21 Dec 2018 Story Cities and lifestyles

Smoking Nairobi landfill jeopardizes schoolchildren’s future

Duncan Moore/ UN Environment

“People are not living here, they are only surviving,” says Father Maurizio Binaghi as he surveys the sprawling, smoking Dandora landfill site from an elevated position on the grounds of the school he runs in Korogocho slum in Nairobi, Kenya. Dandora is one of Africa’s largest unregulated landfill sites.

“The people who live near the dump have a saying,” says Father Binaghi: “‘I don’t know when I will die, but I do know what I will die from.’”

Korogocho literally means “crowded shoulder to shoulder” in Kiswahili. It is one of the largest slums in Nairobi, home to 150,000 to 200,000 people and no larger than 1.5 square kilometres. The place is known for its high rates of poverty, crime, alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence, widespread HIV/Aids… and the nauseating smells coming from Dandora.

Father Binaghi’s St. John’s School is located mere metres from Dandora. Moreover, illegal dumping has meant that smoking debris has encroached closer and closer to the school grounds, so acrid smoke constantly wafts into the classrooms.

Large marabou storks scavenge on the dump swarm and squawk overhead while students practice a variety of instruments including violins, trombones and saxophones in the school’s playing field.

Dandora landfill in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo by Duncan Moore/ UN Environment

Even in the library, the turnover of pages of well-worn textbooks and whispered voices are the only sounds in the school’s library. Children keep their heads down into the books as they prepare for exams. However, the unpleasant smell of rubbish, particularly burned plastic, pervades the room.

“Smoke from the landfill comes into our classes and even hinders our visibility,” says a student, Dalton Okoth.

 “You get sick here often, coughing and breathing difficulties, and some of the children have eye problems from the pollution in the air,” says Felicia Alouch, another student. “Sometimes children don’t come to school because of illness and breathing difficulties such as asthma and allergies to smoke,” adds her classmate Antony Okinda.

Air pollution from Dandora landfill (background) easily enters St. John’s School, Korogocho (foreground). Photo by Duncan Moore/ UN Environment

St. John’s school in Korogocho is literally and metaphorically a pillar of the community. It provides education to children from 5 to 18 years of age. While the school’s ethos is Catholic, it is open to children of all faiths and ethnic backgrounds.  It offers much-needed hot meals to undernourished students while sex education is also offered. Meanwhile, its well-stocked library is open to all members of the community while a computer room offers students the chance to develop new skills.

Dalton and Antony are sponsored by the Tumaini Trust which was founded in 2014 by Talitha Puri Negri. The Tumaini scholarship, which has sponsored 90 children so far, aims to allow a larger number of students to access secondary and tertiary education even though their parents are not able to afford school fees.

However, one of the problems that stands in the way of students like Dalton and Antony is the air pollution emitted by Dandora landfill and the wide-ranging health risks it poses, particularly to children.

Recent studies have found that air pollution is linked to childhood cancers and cognitive impairment in both children and adults. According to the World Health Organization, up to 14 per cent of all children aged 5 to 18 years have asthma and every year, over half a million children younger than five die from respiratory disease linked to air pollution. It may also affect fetal brain growth.

Students studying at St. John’s School. Photo by Duncan Moore/ UN Environment

Recycling economy…

Dandora landfill, which covers approximately 30 acres, is the destination of about 850 tonnes of solid waste generated daily by Nairobi, which has a population of about 6.5 million people.

Despite being declared completely full in 1996, dumping continues on the landfill. One of the reasons that it continues to operate is that people make money from the waste.

Described as a “perilous recycling economy”, the landfill puts food on the tables of around 3,000 families. Men, women and children pick through waste from trucks that arrive in the dump. They are looking for plastic, food, clothes, paper and bottles that they can sell for much-needed income. Scavenging on the dump is done manually with no protection gear and equipment, thus exposing the dumpsite workers to serious health complications.

“People have very large families and are forced to go to the dump to find food that has been discarded by others,” says Antony. Directly outside St. John’s school, people sell scavenged leftovers from makeshift stalls or from tarpaulin laid out on the ground.

Leftovers for sale outside St. John’s School. Photo by Duncan Moore/ UN Environment

…or health hazard?

Air pollution is not the only source of contamination around the school area.

Waste from the dump has tainted the water supply. In May 2018, health officials in Nairobi issued a cholera alert following the death of two people, including a 13-year old girl from symptoms associated with cholera in Korogocho.

Mercury from the landfill also represents a danger to the local community and UN Environment found high levels of heavy metals in children living close to Dandora landfill.

Father Maurizio Binaghi (in blue) at St. John’s School. Photo by Duncan Moore/ UN Environment

What can be done?

Plans to relocate Dandora landfill to another site, away from the dense population centre that is Korogocho, have not happened as land is unavailable.

Other plans to locate recycling plants in Dandora have not come to fruition. Various initiatives from international partners to close the dump have also fallen through.

Locals complain that Dandora landfill is governed by gangs. Given that so much money is made from the dump, there is no incentive to close it. “Life here is a bit good but we have insecurity due to the dumping site because most of the gangs usually hide in those places,” says Dalton.

Non-governmental organizations are working to find other sources of employment for those who currently live off the dump.

Smoke from Dandora landfill fills the sport grounds of St. John’s School during music practice. Photo by Duncan Moore/ UN Environment

What is clear is that the air pollution continues to affect both the children at St. John’s School and those in the wider area. “The people know about the health risks associated with the dump but they have no other choice,” says Antony.

Many of those living near the landfill agree about what should be done. “The dump should be shut down because of the hazard it does to the environment and to the people living here,” Dalton says.

“Children are getting sick at the school because of the dump now—what is frightening to think about is the health effects of the air pollution on the people living here in years to come,” says Father Binaghi.

“Our school gives people hope for the future, however this dump is standing in the way.”