Durban residents victims of environmental racism

[South Africa] The community of Wentworth in south Durban have major polluters on their doorstep
The community of Wentworth in south Durban have major polluters on their doorstep (IRIN)

The pollution hits your lungs and nostrils as soon as you enter Wentworth, a mixed-race community and apartheid-era dumping ground south of the Indian Ocean port city of Durban. Towering above “Noddy-town” as its known locally because of the small, box-like houses, are two huge oil refineries and a host of other industries.

Between them they spew out a noxious cocktail of sulphur dioxide and other dangerous chemicals and local people say they’ve had enough. “In 1938 Durban’s white-run council took a decision to place dirty industries next to black communities,” Wentworth community worker Desmond D’sa told IRIN.

Wentworth and neighbouring suburbs expanded rapidly from the 1960s onwards as Durban’s so-called “coloured” community was displaced by the National Party government to make way for white urban development. “We were forced to live here next to these major polluters and we’ve been suffering ever since,” D’sa added.

Now, communities in the south Durban industrial basin, who say they are the victims of environmental racism, are taking their fight for a pollution-free neighbourhood to the World Conference Against Racism (WCAR), which kicks off a few kilometres down the road in central Durban later this week. “We want this issue to be highlighted at Durban because we are suffering and dying here in Wentworth and it’s a racial issue,” Michelle Simon of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA) told IRIN. She said that on average, her small office receives about twenty complaints a day from local residents who are fed up with bad smells that can make breathing difficult. People want to move somewhere cleaner, but poverty prevents them from doing so.

Air pollution is just one of the hazards local people in south Durban have to deal with. A month ago, millions of litres of petrol leaked from a pipeline running under houses and a nature conservation area in neighbouring Bluff, resulting in contamination of groundwater and soil. Apart from the heavy industry on their doorstep, local people also share their living space with Southern Africa’s largest chemical storage complex. “We’ve had chlorine gas leaks, and Ethyl Acrylate and Isoprene leaks from that complex, all highly toxic and probably carcinogenic,” Simon said.

At Settlers Primary School, sandwiched between the two colossal refineries, attendance figures are down when the wind blows toxic emissions into the classrooms. In November last year, paramedics had to be called to the school to deal with more than 100 children suffering temporary respiratory problems. “We feel the devastating affect of air pollution, and it has a real impact on teaching here,” Lawrence Vartharajula, a teacher and pollution control officer at the school told IRIN.

Although there’s little empirical evidence to support community claims that cancer and leukaemia are much more common in the area, a recent comparative study of school children in Wentworth found them to have much higher levels of respiratory disease compared to children in other parts of the city. “Yes, there’s a shortage of hard evidence linking polluters to localised health problems, but that’s simply because proper studies have not been carried out,” Doctor Mark Colvin of the Medical Research Council told IRIN. “But studies done overseas point to a clear link between the kinds of diseases common in south Durban and high levels of ambient air pollution,” he added.

But refineries in south Durban, while acknowledging that they contribute to pollution, say that they are busy cleaning up their act. “We’re one of the biggest industries in the area, we do have an impact on the environment, but we’re committed to operating this facility in such a way that it minimises that impact on the surrounding community,” Wayne Hartman, Deputy General Manager at Engen, the largest refinery, told IRIN. “We’ve been calling for much tighter regulatory standards, because it’s difficult to make improvements to the plant unless we have standards to work to,” he added. Engen said that it had managed to reduce sulphur dioxide emissions by 35 percent in the past three years. A recent move from fuel oil to gas to run the south Durban plant would further reduce harmful emissions, the company added.

But community leaders and local environmental activists say elderly refineries like the Engen plant and other industries in the area should be closed down. “You can’t make a plant from the 1950s environmentally friendly, the community of Wentworth want it decommissioned now,” D’sa said.

“We want cleaner technology and government recognition of our plight. People of colour throughout Africa suffer because their health and welfare is always secondary to industry,” Bobby Peek of the environmental pressure group Groundwork told IRIN. Groups from south Durban have been using the WCAR pre-conference NGO forum to share experiences with other communities from around the world. “We’ve been talking to people from Ecuador and Ogoniland [Nigeria] as well as a contingent of Aborigines about a whole range of environmental concerns,” Peek added. “There’s often a racial dimension to the plight of these groups and it’s time the world listened.”


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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