Obsolete Pesticide Stockpiles: An Unwanted Legacy of the African Landscape

August 5, 2013

  • 50,000 tons of obsolete pesticides litter the African landscape
  • Obsolete stockpiles cause cancer, allergies, reproductive disorders, damage to the nervous system and disruption to the immune system
  • The Africa Stockpiles Programme removed 3,310 tons of obsolete pesticide stockpiles and contaminated soil from 897 sites

WASHINGTON, August 5, 2013 - Many developing countries import pesticides to increase agricultural production and control vector-borne diseases such as malaria. Over time, unused pesticides become obsolete and unsafe for use. Today, across Sub-Saharan Africa, more than 50,000 tons of obsolete pesticides litter the landscape. Exposure to these pollutants can cause cancer, allergies, reproductive disorders, and damages to the nervous and immune systems.

In 2005, the Global Environment Facility (GEF) committed US$25 million to clean up stocks in Ethiopia, Mali, Tanzania, Tunisia, and South Africa. As of today, 3,310 tons have been removed from 897 sites under the Africa Stockpiles Programme (ASP).

The slow poisoning of a population

“In Ethiopia, stockpiles of obsolete pesticides are a severe problem in urban areas,” says Asferachew Abate, World Bank ASP project leader for Ethiopia. “One of the storage facilities is next to the Tesfa Secondary School in Addis Ababa, causing disastrous effects on teachers and young students.”

According to students at the school, clouds of noxious chemicals were released into the air when rain fell on uncovered piles of pesticides. The dilapidated warehouse containing the chemicals was made of tin and the roof leaked, exposing noxious chemicals. Inside, tattered bags of malathion were piled to the ceiling, spilling onto the floor, and leaking into the soil.

School staff reported difficulty breathing, sickness and various illnesses leading to high absenteeism and the smell of the harmful chemicals was so strong that friends and family refused to visit the neighborhood, fearing falling ill themselves.

“Right now things are wonderful. The smell is gone and we are able to pursue our studies without missing classes,” says Mekdese Hailu, 8th grade student at Tesfa Secondary School.

With ASP, this warehouse and many others like it were cleared. In total, 450 tons were removed from Ethiopia under ASP. But in the last 15 years, 2,500 tons of obsolete pesticides and 1,000 tons of contaminated soil from over 1,100 sites have been eliminated as part of a multi-donor effort.

Obsolete pesticides stockpiled in developing countries pose a serious threat to the environment and public health. Many of them, such as DDT, are Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) that remain in the fatty tissue of living organisms and cause many health issues. Following the adoption of the Stockholm Convention on POPs in 2001, some of these pesticides were either banned or their use was restricted. Most of the accumulated stock was originally brought in to combat locust invasions in the region. Poor storage and stock management, ineffective products, uncoordinated donations or purchases and aggressive sales promotions by some suppliers have all contributed to the problem.

Clean up of stocks has been a long journey

For the last 15 years, multiple donors have funded projects to slowly and methodically remove these poisonous chemicals from countries in Africa. In Ethiopia, the ASP program contributed to this effort by removing additional stocks of pesticides and by working with the government to institute preventative measures so that pesticides do not accumulate in the future. There is now a directive in the national policy to estimate annual pesticide requirements nationally. In addition, the Ethiopian Ministry of Agriculture is currently finishing the construction of a state-of-the-art laboratory equipped to conduct important tests on pesticides to assess their efficacy, and the effect of pesticide residues on food, soil and water.

Educating the population on maladies associated with pesticides is a key component of ASP. The program funded a multi-media public awareness campaign to mitigate possible health risks and to educate the population to buy and use pesticides judiciously.

Hope for the Future

“The Africa Stockpiles Program is an example of a transformational project that is delivering benefits regionally,” said Magda Lovei, World Bank sector manager for environment, natural resources, water and disaster risk management. “The lessons learned will be carried over to other countries like Mali and Cote d’Ivoire that are emerging from post-conflict situations and remain key priorities in the African regional portfolio.”

The elimination of these dangerous stocks is a development priority. Rural communities cannot hope to advance if the soil and water upon which their livelihoods and health depends are contaminated with pesticides, and urban populations cannot prosper if they are suffering from severe illnesses caused by pesticide poisoning.

The World Bank, in partnership with the GEF and other donors continue to work together to create a cleaner safer environment for all Africans.