Dandora dump is a sprawling dumpsite, over 30 acres, in the heart of the Nairobi slums of Korogocho, Baba Ndogo, Mathare and Dandora. It opened in 1975 with World Bank funds and was deemed full by 2001. Yet it continues to operate, and people at the very bottom rungs of the socioeconomic ladder come here as their last hope to make a living from scavenging the waste, but in the same time exposing themselves to tremendous pollution. This case is a very accurate example of environmental injustice (environmental racism) whereby the poor societies of Nairobi are impacted by waste dumped from the whole greater Nairobi region, and are polluted with toxins. Yet, it is explained as the best solution for all because the poor people actually get food from there and scavenge for materials to sell to the recyclers. Dumping in Dandora is unrestricted and includes industrial, agricultural, domestic and medical waste. Studies have confirmed the presence of dangerous elements such as lead, mercury, cadmium and PCBs which are seriously hazardous for humans. Due to the underdevelopment of scientific bodies in Kenya but also to political clashes, popular epidemiology has been used to prove sickness and mortality in Dandora. No official study or statistics have been undertaken, therefore the “lay” knowledge is as valid as the official one here and can be considered street science. Fortunately it is also true that Nairobi is a capital with much international regards and a seat at the EU Environmental Programme (UNEP); therefore it would be strange if the biggest environmental organization would neglect this environmental catastrophe happening just 8 km from its headquarters. UNEP has commissioned a couple of studies showing dangerously high levels of heavy metals in the surrounding environment and in the body of local residents. Lead and cadmium levels were 13,500 ppm and 1,058 ppm respectively, compared to the action levels in the Netherlands of 150 ppm/5ppm for these heavy metals. The Stockholm Convention on hazardous pollution, which Kenya has ratified, requires actions aimed at eliminating these pollutants. The promise to act was agreed by the government, interested stakeholders and the civil society. Many global NGOs have called upon Kenyan government representatives and stakeholders to honor the integrity of the Convention and keep the promise of reduction and elimination of those pollutants. Unfortunately, as of December 2014, nothing has been done. On the contrary, more and more waste is addressed to the landfill and more and more is being permanently burned, more toxic substances leaching to the waters and air. The Nairobi River also passes besides the dumpsite according to UNEP aggravating the situation. The Dandora dumpsite is a sad picture of a multiple tragedy. The City Council of Nairobi was to decommission the dumpsite in 2012, after 8 years of planning. However, conflict between the council and the Kenya Airports Authority over the relocation of the dumpsite to Ruai has brought the process to a grinding halt. The community sees that there will be no easy end to this largest and most flagrant violations to human right and environmental health in the country. The dumpsite exists in contravention of several provisions to the Constitution of Kenya.
There is a social dilemma. As I visited the dumpsite and the local communities I discovered that thousands of people rely their daily income on the dumpsite. Every day, scores of people scavenge through the contaminated garbage to look for food, plastic and metal scraps to sell to recyclers. They get paid very little but still enough for some to stick to this activity and not even try to change. It is even reported by the St John Informal School in Korogocho (the neighboring slum) that some kids escape school to come to the dumpsite to work. Due to high poverty in the area, some parents even encourage their children to go to “Mukuru” as they call the dumpsite. While some critics will defend the habit, it is disastrous short term solution to a larger, complex and longer social and economic problem.
Public participation must be at the core of the decommissioning of this environmental and social injustice. A coalition formed under the “Inter-Religious Committee Against Dandora Dumpsite” in conjunction with national human rights institutions was set up in 2005 to address the problem of exploited workers and social problems but then later in 2008 its demands were supported thanks to the studies commissioned by UNEP and other organizations showing the serious environment problem. So here we have an example of a local resistance being mobilized due to the social injustice later also adopted from an academic context.
The local communities understood they must be participants in the change process and that the “advocacy and the struggle for a people’s liberation must be spearheaded by the people themselves” as wrote the Committee leader Oluoch Japheth Ogola – a journalist working for the St. John Catholic Church in Korogocho. The Committee's main slogans were: “The society equally needs to be endowed with adequate environmental etiquette. We should ensure that our own little neighborhoods are clean. Other stakeholders therefore need to come up with suggestions which can help us surmount this danger of the dumpsite”. I would mention that such attitude is very peaceful and proactive. They do not condemn those stakeholders who actually still contaminate the area. The Committee has put a number of proposals to solve the problem. It included closing the dumpsite, recultivation, relocation of waste management, proper recycling facilities. Unfortunately the developments of those ideas seems to be dead due to financial and political reasons.