Women walking through a trash littered field in Dakar, Senegal
Photo credit: Mel D Cole for World Bank

As the world is preparing to take stock of progress made to end pollution at the Seventh Assembly of the Global Environment Facility, we are reminded of the critical role we have in promoting environmental health and healthy living.

In Senegal more than 2.7 million tons of solid waste are produced each year. Only 1.7 million tons are collected. With inadequate waste collection systems, households resort to dumping their trash in the streets or burning it. The toxins released from open burning such as dioxins and furans - also known as unintentional persistent organic pollutants, or UPOPs - are a silent menace: they lead to severe air, soil, and water pollution, with devastating consequences on people’s health and on the environment. At home, many are further exposed to toxins coming from the use of plastic in cooking and from charcoal burned inside rooms.

We just came back from Hann Bel-air and Dalifort-Forail, two bustling cities in Dakar, Senegal, next to a bay that could have, absent its staggering pollution levels, rivaled the most beautiful in the world. Here, the accumulation of domestic trash torments 130,000 residents.

A narrow street led us to Dalifort. Here, garbage used to pile up two-meters high. Residents were out of alternatives. A thousand high school students must go through the street every day to get to school. Sick people use it to confide their ailments to a health center, to which they may have added new ones gleaned from the street. Nearby, a mosque and a church stand, here surely to collect the lament of the tortured. Prayer was undoubtedly the only hope for better days.

At the end of the street, in a cul-de-sac, stands Mariama Kandé's house, a ghost house with shutters which have lost the freedom to open due to the thrust of the surrounding garbage. The clouds of incense coming from the house don’t have much effect, as they mingle with the heavy exhalations of trash decay and incineration.

This lonely house has given up in this unequal battle: the neighbors have turned their backs to the street. Mariama couldn't. The room at the back hosts the sleep of her six children. It could have been a way out to escape a face-to-face with the smell and fumes from the amassed trash, but then where to put the little ones?

Then one morning, in disbelief, residents witnessed the launch of the Project for Environmental Health and Pollution Management in Africa (EHPMP) funded by the Global Environment Facility and implemented in five countries: Ghana, Kenya, Senegal, Tanzania, and Zambia. This project addresses environmental health challenges associated with mercury use in artisanal small-scale mining and UPOPs in solid and electronic waste. The regional approach is predicated on the transboundary nature of mercury and persistent organic pollutant emissions and impacts, regional causes for their mismanagement and opportunities for cross-border solutions.

In Senegal, $5.5 million will be dedicated to promoting environmental health. This will be achieved by reducing the release of UPOPs and toxic chemicals and establishing laws for the rational management of urban waste, a major contributor to harmful particle releases.

The prayers had certainly not been in vain. Dump trucks swallowed the relentless, foul-smelling invaders with their gaping mouths. Then, the soil, once buried, reappeared, beautiful in its blackness and its smell of wet earth. Now, "rouxou djine," or Devil's Corner, a name once given to this street to describe its hell, is home to plants, benches and, oh miracle…flowers perfuming the atmosphere with beautiful exhalations yesterday forbidden. Artists paint frescoes titled Zero Waste and rappers find a creative space. Kap2Seuss, rapper and activist, has chosen as an anthem: waste on your street, waste on your mind.

Man sitting in a cleaned up park area in Dakar, Senegal
Photo credit: Madjiguene Seck/World Bank

From the past dismay, residents enjoy now healthy lives today. The street is home to the serenity of old dads beating out their rosary beads, the fleeting respite of housewives between chores, children's play, and neighbors' get-togethers. Schoolchildren take advantage of the space and, at night, benefit from the dim lights to study.

Hope is reborn. The local health center records a drastic drop in pathologies such as asthma, respiratory diseases, and malaria. The "Bajenu gox," or Neighborhood Aunties, have made an immeasurable contribution: trained by the project, they go from house to house to inform and educate. Thanks to their work, housewives now know that those little plastic oil sachets thrown into the hot pot, charcoal ignited with plastic, condiments tied up in plastic and inserted into the boiling pan to save time on cooking, incense lit on the still-black charcoal, give off UPOPs and expose them to the risk of cancer, among other health risks.

But what about the trash? In the past, housewives depended on the collection trucks twice a week. If the truck failed to show, the trash piled up in the houses. Their last resort? Dumping it in the street, burning it with all the risks of intoxication, or covering it with ashes to prevent it from rotting.

Today, the EHPMP project, in collaboration with the Senegal Municipal Solid Waste Management Project (PROMOGED) and Senegal’s National Waste Management Unit (SONAGED), has installed 18 standardized collection points where communities can deposit their waste. The next step would be to train them in sorting, recovery, recycling, and finding gold in the trash. Soon, there will be so much to gain from these mini-Mbeubeuss (landfill) scattered around the city, polluting lives but hiding an unsuspected source of income. Committees to monitor cleanliness and hygiene, training, legislation, and an air-quality measuring station, have together contributed to healthier lives.

But there is still so much more to be done. Despite these advances, the pollution in the basins and lakes remains unresolved. 

Dalifort's two retention basins, created to drain rainwater, are polluted by errant canal wastewater that should have made its way into septic tanks. Moreover, hydrocarbons are being discharged into the basins through faulty pipes. Likewise, the two Mariste lakes are polluted with pesticides used in gardening, the main income generating activity, uncontrolled garbage dumps, oil from mechanics’ work, as well as national sewage canals.

As development partners rally together for a healthier future, we hope to be inspired by communities and authorities in Senegal who are leading the way towards a healthier future. Let us use our collective power to create lasting change and preserve the beauty of our planet for future generations.

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