.

“If this [DDT] was left to disintegrate then you could have a very much, much bigger problem spread over a very, very wide area” he says. “And once the cat is out of the bag it’s very difficult to put it back in there.”