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Bond, Patrick (2010) True cost of Durban's waste strategy. Eye on Civil Society : -.

What we do with waste tells us a lot about how our society and economy
have been organised ‑ and it's not pretty.

Mercury and E coli in our fish and sea water. Industrial and
agrobusiness effluents leaking everywhere. Periodic fires and explosions
in south Durban's unregulated petrochemical complex. Unrecycled solid
waste in our rubbish bins (with insufficient orange bags). Carbon
dioxide and other pollutants spewing into the air. All are poisoning
nature, our own bodies, and the future of our species.

Governments appear oblivious, as witnessed when Pretoria joined the
hijacking of December's UN climate summit by Washington, New Delhi,
Brasilia and Beijing. No matter South Africa's world‑leading CO2
emissions, Pretoria is pushing Eskom to build at least two more vast
coal‑fired power plants, paid for with a $3.5 billion (R27bn) World Bank
loan in turn repaid with a 200 percent increase in electricity prices
for households and vulnerable small businesses.

Meanwhile, the world's largest mining and metals houses continue getting
the world's cheapest electricity thanks to apartheid‑era multi‑decade deals.

In Durban, the same mentality was on display when Energy Minister Dipuo
Peters visited the Bisasar Road landfill last Thursday. This is Africa's
biggest dump, processing 5 000 tons of solid waste a day. It's the new
centrepiece of a Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) project which
generates electricity by burning a dangerous greenhouse gas, methane
(from rotting rubbish), which would otherwise escape into the air,
causing climate change at a rate 20 times higher than CO2.

At first glance the Bisasar Road CDM looks good, but consider two
glaring reasons this project should have been vetoed by city manager
Mike Sutcliffe and environmental officer Debra Roberts:

  • The fragile, declining global emissions market that supplies the CDM's
    main income.

  • Serious environmental hazards from flaring the methane.

  • First, backtrack a bit, as did Peters at the stinking dumpsite: As I
    understand it, the development of this project began as far back as 2002
    when the Department of Cleansing and Solid Waste here in eThekwini
    municipality was approached by the World Bank encouraging the
    municipality to consider participating in CDM initiatives.

    The bank promised that a new emissions market would emerge in which
    northern corporations bought CDM offset permits so as to continue
    emitting greenhouse gases of their own.

    To make the landfill methane‑electricity conversions highly profitable,
    the 1997 Kyoto Protocol would need to accomplish four things:

  • Impose a cap and reduce emissions so as to generate scarcity (the
    protocol didn't).

  • Continually raise the price of carbon (but it fell 60 percent from
    peak in mid‑2008 to today's e13/ton (R138/ton).

  • Rapidly escalate emission market trading volume (now stagnant at
    $130bn/year since 2008).

  • Establish markets across the rich world (but although Europe has an
    emissions trading scheme, the US refused to play ball, Canada also
    dropped out, and Australia tried last November but gave up) along the
    way to a post‑Kyoto Accord that would build a global market (but
    Copenhagen terminated this fantasy).

  • Naively believing the hype, Durban bureaucrats took the bait, and the
    loan shark moved in for the kill. The World Bank marketed Durban methane
    far and wide.

    But at the time they ran into Sajida Khan, who lived next to the site ‑
    at the corner of Clare and Kennedy roads ‑ until she died in 2007 of
    cancer. The dump had been plopped on to the Clare Estate community in
    1980. Many neighbours also succumbed to cancer.

    Because of Khan's activism, profiled on the front page of the Washington
    Post the day the Kyoto Protocol became operational in February, 2005,
    the bank retreated from Bisasar, but did offer CDM status to two other
    small Durban landfills in August that year.

    During the 1990s, Khan organised thousands of her neighbours to call for
    the closure of the Bisasar Road site.

    The city ordered the dump to stay open, contradicting ANC campaign
    promises in 1994, because Bisasar is extremely well located and the
    valley ‑ once a nature reserve ‑ could take many more years' worth of
    rubbish to fill up, hence more methane‑electricity CDM monies.

    But for Khan, that meant the Clare Estate community would be forever
    stuck with waste, stink and toxins. Perfume rods along the fence sicken
    the air instead of cleaning it. Ever‑widening gaps in the thin cement
    wall separating the dump from Kennedy Road (and thousands of
    shackdwellers) illustrate how little maintenance support the city provides.

    The methane‑electricity conversion requires burning and flaring, which
    means the putrid fumes from rotting waste have a much higher level of
    lethal chemicals and metals.

    Ideally, Khan argued, the dump should be shut, a municipal zero‑waste
    strategy adopted, and methane piped out of Bisasar to a site (for
    industrial usage) not so densely packed with housing and schools in the
    immediate vicinity. But that would have cost the city a bit more.

    The city might argue that the Bisasar CDM gamble will yet pay off. It's
    safe to bet against Sutcliffe's expectation of rising emissions market
    income to pay for Bisasar Road. Carbon trading is now in terminal decay,
    in part because Obama will fail to get climate change legislation out of
    his corporate‑funded Congress.

    It's the same story in Europe, as the Guardian reported last week:
    Banks are pulling out of the carbon‑offsetting market after Copenhagen
    failed to reach agreement on emissions targets.

    As Anthony Hobley of the law firm Norton Rose put it: We are seeing a
    freeze in banks' recruitment plans for the carbon market. It's not clear
    at what point this will turn into a cull or a rout.

    Meanwhile, the awful consequences of Durban waste continue. In
    Chatsworth, the Bul Bul Landfill emits toxic fumes, and last October a
    particularly bad eruption left more than 100 nearby schoolchildren
    hospitalised. According to Lushendrie Naidu of the Dumpsite Action
    Committee: We are protesting, demanding the dump be closed. For the
    past five years, chemical waste has been stored at Bul Bul, yet there is
    no disaster management plan.

    Instead of a sensible disposal strategy, Durban's pyromaniac bureaucrats
    are turning to waste incineration, using the energy/climate crisis as an
    excuse, and borrowing outmoded technology from Oslo. Yet as one official
    Norwegian document concedes: Incineration and landfill are seen as the
    least desirable forms of waste management and represent the last resort
    within Oslo's strategy.

    Because the super‑carcinogenic chemical dioxin is produced in the
    process, the Norwegian group Aksjon Steng Giftfabrikken demands that the
    two Oslo incinerators be closed.

    Yet mayor Obed Mlaba cheerily announced in last September's city's
    newsletter: Residents of Oslo in particular, are generating electricity
    directly from solid waste. The way it's done is that waste is simply fed
    into some transformer machine, where it is literally burned with the end
    product being electricity. Well, the good news for you and I is that we
    could soon have the same method right here on our doorstep.

    Once available, it would perfectly complement the methane‑based power
    process, putting Durban well on track to playing its part in
    curtailing global warming through the reduction of greenhouse gas
    emission into the atmosphere.

    The reality is much more dangerous, and if Mlaba, Sutcliffe, Peters and
    the World Bank are doing this deed purely for the dollars, they will be
    as deeply disappointed as residents whose cancer they are causing by
    burning toxins and keeping landfills open in Durban's vulnerable
    neighbourhoods, not to mention wagering our lives on a climate strategy
    ‑ emissions trading ‑ that won't work, either for them or our descendants.

    # Patrick Bond directs the UKZN Centre for Civil Society.

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