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Nairobi’s Slum Dwellers Mired in Filth

13 min read.

Nairobi’s growth has been exponential but poor waste management infrastructure has left the city’s slum dwellers living in a highly polluted environment without adequate supplies of clean water.

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Nairobi’s Slum Dwellers Mired in Filth
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Tucked away in Nairobi’s Dandora Phase 4 slum is a shanty that Lucy Wanjiru, 28, calls home, one of the many tiny, poorly lit structures built with scraps of corrugated iron sheets and metal.  At Lucy’s doorstep is a vegetable garden littered with dozens of mostly empty jerricans that can find no storage space in her small room. To the side is a large pumpkin plant. A pile of old croc shoes that she uses as cooking fuel sits beside the three stones on which Lucy sets her pot to cook the family meals.

Just nearby is a shared pit latrine; in place of a door is a piece of sack billowing in the wind.

“I do not have a special toilet like the rich people. I use the pipe toilet,” the mother of two who earns a living washing clothes and who moved here seven years ago after getting married tells the Elephant.

A pipe toilet is a pit latrine with a pipe attached to it. When you pour water to flush, the faecal matter passes through the pipe and drains directly into the nearby Nairobi River from which Lucy draws water to grow her vegetables, do the laundry and bathe because she cannot afford to buy enough domestic water from vendors.

This is a major health risk to Lucy and her family as the river water can transmit diseases such polio, diarrhoea, dysentery, typhoid, as well as cholera, which averages 3,500 cases annually and costs Kenya about US$2.2 million. But Lucy says she has no alternative.

“I can stay thirsty for a few days but I am a woman, I need to bathe. What other choice do I have? Now I have vegetables, and the little money I get, I buy maize flour and cooking oil. I don’t have to buy paraffin, my husband brings old shoes from the Dandora dump site where he works,” says Lucy, who caught typhoid three times in 2021.

Lucy is not the only one in this situation. Here in Dandora, home to more than 140,000 Nairobi residents, clean water, sanitation and waste disposal facilities are a luxury.

Residents are forced to buy costly water from cartels that have privatised the water supply and discharge all their waste into the river they depend on for bathing, washing clothes, cleaning, and for crop and livestock farming, endangering their lives and harming the environment in the process.

Known for its crime, poverty and as the city’s main dumpsite, the Dandora slum suffers from a severe water shortage. Yet it sits on the banks of Nairobi River, a biodiversity-rich source of clean water a century ago. But explosive population growth, industrialization and lack of waste management infrastructure in Nairobi have left the river very sick.

Billions of shillings have been spent by the government and other institutions in an effort to clean up the river, revamp the city’s sewerage system and provide clean water to the city’s residents with little success; the condition of the river continues to deteriorate.

Experts say this is because the full context of the problem is ignored; slum dwellers, one of the chief drivers of river pollution, are not involved yet their participation is critical to improving the health of the river.

Sam Dindi, an environmentalist and co-founder of Mazingara Yetu, a community-based organisation, has for years been part of the Ngong River Restoration initiative under the Nairobi City Regeneration Programme (NCRP), and the restoration of the Ondiri wetland, the source of the Nairobi River.

Speaking to the Elephant, Dindi observed that Kenya is a water-scarce country where pollution and climate change have exacerbated water scarcity. “We’re losing much needed water but you cannot clean the river without addressing the source of its pollution. Slum dwellers are a major polluter and most affected.

They have no water, toilets, sewage or solid waste disposal systems and housing conditions and planning are extremely poor and hazardous. All their waste ends up polluting the river, environment and creating water scarcity.

To rehabilitate the river, we need proper urban planning, sanitation systems and recycling facilities then we’ll know this waste is going here, and this is going there. We’ll even create jobs but putting on an overall and heading to the river to remove solid waste is just a PR exercise. It’s a waste of time.”

The story of Nairobi River 

Nairobi River is the main river of the Nairobi River Basin comprising Ngong, Nairobi, Mathare, Kiu, Riara and Gatharaini rivers. In Ondiri, Kikuyu, Kiambu County where the Nairobi River originates, the water is clean and clear. During a field visit in November last year, I found a man dipping his water bottle and drinking water directly from the river; he has done this since childhood.

But as the river winds downstream across the city, passing through residential areas, factories, industries, hospitals and businesses including in the Nairobi Central Business District (CBD), the industrial area and the highly populated informal settlements like Dandora, the river gathers all manner of waste that now threatens its existence.

Putting on an overall and heading to the river to remove solid waste is just a PR exercise. It’s a waste of time.”

It is here in Dandora Phase 4 where Lucy lives that the Mathare River meets and joins the Nairobi River, draining into the Athi River east of Nairobi, and eventually into the Indian Ocean as the Galana River.

The Nairobi River and all its tributaries are heavily polluted with sewage from open sewers and industrial waste that is illegally channelled by unscrupulous developers. So bad is the pollution that studies have declared the waters too toxic for any useful purpose.

Acute water shortage in Dandora

Mwaura’s shanty in Dandora is just a few metres from Nairobi River. The 72-year-old says he does not pay rent because he owns the land. He however does not have a title deed.

Mwaura was born and raised in the shanty he calls home. Yet he could be uprooted at any time; like many others in the slum, his house is built without government approval and is considered illegally constructed as the government owns the land.

For years, Mwaura has tried to install piped water without success, forcing him to buy water from vendors, kiosks and water cartels at exorbitant prices. “The river water is black and poisonous. I cannot use it but if I had 10,000 shillings, I would pay this man in the neighbourhood who lets people connect pipes from his house to their homes. But that amount is too high. I cannot afford it,” says the former watchman.

Charlie, a recently widowed father of two, considers the river too toxic, “Water is everything but I will not endanger my children. I struggle daily wondering why I have to choose between buying food, paraffin or fetching water. Life was easier when my wife was here because fetching water is a woman’s duty.”

The Nairobi River and all its tributaries are heavily polluted with sewage from open sewers and industrial waste that is illegally channelled by unscrupulous developers.

He is fortunate however not to have to pay rent since his former landlord disappeared years ago. Charlie soon erected two shanties that he rents out to feed his family but to date, he is unable to install piped water because it is too expensive, he says.

Kenya’s constitution recognises that access to adequate food, housing, reasonable standards of sanitation and clean, safe water in adequate quantities is an economic and social right for every person. Dandora’s residents, however, say these rights are just on paper.

According to UN Habitat, only 22 per cent of Nairobi’s slum dwellers have piped water. Seventy-five per cent of residents buy water from vendors, paying more for water than those living in middle or high-income areas.

In 2020, UN Human Rights reported that the price of piped water in Nairobi’s middle class neighbourhoods ranged between KSh34 and KSh53 per cubic metre (1000 litres) whereas residents of informal settlements paid between KSh10 and KSh50 for a 20-litre jerry can.

Drawing data from Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company (NCWSC) between 1985 and 2018 and Global Human Settlement between 1975 and 2014, a recent study further highlighted inequality in water distribution, access and cost between Nairobi’s high-income and low-income areas. According to the study, slum dwellers are unlikely to receive the 1,500 litres of water every month per person recommended by World Health Organisation (WHO), unlike residents of high and middle income areas who are four or six times more likely to receive the recommended amounts.

Kenya Vision 2030 targets 100 per cent provision of safe water and access to basic sanitation services by 2030, the deadline for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGS). Yet, today, just 50 per cent of Nairobi has piped water coverage, with only 40 per cent receiving water on a 24-hour basis.

Following extended periods of drought, the government introduced water rationing in Nairobi in 2017, with residents receiving water on specific days. Some residents have access to water for only a few hours a day while others receive water at least three times a week, leaving many at the mercy of water cartels.

According to NCWSC, which is mandated to provide the city with water and sewage services, Nairobi’s water needs have grown to more than 810,000 cubic meters daily against an installed capacity of 525,600 cubic meters.

“The demand is higher than supply. We are 20 years behind,” NCWSC Managing Director Nahashon Muguna said in an interview.

No waste facilities in Dandora

Mwaura’s pit latrine collapsed just a few days after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in Kenya. Now, every time he or his family needs to use the toilet, he must ask permission from his neighbour. “It sank to the ground but nobody was injured. This was my first toilet, a bit old but it was still my toilet and never drained to the river like the rest in the area,” Mwaura said.

The father of four says that many years ago he and his family used to practice open defecation because at the time, “there were bushes and the area wasn’t as populated as now”. A field visit to Dandora is an obstacle race over rocks, logs, open trenches filled with wastewater, human waste and heaps of garbage, all of which finally ends up in the Nairobi River.

The makeshift structures along the banks of the Nairobi River, including homes and businesses, all have pipe toilets that discharge waste directly into the river. Residents without pipe toilets—or who are not connected to sewer lines because of lack of money—confided that when their toilets are full, they empty them by scooping the waste with buckets and discharging it into the river.

Traders in Dandora, including those selling food, go about their business amidst the stench of sewage flowing through broken sewer lines, narrow open trenches, and overflowing manholes, all leading to the river.

Nairobi’s water needs have grown to more than 810,000 cubic meters daily against an installed capacity of 525,600 cubic meters.

“I’ve had typhoid several times this year [2021], but it wasn’t this food, it was from drinking that water,” Esther Muthoni, a resident told the Elephant as she pointed at the water pipes in the mess of sewage. The World Health Organisation warns that wastewater can seep into the water supply through damaged pipes making it undrinkable.

Everything is a risk here. But we’re used to the filth,” Muthoni said as she stuffed boiled potatoes in chicken necks to make kuku chipo ya kuchemsha for her clients.

People can be seen defecating in the open areas and near or in the river even as others wash themselves or clean their clothes, oblivious of the danger they pose to those using the water. The situation is no different in Korogocho, Kamukunji (Shauri Moyo) and other areas near Gikomba market.

According to Unicef, Kenya is one of 26 countries in the world that are responsible for 90 per cent of open defecation with an estimated five million Kenyans practising open defecation. The practice costs the economy KSh8 billion every year with approximately 19,500 Kenyans, including 17,100 children under the age of five years dying annually from diarrhoea according to the Ministry of Health Environmental Sanitation and Hygiene Strategic Framework (KeSSF) 2016-2020 report.

Kenya plans to eliminate open defecation by 2025. To do this, some 1.2 million latrines—at a cost of KSh1,530 each—are required. Overall, the ministry says, Kenya loses an estimated KSh27 billion (US$365 million) annually due to poor sanitation, about 1 per cent of the national GDP.

In another area of Dandora, David, barely two years old, is playing in the open trenches outside his family’s single room home. His sickly and heavily pregnant mother rushes to pick him up. Three days earlier, David had been taken to hospital at night following three days of diarrhoea, a leading cause of death and disability in Kenya. “I am tired of going to the hospital. But what do I do? He wants to play but there’s no space. It’s worse when I have to go work,” the mother of four lamented.

In Kenya in 2018, 1,499,146 cases of diarrhoea were reported among children under five years, with Nairobi accounting for 136,028 cases. 25.6 per cent of children living in the informal settlement had diarrhoea.

Kenya is one of 26 countries in the world that are responsible for 90 per cent of open defecation with an estimated five million Kenyans practising open defecation.

Residents of Dandora told the Elephant that they have nowhere else to take their waste and the river made sense as waste would “flow downstream” or “get washed away by the rain”.  Some thought the river was just an open sewer.

With funding from the Africa Development Bank (AfDB), the Nairobi Sewerage Improvement Project, which is part of the larger Nairobi River Basin Rehabilitation and Restoration Programme, has developed wastewater facilities and increased the city’s sewage coverage from 40 to 48 per cent.

The AfDB says that infrastructure has not kept pace with the growing population, industrialization and urbanisation, which has led to heavy pollution of Nairobi’s rivers, including Mathare, Ngong, Athi and Kiu, the main source of water supply for the city. Domestic and industrial waste is discharged directly into the rivers without being treated, which has an adverse impact on the river ecology.

Currently, Kenya’s urban areas host 12 million people and the number is expected to triple to 40 million by 2050. And as Nairobi grows, the World Bank says, more poor urban dwellers are pushed into low-income settlements, where there is little or no water or sanitation.

Residents of Dandora told the Elephant that they have nowhere else to take their waste and the river made sense as waste would “flow downstream” or “get washed away by the rain”.

According to the Nairobi County Assembly, 60 per cent of Nairobi’s 4,397,073 residents live in slums and informal settlements and occupy only 6 per cent of Nairobi’s total land area.

“It’s difficult to provide social amenities at a pace that matches the population growth hence facilities like water and sewerage have been overstretched,” the Nairobi County Government said in its 21/22 development plan.

Kenya’s capital Nairobi generates 525 million litres of wastewater daily, less than 200 million litres of which are treated. The city’s main treatment plants, Dandora Estate Sewage Treatment Works (DSTW), which was built in 1975, and Kariobangi Sewerage Treatment Plant, which was built in 1960 and started operating in 1963, have been overwhelmed. “The effluent from the treatment plant, which is discharged into Nairobi River for reuse, currently does not meet required quality standards due to overloading,” the Dandora treatment plant reports on its website.

The city also generates an estimated 2,400 tonnes of solid waste daily yet only 45 per cent is recycled, reused or transformed into a form which can yield an economic or ecological benefit. The rest finds its way into waterways like the Nairobi River, which provides a livelihood for many residents as a source of water for farming, domestic use, industrial use, and at recreation facilities such as the Dandora Waterfall and the Fourteen Falls in Thika.

Polluting companies 

Although residents living along the banks depend on the health of Nairobi River, factories and drainage have heavily polluted its waters for decades. Household and human waste, pharmaceutical and industrial waste, chemicals and heavy metals are among the pollutants that are discharged into the Nairobi River on a daily basis. Since 2019, 21 dead bodies—16 infants and 5 adults dumped in the river to rot—have been retrieved so far.

The Cabinet Secretary for the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, Keriako Tobiko, has directed that individuals, companies and public institutions discharging raw waste into Nairobi River be charged and prosecuted. The Technical Director of Nairobi Water and Sewage Ltd was arrested after the CS found sewer lines discharging waste to the river.

In mid-2020, the National Environment Management Authority identified 148 polluters who were to be arraigned in court. Companies and factories, including Apex Coating East Africa, Kamongo Waste Recycling Company and Associated Battery Manufacturers (ABM), have been shut down by the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) for discharging untreated effluent into the river.

Since 2019, 21 dead bodies—16 infants and 5 adults dumped in the river to rot—have been retrieved so far.

During the “Ng’arisha Jiji” programme, former Nairobi Governor Mike Mbuvi Sonko also directed the closure of 25 companies and hospitals for discharging raw sewage and aborted babies into the river. According to environmentalist Sam Dindi, sewage trucks empty waste into the river instead of taking it to designated waste disposal sites.

Toxins and diseases 

Many Nairobi residents are not aware that they could be eating vegetables that are killing them, or are using non-woven shopping bags scavenged from dumpsites like Dandora and washed in the Nairobi River.

Scientific studies show that lead and cadmium levels are 13,500 ppm (parts per million) and 1,058 ppm respectively along the riparian areas where farmers have channelled the river water into their farms, including in the Dandora dumpsite area. They rear animals, grow maize, arrowroots, Napier grass and vegetables that are later sold in the area, in estates nearby and in markets like Ruai, Muthurwa and Gikomba.

“I see the dirt as fertiliser and you can see vegetables are green and healthy,” says Willy, a farmer in Dandora Phase 4 who uses the river water. He says he made a killing last year selling traditional vegetables and even managed to pay college fees for his young cousin. While Willy moves from door to door in Dandora selling his vegetables, farmers in the neighbouring Lucky Summer Estate have established their stalls just outside the estate gates.

According to the environment CS, the river pollution and consumption of food produced with polluted water undermines the realisation of universal health and food security, which are among the country’s Big Four Agenda.

The pollution creates clean water scarcity, degrades the environment, and exposes people to heavy metal poisoning. The bacteria, sewage, chemicals and plastics suck oxygen from water supplies and transform water into poison for humans and ecosystems. Lab analyses of water collected at different points in the river showed that the amounts of lead, copper, chromium, zinc and manganese were greater than the limits set by the WHO and NEMA.

High manganese concentrations can cause liver damage, neurotoxicity, chronic respiratory inflammation and birth defects such as cleft lip, heart defects, imperforate anus and deafness, in addition to causing aggressive behaviour and libido disturbances. “The concentration of lead, one of the most insidious of all environmental hazards, was also above the NEMA limit of 0.01 mg/L for effluent discharge into the environment in all the sampling points,” the findings say.

Antimicrobials in the river have driven the emergence of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) where bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites have built resistance to the drugs used for treatment of diseases.

Efforts and solutions 

The first attempt at rehabilitation and restoration of the Nairobi River Basin took place between 1999 and 2001, in collaboration with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The second ran from 2001 to 2003 while the third was between 2004 and 2008.

In 2017, the fourth attempt kicked off with the aim of improving Nairobi city water, sanitation facilities, waste management, and roads and housing, especially in the slums and informal settlements. However, these initiatives have had very little success and the situation is deteriorating by the day.

Lack of community engagement and participation has contributed to the limited success, according to Josephat Karomi, Chairman of Kamukunji Environment Conservation Champions (KECC), a community-based group that turned the Kamukunji grounds on the banks of the Nairobi River from a dumpsite into a clean environment.

Many Nairobi residents are not aware that they could be eating vegetables that are killing them.

“Often, issues are discussed in closed offices and riparian communities are overlooked,” Karomi said. A multi-agency team involving residents, national and county governments, the private sector, NGOs, community groups, and community leaders would combat the crisis however, he said. Karomi believes that by forging partnerships, residents can create wealth from collecting, sorting and selling waste to recyclers as much of the waste discharged into the river could be recycled.

According to Sam Dindi, to accommodate the large number of households living near the river without toilets and sanitation facilities, the government should build public toilets and facilities for washing clothes, with the grey water directed to sewer lines. “This will give the clean-ups a meaning,” he said.

Wastewater can generate wealth as nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus are recovered as fertiliser and treated wastewater is used for agriculture.

Experts have attributed the stalling of the renovation and reclamation of Nairobi River to lack of funds and political will. However, in some areas like Kibera, through which the Ngong River passes, the regeneration project has shown positive signs. Fifteen community ablution blocks have been built and new sewer lines have been laid, with old lines being rehabilitated.

The Dandora Sewage plant is getting a facelift under the KSh1.3 billion Nairobi Water Project. The construction of seven ponds of 20,000 cubic metres capacity each at a cost of KShI billion and the erection of a perimeter wall on the 4,000 acres of land at a cost of KSh300 million are underway.

The World Bank has also provided sustainable access to sanitation and water services in selected low-income areas under the Nairobi Sanitation Project at a cost of US$4.8 million and says that more needs to be done otherwise experts say projects like the KSh82 billion Thwake Dam may turn out to be white elephant if the matter is not attended to urgently.

Research for article was carried out with the support of a fellowship from the Media Hack collective.

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Naipanoi Lepapa is a freelance investigative and feature journalist based in Nairobi Kenya. She is interested in under-reported stories and writes about gender, human rights, health and environmental stories. She also writes about culture and technology.

Politics

The Myth That Is Plastic Waste Recycling in Kenya

The quantities of recycled plastic in Kenya remain insignificant, but the long-term ecological cost of disposing plastic waste in the environment will be immeasurable.

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The Myth That Is Plastic Waste Recycling in Kenya
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One aspect of modern Kenyan urban living that takes getting used to are the regular, well-timed garbage collection days. Miss your day and you will have to keep the trash a week longer awaiting the next collection date when the beaten-up lorries full of garbage labour through city estates in mid-morning collecting the waste produced by city dwellers.

Should you find yourself in the central business district at around midnight, you may run into these rickety trucks collecting food waste from city restaurants, discarded cartons from offices, and empty drink cans from the city’s clubs that they ferry to the few landfills scattered around the city.

The barely roadworthy trucks are part of the more than 205 lorries working at the city’s many collection points in a hectic bid to keep Nairobi County hygienic. So profitable is the waste collection business that private contractors and cartels have infiltrated the trade.

In Nairobi alone, the county’s garbage collection service is complemented by nearly 150 private sector waste operators who also serve this city of over 4 million residents. Private investments have done a lot but not nearly enough to address the garbage crisis that plagues Kenya’s towns and cities.

Kenya’s urban households produce the bulk of the country’s solid waste, including a major share of the estimated 24 million plastic bags that are used and discarded every month. A significant portion of the plastic waste ends up in dumpsites alongside scrap metal, paper materials, glassware, and medical and toxic waste. Plastic waste constitutes a significant portion of this trash, and poses the biggest challenge to solid waste management in Kenya.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), 73 per cent of all plastic waste generated in Kenya goes uncollected. The National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) reports that between 2 and 8 per cent of the plastic waste is recycled while the rest is disposed of at dumpsites such as Dandora and Ruai in Nairobi, Kachok in Kisumu, and Kibarani at the coast. In Mombasa alone, some 3.7 kilogrammes of per capita plastic waste end up in the ocean, contributing to the 1,300 billion pieces of plastic that find their way into the Indian Ocean every year. Experts estimate that there will be more plastic than fish species in all the oceans globally by 2025.

Kenya banned plastic carrier bags in 2017, at the same time that the United Nations Environment Programme was launching the Clean Seas campaign to reduce marine litter. From June 2020, visitors entering game reserves, forests, beaches, protected areas and conservancies are no longer allowed to carry plastic water bottles, cups, cutlery, plates, drinking straws, and packaging within the protected areas.

On the production end, there are industry-led plastics initiatives such as the Kenya Plastic Action Plan and the creation of the Kenya Extended Producer Responsibility Organization (KEPRO), whose mandate is to ensure that plastics are mapped, ferried, sorted, and where possible, put back into circulation. Given the low garbage collection rates, and the even lower sorting rates, recycling has been misleadingly touted as the key to managing plastic waste.

For context, the cumulative global plastic waste produced since 1950 is estimated at 8.3 billion tonnes — half of which was produced in the last 13 years alone — at an average of 300 million tonnes annually.

In Kenya recycling doesn’t work    

Recycling has its limitations. Despite being cited as a major solution to the problem of plastic waste, a solution that has been taken up by 34 of the 54 African states,  numerous reports have proven that it costs more to recycle than to dispose of the waste. That of course begs the question: costlier for whom?

While disposing plastic is cheaper than recycling, the long-term ecological cost to Kenyans living close to landfills and downstream is provably much higher. Kenyan plastic manufacturers are in the business for profit and, for the most part, recycling does not offer them value for money.

According to Kenya’s PET plastic industry’s joint self-regulation effort, once plastic waste enters the recycling conveyer, it is assembled and packed into bales that are sold as industrial goods and sent to the dozens of recycling plants around the country to be sorted by quality, industrial variety, texture and colour. The waste is then shredded, sanitized, melted down, and moulded into smaller, smoother plastic pellets.

These pellets, known as nurdles, are bought and once again melted down and fashioned into other plastic products, ready for re-use by industries. This form of recycling is the optimal pathway for plastic waste, but it rarely is feasible. Recycling plastic waste is a lengthy and costly process that is avoided by many plastic producers.

To put it in context, less than 45 per cent of Nairobi’s overall waste is recycled, most of it undergoing what is referred to as down-cycling, open recycling, or cascaded recycling.

Cascaded recycling refers to the process of using recycled plastic waste to make an item of a lower quality than the original product. These items typically have reduced recycling potential, which destines them for the landfill after use. Models of cascaded recycling in Kenya’s informal settlements therefore turn the triangular recycling loop into a one-way direction to an incinerator or landfill.

Recycling plastic waste is a lengthy and costly process that is avoided by many plastic producers.

Global research led by plastics expert Dr Roland Geyer claims that only 9 per cent of all the plastic waste ever produced has been recycled. Kenya’s cascaded recycling rates are harder to quantify but an authoritative plastics report states that only 14 per cent of global plastic packaging waste was collected for recycling in 2013. Only 8 per cent of that amount was down-cycled, of which 4 per cent atrophied during the process while only 2 per cent was recycled into a product of equal or higher value.

Even locally, recycling plastic is a costly process and sorting it, many experts assert, is unfeasible, which means that there is no way out when dealing with plastic waste other than banning the production and use of plastics.

Kenya and the global dumping of plastic waste 

The non-feasibility of recycling plastic waste has been an open secret among plastics industry insiders since as far back as the 1970s. As early as 1973, senior executives of plastics multinationals had already ruled out plastic waste recycling on a large scale. Instead, these multinationals paid for misleading big-budget advertisements extolling the virtues of plastic products, and lying about the ease with which plastics could be recycled for other uses, while also placing the responsibility of recycling or disposing plastic waste on the end-user. However, the mounds of plastic waste that are now an eyesore in many urban areas belie the claim that recycling is the solution.

Old industry memos and library archives show that as far back as the mid-1980s Kenyan scholars like Kamau Hezron Mwangi had begun to call for a serious look into the efficacy of recycling  while, in the mid-1990s, researcher Dr J.N. Muthotho and his team demanded for greater research across specific plastic products supply chains. The growing concerns linked to plastic products, their quality, disposability and the economics of the industry paint an image of an industry that has always been well aware of the problems caused by plastic waste but has lacked the motivation to address the issue. In an increasingly consumerist society, plastic has continued to be affordable, readily available, cheap, convenient, and yet very difficult to dispose of.

Ending Kenya’s relationship with plastic

A radical behavioural shift by producers, packaging firms and end-users is required in order to rid the Kenyan environment of plastic pollution. The ban on plastic carrier bags has had an estimated 80 per cent efficacy rate. Industry insiders including manufacturers and distributors now say that the ban should be extended to disposable tableware, plastic straws, plates and cutlery.

The mounds of plastic waste that are now an eyesore in many urban areas belie the claim that recycling is the solution.

This, the stakeholders say, will reduce the amount of single-use plastic in landfills, reduce waste, minimize animal deaths, improve human safety, and save our water systems. However, a concerted effort is needed to ban single-use plastic bottles, plastic straws, and plastic packaging and replace them with organic, biodegradable plastic (BDP) alternatives.

Most BDP products in the Kenyan market are made of thermoplastic starch that uses a polyester similar in material strength to plastic. Currently there is only one manufacturer in the country. However, researchers are coming closer to finding organic alternatives to plastics.

Reimagining a post-plastic country

In Kenya, the stakeholders have to begin to reimagine new models of ridding the country of plastic waste in the everyday life and habits of Kenyan citizens. Nairobi and its environs alone is estimated to produce between 2,400 and 3,000 tonnes of general waste every single day, an estimated 20 per cent of which is plastic waste.

“People don’t want to stop using plastic. It is cheap and easy to use so I understand why people like [it]”, says Kinuthia, an unlicensed collector in Uthiru.

A consumer culture that creates an ever-increasing demand and use of plastic products ought to be overhauled, reimagined, and refashioned.

Even within economic circles, the focus on GDP as a measure of economic progress while ignoring the social, ecological and cultural impacts is increasingly frowned upon. As far back as the late 1980s, the World Bank President Barber Conable recognised that the ecological cost of economic production has to be accounted for. “Current calculations ignore the degradation of the natural-resource base and view the sales of nonrenewable resources entirely as income . . . A better way must be found.” he wrote.

Kenya’s plastic producers and importers have to begin to consider how to shift the society away from plastic products and integrate the alternatives in the marketplace. Kenyans have the opportunity to have a national conversation around local plastic producers and importers, if we are to work effectively towards phasing out all plastic products sold in the market.

With imports valued at an estimated US$883 million, Kenya’s plastics sector has a critical duty to phase out plastic products so as to, at the very least, ensure that the end-user does not have to choose between affordability, disposability, and sustainability of the packaging when making a purchasing decision.

The plastic waste crisis calls for Kenyans to design products with their life cycle and their end in mind at the outset. Therefore, designing products with their utility and disposal in mind is critical. For example, utilizing snap-together parts in appliances minimizes the use of screws, making the end product easier to disassemble, recover, and recycle at the end. This evolution in design proactively shapes the journey of a product in order to ensure that as much material as possible is recycled back into the production conveyer.

Even within economic circles, the focus on GDP as a measure of economic progress while ignoring the social, ecological and cultural impacts is increasingly frowned upon.

On 24 March 2021, Kenya’s Centre for Environment Justice and Development (CEJD) held a consultative forum with 24 grassroots Civil Society Organisations in the waste management sector with support from Break Free From Plastic. The members used the existing legislative framework that bans single-use plastic carrier bags in the country to launch the CSOs for Zero Plastics in Kenya network that integrates the input of stakeholders in the affected sectors. Still, this push by CSOs towards a wider ban seems to have created a policy tension between the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) and multi-nationals that rely on plastic products for packaging.

In 2018, NEMA tried to extend the ban on plastic carrier bags to single-use plastic containers such as bottles made of PET. However, the companies involved in the production of PET products instead proposed a self-regulated, industry-led solution under PETCO.

Despite NEMA’s pledge in 2018 to make PETCO membership mandatory for all plastic industry players, its membership remains voluntary. This lapse has slowed the acceptance of membership by stakeholders and by industry players and minimized compliance. Kenya currently has eight PET converters, but only one of them is a PETCO member. Moreover, an estimated 900 bottling plants use PET containers but only eight (1 per cent) are members of PETCO.

The future of a post-plastic Kenya requires consolidation of existing industry efforts, ramping up scientific research on alternatives, a shift in consumer behaviour and robust incremental policies in enforcing the bans and restrictions. Only then can Kenya secure its ecology, manage the diverse interests of the stakeholders involved and still manage its ecological health with posterity in mind.

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Microplastics: the Destruction of Marine Life and the Blue Economy

Even as Kenya’s land-based resources continue to shrink because of a rapidly growing population, microplastic pollution of Kenya’s Indian Ocean is putting in jeopardy the country’s maritime resources.

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Microplastics: the Destruction of Marine Life and the Blue Economy
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Five scientists, Joyce Kerubo, John M. Onyari and Agnes Muthumbi from the University of Nairobi, Deborah Robertson-Andersson from the University of Kwa Zulu Natal, and Edward Ndirui Kimani from the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI), undertook a research study last year that returned a harsh verdict of a high presence of microplastics (MPs) in Kenya’s Indian Ocean.

MPs are plastic pellets, fragments, and fibres that enter the environment and are less than 5mm in dimension. The primary sources of MPs are vehicle tyres, synthetic textiles, paints, personal care products, and plastic products that have disintegrated into tiny particles because of environmental turbulence.

The study by the five scientists, Microplastic Polymers in Surface Waters and Sediments in the Creeks along the Kenya Coast, Western Indian Ocean (WIO), identified four polymer types in Kenya’s Indian Ocean. High-density polythene is the most abundant at 38.3 per cent, followed by polypropylene (34.6 per cent), low-density polythene (27.1 per cent), and medium density polythene (17.1 per cent). The research findings were published in the European Journal of Sustainable Development Research on 18 October 2021.

The concentration of MPs in the surface waters along the Kenyan coastline was higher compared to other parts of the world, the study warned. The findings of the study also confirmed those of previous studies on the presence of MPs in Kenya’s Indian Ocean.

The scientists also cautioned that the documented information on the specific polymeric composition of these particles in seawater and in the sediments along the Kenyan coast was insufficient. The findings, the study offered, demonstrated the extent of exposure to MPs in Kenya’s ocean ecosystems, therefore justifying policy intervention in the management and disposal of plastic waste, and the protection of the ocean’s rich biodiversity for sustainable development.

It drew testing samples from three creeks: Tudor and Port Reitz in Mombasa County and Mida in Kilifi County. Tudor Creek covers an area of approximately 20 square kilometres and is fed by two seasonal rivers—Kombeni and Tsalu—that originate around Mariakani, about 32 kilometres northwest of Mombasa. The two seasonal rivers collect runoff containing plastic and other waste from the mainland and discharge it into the creek.

Surrounding Tudor creek are several densely populated informal settlements that include Mishomoroni and Mikindani that may add MPs to the ocean. According to the study findings, the majority of the MPs were fibrous materials from textiles and ropes, probably from wastewater from washing clothes and from fishing activities.

Other key facilities that could contribute to the pollution include shipping activities at the Port of Mombasa, meat processing at Kenya Meat Commission (KMC), Coast General Hospital, Container Freight Stations (CFSs) and Kipevu Power Station. Before it was rehabilitated, Mombasa County Government dumped a lot of waste at Kibarani, near the two creeks and just next to the ocean.

Tudor Creek recorded the highest pollution, also as a result of rain runoff from Kongowea market and Muoroto slums, and Mikindani sewage effluent. Moreover, according to the study, which could, however, not determine the proportions, many industries on Mombasa Island release their effluent into the sea, increasing MPs in sediments.

Mida Creek was used as a control in the study as it does not have river inflows. In addition, the creek is in a marine reserve that forms part of the Watamu Marine National Park and Reserve. However, MPs from different polymers were found in sediment and surface water samples from all the sites—including Mida Creek which is within Watamu National Marine Reserve—which the researchers had thought to be safe from pollution by industrial effluent, sewage disposal, and fishing activities.

Many industries on Mombasa Island release their effluent into the sea, increasing MPs in sediments.

The study attributed the pollution at Mida Creek to high tourism activities, boat and dhow fishing activities, densely populated villages such as Dabaso, Ngala, and Kirepwe and the mangrove vegetation cover of tall trees that binds soil particles thus favouring the accumulation of MPs.

According to a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report released in March 2019, plastic—which makes up a sizable proportion of marine pollution—can now be found in all the world’s oceans, but concentrations are thought to be highest in coastal areas and reef environments where the vast majority of this litter originates from land-based sources.

In Kenya, daily plastic consumption is estimated at 0.3 Kilograms per person. In 2018, Kenya imported between 45,000 and 57,000 metric tonnes of plastic.

Earlier in 2020, KMFRI had carried out its own study—Microplastics Pollution in Coastal Nearshore Surface Waters in Vanga, Mombasa, Malindi and Lamu, Kenya—that painted an even gloomier picture of MP pollution.

The four sampling locations represented the South coast, Mombasa and the North coast of Kenya’s coastal nearshore waters, and looked into considering fishing, recreation, and industrial activities, as well as the municipal effluent that finds its way into these target areas.

The objective of the study was to assess the abundance MPs and their composition in Kenya’s coastal near-shore waters during the two rainy seasons at the Kenyan coast: the north-east monsoon which runs between November and March, and the south-east monsoon which runs from April to October.

The results showed a widely varied distribution of MPs between the two seasons, with the overall highest concentrations occurring during the south-east monsoon when surface runoff from rainwater and from effluent from the major towns is high.

As confirmed in other research studies, the concentrations recorded by KMFRI, were quite high compared to other parts of the world. This provided baseline data for MPs, showing that population, anthropogenic activities and seasonal variations a play key role in influencing pollution by MPs.

Total MP concentrations in all the study areas during the north-east and the south-east monsoon seasons ranged between 83 MPs/m³ and 8266 MPs/m³ and between 126 MPs/m³ and 12,256 MPs/m³ respectively, with a mean of 3228 MPs/m³. The highest microplastic levels were found in Mombasa at 12,256 MPs/m³ during the south-east monsoon season, where runoff and effluent due to heavy rains are thought to be the primary source. The next highest levels were found in Malindi, occurring during the south-east monsoon season, because of inflows from River Sabaki.

Boat activities and tourism during the north-east monsoon season and runoff from the town during the south-east monsoon season mostly affected Lamu, while fishing activities, as well and runoff from the town, could be responsible for the abundance of MPs recorded in Vanga.

Solid waste management remains an enormous challenge in coastal towns, with Mombasa County facing the biggest challenge due to a burgeoning population. Although most of the solid waste generated in the county is organic—largely from households, hotels, restaurants and agricultural produce markets, the largest being Kongowea and Marikiti—plastic takes up a significant share.

In its County Sessional Paper No 01 of 2019, Mombasa County estimated daily waste production at 2,200 tons, 68 per cent of which is organic. Approximately 18 per cent of this waste is plastics, cardboard, paper and metals.

Other inorganic waste such as e-waste, construction waste and junk makes up an estimated 14 per cent of the waste generated. Public and private health facilities generate an estimated 2 to 3 tonnes of biomedical waste daily.

Solid waste management remains an enormous challenge in coastal towns, with Mombasa County facing the biggest challenge due to a burgeoning population.

Most of the solid waste generated is disposed in undesignated open grounds—in VOK, Kwa Karama, Kadongo, Junda, Saratoga, and Mcheleni. It is disposed in the same form as it is generated without being recycled or reused. Disposal of solid waste in the open has continuously had a negative environmental health impact through the contamination of water sources.

Moreover, with the limited investment in solid waste recycling and recovery systems, disposal methods in the county have been a contributor to public nuisance.

There are two designated dumpsites, namely Mwakirunge in Kisauni and Shonda in Likoni. However, these dumpsites are poorly managed and do not respect the prescribed environmental health standards while Mombasa County government’s budgetary allocation for solid waste management is not sufficient to meet the desired results.

MPs are harmful to human health, experts say. The ingestion of MPs by species at the base of the food web causes human food safety concerns, as little is known about their effects on the food that finally lands on our menu.

The minuscule size of MPs renders them invisible to filter-feeding fauna, leading to unintentional ingestion. In a study published in December 2020 in the Africa Journal of Marine Science, W. Awuor, Agnes Muthumbi and Deborah Robertson-Andersson confirmed the presence of MPs in marine life. The study investigated MPs in oysters and in three species of brachyuran crabs.

They did sampling in eight stations distributed between three sites—Tudor, Port Reitz and Mida Creek—in January and February 2018, during low spring tide. The sample comprised 206 crabs and 70 oysters.

The study identified MP fibres of different colours—red, yellow, black, pink, orange, purple, green, blue—as well as colourless ones. Colourless fibres were the most prevalent, comprising at least 60 per cent of the total MPs. The mean lengths of the MP fibres were between 0.1 and 4.2 mm.

The study exposes MP pollution along the Kenyan coast and its uptake by marine fauna, and thus strengthens the case for better control of plastic waste in the ocean. “Marine plastic litter pollution is already affecting over 800 marine species through ingestion, entanglement and habitat change,” said the head of UN Environment’s coral reef unit, Jerker Tamelander, in 2019.

“Waste continues to leak from land, and coral reefs are on the receiving end. They also trap a lot of fishing gear and plastic lost from aquaculture. With the effects of climate change on coral reef ecosystems already significant, the additional threat of plastics must be taken seriously.”

According to UNEP, there remains a significant lack of knowledge on the true impact of plastics on the reef environment, including the level of concentrations of MPs across coral reef eco-regions in order to understand the scale of the issue in a standardised manner.

“Marine plastic litter pollution is already affecting over 800 marine species through ingestion, entanglement and habitat change.”

Concerns about ocean pollution have been raised at a time when the country is looking at the Blue Economy as the country’s next economic growth frontier. In effect, Kenya’s land-based resources have been shrinking because of a rapidly growing population and it is therefore prudent for the government to shift the focus to the country’s ocean resources spread over an area of 245,000 km², or 42 per cent of the country’s total land mass.

Kenya has from the outset not been keen on growing the maritime sector. Even Kenya’s first independence economic blueprint, African Socialism and its Application to Planning in Kenya, published in 1965, failed to anchor the Blue Economy in the country’s economic growth agenda, despite its significant role in transporting 95 per cent of the country’s global transactions.

The Western Indian Ocean has resources worth more than KSh2.2 trillion in annual outputs, with Kenya’s share standing at about 20 per cent of this figure. The marine fishing sub-sector alone had an annual fish potential of 350,000 metric tonnes worth KSh90 billion in 2013. However, the region only yielded a paltry 9,134 metric tonnes worth KSh2.3 billion during that year.

In 2018, the then Agriculture Cabinet Secretary, Mwangi Kiunjuri, said that by failing to fully exploit the Blue Economy, Kenya was losing over Sh440 billion annually. But if the opportunities offered by the Blue Economy are to be exploited, a policy intervention in the management and disposal of plastic waste is urgently required to protect the ocean’s rich biodiversity for sustainable development.

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Western Sahara: Africa’s Last Colony

Meriem Naïli writes about the continuing struggle for the independence of Western Sahara. Occupied by Morocco since the 1970s, in contravention of the International Court of Justice and the UN. The internationally recognised liberation movement, POLISARIO, has fought and campaigned for independence since the early 1970s. Naïli explains what is going on, and the legal efforts to secure the country’s freedom.

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Western Sahara: Africa’s Last Colony
Photo: Freepik/natanaelginting
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The conflict over Western Sahara can be described as a conflict over self-determination that has been frozen in the past three decades. Western Sahara is a territory in North-West Africa, bordered by Morocco in the north, Algeria and Mauritania in the east and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. A former Spanish colony, it has been listed by the UN since 1963 as one of the 17 remaining non-self-governing territories, but the only such territory without a registered administrating power.

Since becoming independent from France in 1956, Morocco has claimed sovereignty over Western Sahara and has since the late 1970s formally annexed around 80% of its territory, over which it exercises de facto control in contravention of the conclusions reached by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in its advisory opinion of October 15, 1975, on this matter. The court indeed did not find any “legal ties of such a nature as might affect the application of resolution 1514 (XV) in the decolonization of Western Sahara and, in particular, of the principle of self-determination through the free and genuine expression of the will of the peoples of the Territory” (Western Sahara (1975), Advisory Opinion, I.C.J. Reports 1975, p.12).

On 14 November 1975, the Madrid Accords – formally the Declaration of Principles on Western Sahara – were signed between Spain, Morocco, and Mauritania setting the conditions under which Spain would withdraw from the territory and divide its administration between the two African states. Its paragraph two reads that “Spain shall immediately proceed to establish a temporary administration in the territory, in which Morocco and Mauritania shall participate in collaboration with the Jemâa [a tribal assembly established by Spain in May 1967 to serve as a local consultative link with the colonial administration], and to which the responsibilities and powers referred to in the preceding paragraph shall be transferred.”

Although it was never published on the Boletin Oficial del Estado [the official State journal where decrees and orders are published on a weekly basis], the accord was executed, and Mauritania and Morocco subsequently partitioned the territory in April 1976. Protocols to the Madrid Accords also allowed for the transfer of the Bou Craa phosphate mine and its infrastructure and for Spain to continue its involvement in the coastal fisheries.

Yet in Paragraph 6 of his 2002 advisory opinion, UN Deputy Secretary General Hans Corell, reaffirmed that the 1975 Madrid Agreement between Spain, Morocco, and Mauritania “did not transfer sovereignty over the Territory, nor did it confer upon any of the signatories the status of an administering Power, a status which Spain alone could not have unilaterally transferred.”

The war

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Rio de Oro (POLISARIO) is the internationally recognised national liberation movement representing the indigenous people of Western Sahara. Through the self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), it has been campaigning since its creation in May 1973 in favour of independence from Spain through a referendum on self-determination to be supervised by the UN. A war broke out shortly after Morocco and Mauritania’s invasion in November 1975. Spain officially withdrew from the territory on 26 February 1976 and the Sahrawi leadership proclaimed the establishment of the SADR the following day.

In 1984, the SADR was admitted as a full member of the Organisation of African Unity (now the African Union), resulting in Morocco’s decision to withdraw the same year in protest. Morocco would only (re)join the African Union (AU) in 2017. The admission of the SADR to the OAU consolidated the movement in favour of its recognition internationally, with 84 UN member states officially recognising the SADR.

In the meantime, to strengthen its colonization of the territory, Morocco had begun building what it later called “le mur de défense” (the defence wall). In August 1980, following the withdrawal of Mauritanian troops the previous year, Morocco sought to “secure” a part of the territory that Mauritania had occupied. Construction of the wall – or “berm” – was completed in 1987 with an eventual overall length of just under 2,500km.

A “coordination mission” was established in 1985 by the UN and the OAU with representatives dispatched to find a solution to the conflict between the two parties. After consultations, the joint OAU-UN mission drew up a proposal for settlement accepted by the two parties on 30 August 1988 and would later be detailed in the United Nations Secretary General’s (UNSG) report of 18 June 1990 and the UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution establishing United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO).

Since 1979 and the surrender of Mauritania, around 80% of the territory has remained under Morocco’s military and administrative occupation.

Deployment of MINURSO

The Settlement Plan agreed to in principle between Morocco and POLISARIO in August 1988 was submitted to the UNSC on 12 July 1989 and approved in 1990. On 29 April 1991, the UNSC established MINURSO in resolution 690, the terms of reference for it being set out in the UNSG’s report of 19 April 1991. The plan provided for a cease-fire, followed by the organisation of a referendum of self-determination for which the people of Western Sahara had to choose between two options: integration with Morocco or plain and simple independence.

In this regard, it provided for the creation of an Identification Commission to resolve the issue of the eligibility ofSahrawi voters for the referendum, an issue which has since generated a great deal of tension between the two parties. A Technical Commission was created by mid-1989 to implement the Plan, with a schedule based on several phases and a deployment of UN observers following the proclamation of a ceasefire.

Talks quickly began to draw up a voters list amid great differences between the parties. POLISARIO maintained that the Spanish census of 1974 was the only valid basis, with 66,925 eligible adult electors, while Morocco demanded inclusion of all the inhabitants who, as settlers, continued to populate the occupied part of the territory as well as people from southern Morocco. It was decided that the 1974 Spanish census would serve as a basis, and the parties were to propose voters for inclusion on the grounds that they were omitted from the 1974 census.

In 1991, the first list was published with around 86,000 voters. However, the process of identifying voters would be obstructed in later years, mainly by Morocco which attempted to include as many Moroccan settlers as possible. The criteria for eligibility had sometimes been modified to accommodate Morocco’s demands and concerns. Up to 180,000 applications had been filed on the part of the Kingdom, the majority of which had been rejected by the UN Commission as they did not satisfy the criteria for eligibility.

Consequently, the proclamation of “D-Day”, to mark the beginning of a twelve-week transition period following the cease-fire leading to the referendum on self-determination, kept being postponed and eventually was never declared.

The impasse

Following the rejection by Morocco of the Peace Plan for Self-Determination of the People of Western Sahara (known as Baker Plan II) and the complete suspension of UN referendum preparation activities in 2003, Morocco’s proposal for autonomy of the territory under its sovereignty in 2007 crystallised the stalemate [the Peace Plan is contained in Annex II of UNSG report S/2003/565, and available here].

The Baker Plan II had envisioned a four or five-year transitional power-sharing period between an autonomous Western Sahara Authority and the Moroccan state before the organisation of a self-determination referendum during which the entire population of the territory could vote for the status of the territory – including an option for independence. It was ‘supported’ by the UNSC in resolution S/RES/1495 and reluctantly accepted by POLISARIO but rejected by Morocco.

The absence of human rights monitoring prerogatives for MINURSO has emerged as an issue for the people of Western Sahara as a result of the stalemate in the referendum process in the last two decades. MINURSO is the only post-Cold War peacekeeping operation to be deprived of such prerogatives.

Amongst the four operations currently deployed that are totally deprived of human rights monitoring components (UNFICYP in Northern Cyprus, UNIFIL in Lebanon, UNDOF in the Israeli-Syrian sector and MINURSO), MINURSO stands out as not having attained its purpose through the organisation of a referendum. In addition, among the missions that did organise referendums (namely UNTAG in Namibia and UNAMET in East Timor), all had some sort of human rights oversight mechanism stemming from their mandates.

On 8 November 2010, a protest camp established by Sahrawis near Laayoune (capital of Western Sahara) was dismantled by the Moroccan police. The camp had been set up a month earlier in protest at the ongoing discrimination, poverty, and human rights abuses against Sahrawis. When dismantling the camp, gross human rights violations were reported – see reports by Fédération internationale des ligues des droits de l’Homme (2011) and Amnesty International (2010).

This episode revived the international community’s interest in Western Sahara and therefore strengthened the demand by Sahrawi activists to “extend the mandate of MINURSO to monitor human rights” (see Irene Fernández-Molina, “Protests under Occupation: The Spring inside Western Sahara” in Mediterranean Politics, 20:2 (2015): 235–254).

Such an extension was close to being achieved in April 2013, when an UNSC resolution draft penned by the US unprecedentedly incorporated this element, although it was eventually taken out. This failed venture remains to date the most serious attempt to add human rights monitoring mechanisms to MINURSO. Supporters of this amendment to the mandate are facing the opposition by Moroccan officials who hold that it is not the raison d’être of the mission, and it could jeopardize the negotiation process.

What’s going on now?

At the time of writing, the people of Western Sahara are yet to express the country’s right to self-determination through popular consultation or any other means agreed between the parties. The conflict therefore remains unresolved since the ceasefire and has mostly been described as “frozen” by observers.

On the ground, resistance from Sahrawi activists remain very much active. Despite the risks of arbitrary arrest, repression or even torture, the Sahrawi people living under occupation have organised themselves to ensure their voices are heard and violations are reported. Freedom House in 2021 have, yet again, in its yearly report, rated Western Sahara as one of the worst countries in the world with regards to political rights and civil liberties.

Despite a clear deterioration of the peace process over the decades, several factors have signalled a renewed interest in this protracted conflict among key actors and observers from the international community. A Special Envoy of the AU Council Chairperson for Western Sahara (Joaquim Alberto Chissano from Mozambique) was appointed by the Peace and Security Council in June 2014. This was followed by Morocco becoming a member of the AU in January 2017.

More recently, major events have begun to de-crystalise the status quo. The war resumed on 13 November 2020 following almost 30 years of ceasefire. Additionally, for the first time, a UN member state – the US – recognised Morocco’s claim to sovereignty over the territory. Former US President Trump’s declaration on 10 December 2020 to that effect was made less than a month after the resumption of armed conflict. It has not, however, been renounced by the current Biden administration. As this recognition secured Morocco’s support for Israel as per the Abrahamic Accords, reversing Donald Trump’s decision would have wider geopolitical repercussions.

In September 2021, the General Court of the European Union (GCEU) issued decisions invalidating fisheries and trade agreements between Morocco and the EU insofar as they extended to Western Sahara, rejecting Morocco’s sovereignty. This decision is the latest episode of a legal battle taking place before the European courts.

The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), had previously reaffirmed the legal status of Western Sahara as a non-self-governing territory, set by the UN in 1963 following the last report transmitted by Spain – as Administering Power – on Spanish Sahara under Article 73 of the UN Charter. The Court rejected in December 2016 any claims of sovereignty by Morocco by restating the distinct statuses of both territories.

The last colony in Africa remains largely under occupation and the UN mission in place is still deprived of any kind of human rights monitoring. In the meantime, the Kingdom of Morocco has been trading away peace in the form of military accords and trade partnerships. This situation must end – with freedom, and sovereignty finally won by Western Sahara.

This article was first published by ROAPE.

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