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Issue 6, July 1999

Newsletter Index

MANAGING THE WASTE PROBLEM
 
Travelling through Africa one is fortunate enough to witness numerous examples of enterprising forms of waste usage. Small paraffin lamps made from the metal of old oil cans are proudly displayed in every self-respecting market on the continent, and in Uganda one is even able to procure a U$1 pair of sandals consisting solely of the rubber from worn-out car tyres. In the forests of Central Africa where those eye-sore plastic packets are virtually non-existent, a far more biodegradable form of packaging is used, namely large leaves tied up at the stems to provide one with the perfect container for everything ranging from grilled fish to sugar.
 
In many respects developing countries are leading the way when it comes to sustainable use and re-use of resources. According to a recent HABITAT report, per capita waste in the developed world has increased threefold over the past 20 years and is now approximately five to six times higher than in the developing world.

This huge discrepancy in waste production can essentially be attributed to income levels. The developing world consumes far less than the industrialised countries and therefore generates much smaller amounts of waste. Wealthier individuals also
have a tendency to simply replace their old products as opposed to trying to repair or salvage them. Recycling is another activity which becomes less prevalent as one proceeds up the income ladder.
 
Even in the developing world though, levels of waste are increasing with some estimates indicating that it could double during the next decade. Many cities in these countries currently spend as much as 30 to 50 percent of their total municipal budgets on providing waste management services. Even with such a financial outlay, most of these authorities are finding themselves unable to keep pace with the growing demand. It seems clear then that waste generation and the management of it is fast becoming a global problem. By 2025 some predictions are estimating a five-fold increase in global waste generation.

Areas of Waste Management

While the effective management of waste is increasingly assuming a global importance, the precise method in which it needs to be tackled necessarily varies according to local socio-economic and physical conditions, rates of waste generation and waste composition. Chapter 21 of Agenda 21 describes four major waste-related programme areas, namely:

1. Minimizing wastes;
2. Maximising waste recycling and reuse;
3. Promoting environmentally sound waste disposal and treatment;
4. Extending waste service coverage.

Minimizing Wastes

Since the United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development (Rio, 1992), the development and implementation of waste minimization strategies has shown some improvement. According to Agenda 21 "a preventive waste management approach focused on changes in lifestyles and in production and consumption patterns offers the best chance for reversing current trends." Implicit in this statement is the need to reduce waste at its very source by using less packaging and reducing unnecessary consumption.
 
Many industries in the developed world are starting to realise that waste minimization can, in many instances, result in improved operational efficiency and reductions in costs. One company in Toronto, Canada, actually managed to make a substantial saving in landfill and collection costs by simply instituting a policy of recycling and insisting that their suppliers eliminate all unnecessary packaging from their products. Waste minimization practices like these in the industrial sector need to be encouraged on a wider scale with companies being made more aware of the potential economic benefits accruing from them. In terms of the developing countries, waste minimization has been held back by lack of data on waste production at source and waste collection and disposal. In this area it is clear that developing countries can do with the kind of support that the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (UNCHS) is offering in terms of data collection on waste production and in providing policy options at the municipal level for waste minimization. According to the HABITAT report though, most countries have yet to incorporate waste minimization into their strategic planning for solid-waste management. "If the situation remains unchecked there will be an unprecedented rise in waste production which will be far beyond the capacities of most countries to manage."
 
Maximising Environmentally Sound Waste Reuse and Recycling
 
In both the developed and developing countries there have been significant improvements in this particular area of waste management since the Rio Conference, albeit for very different reasons. In the developed countries recycling has been motivated by an increased awareness of the environmental benefits, whereas in the developing world it has been the opportunity to derive income that has been the major impetus behind recycling efforts. In cities throughout the developing world, community groups and the informal sector are increasingly starting to integrate waste management with income generation. In terms of municipal solid wastes, the organic wastes are collected and used in compost production, while the inorganic material is utilised in small-scale recycling industries. The numbers involved in such operations are sometimes vast, such as in Calcutta where 40 000 people, mostly women and children have found direct employment in the informal waste economy. Unfortunately, according to the HABITAT report, much of the work that the informal sector undertakes in waste collection and disposal goes unrecognised by formal waste-management authorities. It therefore argues for greater strides being made to include community-based schemes into the waste-management activities of the public sector. In some instances this will require a less restrictive operating environment with commensurate changes in legislation and acceptance by official authorities.
 
Promoting Environmentally Sound Waste Disposal and Treatment
 
This programme area is of particular relevance when one considers the potential health hazards arising from improperly treated wastes. This problem is most acute in the developing countries, where less than ten percent of urban wastes receive some form of treatment and an even smaller proportion is of an acceptable quality standard. The main method of disposal still seems to be open dumping and it is feared that without efficient regulation of the private sector such dumping will only increase with more and more occurring on unauthorised sites.
 
Extending Waste Service Coverage
 
Although some improvement has been shown in high income residential areas, low and middle income areas still suffer from extremely poor service coverage.
 
The peri-urban areas are of particular concern, given that this is where most wastes, both solid and liquid are disposed of. These areas require special attention as it is here where people’s health is most at risk from exposure to toxic chemicals and pathogens from domestic solid wastes and human faecal wastes.
 
Conclusion
 
As we move into the next millennium more and more innovative solutions are going to be required in tackling the growing problem of waste. According to the HABITAT report, many national and local governments currently lack the capacity to apply strategic planning to solid waste management. Unfortunately it is precisely such planning coupled with a holistic approach that seems to offer one the best chance of managing this mounting global problem.
 
Lance Greyling
Programme Manager, GLOBE Southern Africa
 
Wetlands, De-mystifying the Ramsar Convention
 
South Africa was one of the first signatories to sign the Ramsar Convention which protects wetlands. But what is this Convention? How does it work? What wetland work can you do to help SA achieve its obligations and how can we all pressure the government into fulfilling its obligations to Ramsar?
 
What is the Ramsar Convention?
 
The full name is the 'Convention on Wetlands of International Importance Especially as Waterfowl Habitat' and it was adopted in Ramsar, Iran in 1971 (coming into force in 1975). As of June 1999, there were 116 Contracting Parties (or countries) in all parts of the world. Approximately 980 wetlands (over 70 million hectares) have been designated as Ramsar Sites. Ramsar is the only environmental treaty dealing with a particular ecosystem. Ramsar is also the first of the modern, global, intergovernmental treaties on conservation.
 
How did it begin?
 
In 1971, the representatives of 18 countries went to the small town of Ramsar in Iran to put their signatures to a Convention on Wetlands, or the Ramsar Convention.
 
How does it operate?
 
The Ramsar Convention promotes the intrinsic functions and services wetlands provide for human populations, and encourages their wise use. Ramsar’s guidelines emphasize the benefits and values of wetlands for: sediment and erosion control; flood control; maintenance of water quality and abatement of pollution; maintenance of surface and underground water supply; support for fisheries, grazing and agriculture; outdoor recreation and education; and climate stability.
 
Ramsar aims to provide the tools for involving local people and stakeholders in the development of management plans for wetlands, whether these are recognized under the Convention or not.
 
UNESCO serves as Depositary for the Convention, but its administration has been entrusted to a secretariat known as the Ramsar Bureau at IUCN which co-ordinates day-to-day activities. The conference of the Contracting Parties (those countries belonging to the Convention) meets every three years to further the application of the Convention. The Standing Committee, including representatives of the world's seven regions, meets annually. The Scientific and Technical Review Panel provides guidance on key issues.
 
Participating countries are encouraged to establish national wetland committees made up of government and non-governmental bodies. The list of Wetlands of International Importance is also an important tool of the Convention. Ramsar sites facing problems can receive technical assistance. Small grants are available for conservation and wise-use projects (although this is limited to one site per country). The Convention also publishes technical and educational materials including a newsletter.
 
How does South Africa benefit from being a member?
 
For over 30 years the Convention has served as an essential mechanism towards heightening awareness of wetlands. It has also protected specific wetlands. For example, a project to mine heavy metals from the dunes at the St Lucia Ramsar site was stopped due to local and international pressure (two of South Africa’s 16 Ramsar sites are on private land and the rest are in reserves).
 
In global terms the Convention has served to draw attention to wetlands. At a regional level it has served to cement treaties and agreements on wetland use and management. At a country level it has helped to draw attention to important wetlands, improve protection and contributed to restoration. One of its greatest strengths is its simplicity.
 
What are the SA government’s obligations?
 
The Convention sets out five primary obligations for signatories:

- To designate and promote the conservation of at least one Ramsar Site (although members are encouraged to designate all of their sites that are internationally important) to co-operate internationally on transboundary wetlands, shared wetland species and development aid for wetland projects around the country.

- To formulate and implement planning for the wise use of all wetlands in their territory (not just Ramsar sites)

- To establish conservation areas and promote training in wetland management and research

- To consult with other contracting parties about the implementation of the Convention.

- To contribute to the Convention budget (South Africa pays R30. 000 per year in membership fees)

What does South Africa need to do for wetlands?
 
"South Africa must develop a national wetland policy because without one, there is no overall co-ordination of NGOs, business and government departments on wetland work," emphasises David Lindley, national co-ordinator of the Rennies Wetlands Project, who recently returned from the 7th Ramsar Conference of Parties in Costa Rica. "Lack of co-ordination is a major problem. Yet, for some reason, the South African government is stalling on developing a policy."
 
South Africa also needs to pay more attention to wise use of wetlands, establish more wetland conservation areas and promote training in wetland management and research, Lindley argues. Wetland conservation should in fact be part of national land-use planning.

According to Ramsar’s wise use guidelines, South Africa should:

- Adopt national wetland policies, involving review of existing legislation and institutional arrangement

- Develop programmes of wetland inventory, monitoring, training, education, public awareness and research

- Take action at wetland sites involving integrated management plans

What can you do?
 
Lobby government by writing letters or organising campaigns around wetlands that are being abused or neglected. Review the Ramsar requirements, notably the Strategic Plan 1997 to 2 002 and see if you think our government is up to scratch and if not, complain. Contact Geoff Cowan at the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism on phone 012 - 3103701 or fax 012 - 322 2682. This Department is responsible for implementing the Ramsar Convention.
 
Ramsar Strategic Plan 1997-2002
 
This was adopted in 1996 and includes eight objectives to be carried out by Contracting Parties, including South Africa:
 
1. To progress towards universal membership of the Convention.
2. To achieve the wise use of wetlands by implementing and developing the Ramsar Wise Use Guidelines.
3. To raise awareness of wetland values and functions throughout the world.
4. To reinforce capacity of institutions in each Contracting Party to achieve conservation and wise use of wetlands.
5. To designate wetlands for the Ramsar List (including underrepresented and transfrontier wetlands).
6. To mobilise international co-operation and funding for wetland conservation.
7. To provide the Convention with the required resources.
 
Future challenges for the Ramsar Convention
 
Perhaps the most important goal is to increase the total number and area of Ramsar sites around the world (it is likely that there are at least another 1 000 sites of international importance comprising at least another 100 million hectares).

- Ensure that Ramsar sites are representative of all major ecosystems.

- Improve the management of wetland sites on private land.

- Make people part of the solution, not just government workers.

- Adopt a catchment approach to wetland management

- Address the emerging crisis in freshwater resources and biodiversity.

- Strengthen international coordination to improve the conservation and wise use of wetlands.
 
For more information on the Ramsar Convention you can access the website at: http://iucn.org/themes/ramsar/ or contact David Lindley, Director of the Rennies Wetlands Project on fax: (011) 486 3369 or e-mail: wetfix@icon.co.za