African coastline threatened by a tsunami of plastic

CAPE TOWN — According to a National Geographic article, dated January 2015, there were 5.25trn pieces of plastic debris in the ocean. Of that mass, 269,000 tons float on the surface, while some four billion plastic microfibres per square kilometre litter the deep. Five Asian countries are reported by Scientific American to be responsible for over half the globe’s sea-dumped plastic waste. Here’s the rub; ten rivers, eight of which are from Asian countries, many of them bordering on our Indian Ocean, dump 90% of plastic waste into the world’s seas. The Indian Ocean garbage patch, discovered in 2010, is estimated to be some five million square kilometres – larger than Europe. This is the context for the measures suggested below for Africa to step up and help tackle the crisis. The author suggests pragmatic measures Africa could implement to counter the plastic tsunami and highlights those countries leading the way. Kenya fines people selling or using plastic bags up to $40,000 and/or imposes a four-year jail sentence, Rwanda, Mauritania and Morocco have also banned plastic bags. We in South Africa seem pre-occupied with land ownership and corruption – perhaps it’s time some parties include pollution-combatting measures in their election manifestos. First published on the Institute of Security Studies website. – Chris Bateman

By Mohamed Daghar*

The Western Indian Ocean, comprising nine African countries and Réunion (an island under France), has a 10,000 km stretch of coastline with crystal clear waters and rich coral reefs. But these marine and wildlife ecosystems, which are interdependent with the health, food security and national economies of over 200m people, are polluted with tons of plastic litter. All countries littoral to the Indian Ocean are affected, not just those along the coast.

A 2017 report by Ocean Conservancy claims that just five Asian countries are responsible for over half the globe’s sea-dumped plastic waste. Another study by Scientific American states that a mere 10 rivers, eight of which are from Asian countries, some of which border the Indian Ocean, dump 90% of primarily plastic waste into those waters. Over 40 countries border this ocean including the African coastal belt countries from Egypt to South Africa.

Mega cities like Mumbai and upcoming ones like Dar es Salaam neighbour the Indian Ocean. The rise of industries in these cities has resulted in population growth. This expanding population, and the increase in plastic waste produced by local industries, contribute to more waste generation.

Because most companies prioritise cost cutting, some industries along this coast do not conform to proper plastic waste disposal methods. Countries directly affected by plastic pollution also don’t have adequate legislation to prevent or mitigate the problem.

Discovered in 2010, the Indian Ocean garbage patch is a bit like an oceanic version of a landfill. It remains dynamic and its actual size and borders are unknown as it is not a solid island of garbage that can be observed from the air. However it is estimated to be about five million square kilometres – slightly more than the size of the EU member countries combined.

Most waste dumped in the Indian Ocean ends up at this patch. A 5 Gyres Institute project collected water samples over a part of the garbage patch – a stretch of around 5,000 km between Perth in Australia and Port Louis in Mauritius. The co-founder of the institute, Markus Eriksen, termed the pollution in the samples as a thin ‘soup of micro-particles’ which largely include plastics. They affect the sealife ecosystem, but also the fish and seafood we consume.

The Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection – an advisory body to the UN – says there’s a major knowledge gap on the effects of micro-plastics to human consumers and that attention must be paid to the potential threat to food security. It is probable that some seafood platters include plastic micro-particles.

Read also: Oceans 2050: More plastic than fish. $120bn lost annually.

Some African countries are committed to averting land-based activities that contribute to ocean pollution. Kenya for example has the severest penalties in the world for the sale and use of plastic bags, with fines of up to $40,000 and a jail term of four years. Rwanda, Mauritania and Morocco have also banned the use of plastic bags in their countries.

However there is an urgent need for an intercontinental coordination mechanism to address illegal, unreported and unregulated dumping of plastic waste from land-based activities. It is these activities that are one of the biggest contributors to ocean dumping.

Most of Africa’s plastic industries are still in the early stages of addressing the problem. Asian countries like China, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines, which have complex plastic industries, also need to enforce punitive measures on pollution.

In March, the Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection generated guidelines for assessing the scale of plastic litter in water bodies. The guidelines for scientists and governments are a response to Sustainable Development Goal 14:1 which calls for the prevention and reduction of land-based activities that produce plastic litter.

Albeit gradually, African countries are doing something to curb the effects of plastic pollution. Perhaps those that are plastic-free champions should steer an intercontinental ‘working for the coast’ project to tackle the growing threat of plastic pollution in the continent’s various ecosystems.

The intergovernmental Indian Ocean Commission positions itself as a platform for African countries sharing the Indian Ocean. But it has limited itself in composition and focus to only small African island states in the Indian Ocean. This commission could be expanded by gaining recognition from the African Union and other regional economic communities such as the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, the Southern African Development Community and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa.

Alternatively, a more inclusive platform is needed where the issue of illegal, unreported and unregulated dumping of plastic waste in the Indian Ocean is addressed both intra- and intercontinentally. This is a priority that must no longer be ignored.

  • Mohamed Daghar, Researcher, ENACT project, ISS Nairobi. 
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