Government quits over toxic waste scandal

The Prime Minister of the Ivory Coast has sacked his entire cabinet in what is the first instance of a government being brought down by an environmental scandal.

Tens of thousands of people have required hospital treatment and seven have died after exposure to waste dumped around the city of Abidjan, according to the UN.

The waste came from a Dutch chartered ship registered in Panama but its actual origin is unclear. It has been dumped at sites throughout the city, including into the sewer systems and the lagoon around which Abidjan is built.

Patients have been hospitalised with intestinal and respiratory problems as well as nose bleeds, nausea and vomiting.

The waste was dumped over three weeks ago and it is still unclear exactly what it is as no full analysis has been carried out, nor has a clean-up operation begun in earnest.

It is thought, however, to contain highly toxic hydrogen sulphide which if not dealt with swiftly could seep into the soil and contaminate the groundwater, causing lasting environmental damage.

The legal status of the waste is also unclear, as the authorities gave the ship permission to dump the waste, apparently believing it was sewage although local papers allege corruption.

Under the Basel Convention – a law designed to prevent the developing world from becoming a dumping ground for industrialised nations – toxic waste remains the responsibility of its country of origin.

As the country of origin is currently unknown, however, enforcement of the convention looks unlikely at this stage.

The people of Abidjan have demanded that their government clean up the mess but Prime Minister Charles Konan Banny has openly admitted it is incapable of doing so, lacking both the necessary resources and the knowledge.

He dissolved his cabinet and called for international aid, apparently in reaction to public anger at the government’s failure to attempt to resolve the problem.

Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo has asked his Prime Minister to remain in place and form a new cabinet.

According to Yannick Vicaire, toxics campaigner for Greenpeace France, the scandal has seen the Ivopry Coast turned into a ‘dustbin state’.

Greenpeace research suggests the ship left Spain several months ago and has been heading down the West African coast looking for a suitable site to offload its toxic cargo.

The pressure group’s interpretation of the Basel Convention is that Spain, as the last OECD country to have housed the waste, should be held responsible for the clean-up.

Sam Bond

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