Africa’s Biggest Landfill Site: The Case Of Bisasar Road
Bisasar Road is Africa’s largest landfill site, and one of only three landfill sites in Durban with a full permit. It was opened for business in 1980 under South Africa’s apartheid regime. The Group Areas Act, a crucial pillar of the segregation agenda, meant that Bisasar Road would ‘import’ waste from privileged white areas to impoverished and working-class black areas deprived of basic human rights.
But there are concerns about emissions: South African corporations and government agencies have had a recent history of attempted abuse of the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), (http://unfccc.int/kyoto_protocol/me...) one of the "flexibility" mechanisms defined in the Kyoto Protocol (IPCC, 2007). And in the case of the Bisasar Road landfill, the CDM was successfully contravened.
In April 2010 there was a long debate about the merits of constructing the world’s fourth-largest coal-fired energy facility. Following this, officials from Eskom — South Africa’s biggest electricity provider — proposed the Medupi power plant as a potential CDM project. But by early 2012 it had not been taken to formal application stage. (In 2009 an attempt by Sasol to claim that a gas pipeline investment was ‘additional’ to pre-existing plans, so deserving emissions reductions credits, had been ridiculed by the Johannesburg activist group Earthlife Africa, based on an admission by a company official, and did not pass muster in the UN vetting process.)
But the most controversial CDM project is the country’s leading pilot: a methane-electricity conversion at Bisasar Road dump in Durban’s Clare Estate residential neighborhood, celebrated by everyone in power from the municipality to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
For John Parkin, deputy head of the engineering at the municipal agency Durban Solid Waste, “What makes (the Bisasar Road CDM project) worthwhile is the revenue that can be earned from carbon credits, estimated at 3.1 million certified emissions reduction credits, worth about $15 million, along with some 6-8 megaWatts of electricity over a 20 year lifespan.” In late 2006, the French Development Agency pledged long-term loans of $8 million to Durban’s landfill gas projects (Bisasar is by far the largest of three), alongside $1.3 million extended by South Africa’s Department of Trade and Industry.
Bisasar Road, Africa’s largest and one of three fully permitted landfill sites in Durban, was opened for business in 1980 by the apartheid regime. The Group Areas Act, a crucial pillar of the apartheid government’s segregation agenda, meant that Bisasar Road would ‘import’ waste from privileged white areas to impoverished, working-class black areas deprived of basic human rights. Bisasar was emblematic of 4,000 disposal dumps created across the country (of which, as the government acknowledged, only 200 met minimum environmental standards). Residents of Clare Estate — classified as an ‘Indian’ and ‘coloured’ area but with a large African settlement — lacked access to political, economic and legal recourse. Their attempts at mobilising dissent against the regime were ignored, although the African National Congress pledged in 1994 that the new democratic municipal government would close the racist dump.
Despite opposition to the dump from residents, and government promises to close and rehabilitate it, Durban Solid Waste supported its continued use. Two other sites — in wealthy Umhlanga and impoverished Umlazi township — were shut instead. Described by the municipality as “favourably placed with respect to central Durban, close to a major artery connecting the city to the west, north and south,” the dump processes 3,000 to 5,000 tonnes of waste daily. In spite of vehement calls for closure, and respiratory problems in the community, the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry extended the landfill’s life cycle in 1996.
Although the permit issued was for general waste only, the site’s operators were “granted a permit without a buffer zone”. Hosting 19 million cubic metres of waste, the dump was described by Carl Albrecht, research director of the Cancer Association of South Africa, as a toxic ‘cancer hotspot’ where residents “are like animals involved in a biological experiment.”
Bisasar has a further four million ‘available’ cubic metres of fully permitted landfill space before critical mass is reached, hence there is potentially another decade and a half of dumping in the black neighbourhood.
Sadija Khan’s fight
The struggle against this project was mainly led by Sajida Khan (1952-2007), a self-taught ecologist. Attempting to shut the dump that ultimately killed her, Khan dedicated half her life to a contest with municipal bureaucrats and the World Bank. Khan was raised in what was the traditionally Indian neighbourhood within Clare Estate, astride a nature reserve that spanned a small valley. In 1980, when Khan was 28, her surroundings were suddenly destroyed by apartheid officials. The peaceful reserve became an unending, stinking heap of rubbish, which until the late 1990s also included a medical waste incinerator.
Khan believed that the neighbourhood’s receipt of wealthy white Durbanites’ droppings was the root cause of her two cancer cases, the second of which proved fatal.
The reason that Bisasar Road dump was not closed in the early 2000s, notwithstanding a very substantial pressure campaign by Khan and 6,000 residents, was a commitment by the World Bank to invest a potential $14.4 million grant to convert landfill methane emissions into electricity.
But community opposition to the Bank’s CDM and demands for Bisasar Road’s closure were not universal. The Khan family built their middle-class house in the 1950s on Clare Road. Some members of the family still reside in the house overlooking (to the west) the dump, directly in the path of prevailing winds, which continually coat the area with light landfill dust and disease-carrying flies. As logical as her closure demand was, given the history of environmental racism, there were nevertheless conflicting opinions about how to handle this menacing neighbor.
Starting in early 2005, the Abahlali base Mjondolo shackdwellers’ movement of Kennedy Road did an extraordinary job struggling against adverse conditions and police repression (until in September 2009 many of the leaders were driven away after violent attacks). But throughout the 2000s, the Kennedy Road shackdwellers had welcomed the opportunity to have several dozen of their members pick rubbish and informally recycle it while on the dump. Scores more shackdwellers once informally picked materials from the dump, until the municipality’s Durban Solid Waste (DSW) limited access due to safety and health dangers.
Kennedy Road leaders accused Khan of threatening livelihoods and sabotaging the city’s offer of a handful of jobs and bursaries (in Uganda) in the event the CDM project got off the ground. Khan had used the word “informals” to describe the shack settlement residents and once advocated that they be compensated and moved to areas nearby (as she herself desired for her family), sufficiently far from the dump (she recommended a buffer for all residents of 800 meters) to be safe from the windswept dust. At the nearby clinic, health workers confirmed that Kennedy Road residents suffer severely from asthma, sinusitis, pneumonia and even tuberculosis. The toxic body load is unknown, but heavy metals and other dangerous substances penetrate the water, air and shifting soils. Khan had a profound empathy for people in the same proximity as cancer-causing and respiratory disease particulates, as she noted in an interview: “Recently a woman was buried alive. She died on the site [picking rubbish, killed by a dump truck offloading]. I could have saved her life.”
‘We were used’
The leader of Abahlali base, Mjondolo, S’bu Zikode, later argued that Durban municipal officials manipulated these socio-racial divisions: “We were used. They even o?ered us free busses to protest in favour of this project ... to damage those who oppose this project.” The promised jobs and bursaries that justified the group’s earlier support for the CDM never materialized. The leading KwaZulu-Natal based environmental NGO, groundWork, argued against the municipality’s divide-and-conquer politics in a 2008 report, Wasting the Nation: Making trash of People and Nations:
“Closing down illegal picking was not possible without their cooperation. But in return for that cooperation they wanted to secure the recycling and site cleaning jobs exclusively for people from Kennedy Road and take over the labour-broking contract with DSW for site cleaners. There are not, in fact, many of these jobs left at Bisasar Road. The commercial recyclers employ 15 people on piece rates at the recycling pad established by DSW, while there are 25 people employed as site cleaners.”
In spite of its environmentally racist past and present, Newcombe declared Bisasar to be “operated and maintained on a world-class level.” Sajida Khan replied: “Unlike me, he does not live across the road from Bisasar.”
Khan argued: “The community would not have: marched and demonstrated; blocked the entrance to the site; handed a petition with 600 signatures to the mayor; written press articles and voiced our dismay on national television if we had accepted the Bisasar dumpsite.” The World Bank was apparently intimidated, and it pulled out of the Bisasar Road project, although two other much smaller methane-electricity CDM projects were funded at the same time. But by July 2007, having been twice struck by the cancer she believed came from particulates that floated across the road into her life-long home, Khan had died.
Was the CDM necessary?
With Khan gone and her personal lawsuit against the city null and void, the municipality then went to the markets, without the World Bank. The French Development Bank assisted with a US$8 million loan, and municipal officials soon constructed the full system of extracting methane, burning and flaring it (with associated incineration hazards given the GHGs and heavy metals that coexist with the methane, including CO2, nitrogen oxide, lead, cadmium and other toxics), powering the turbines, and connecting the generated electricity back into the municipal grid. According to Parkin, “What makes it worthwhile is the revenue that can be earned from carbon credits.”
The World Bank had backed off in 2005 when Khan’s fame was at her height — e.g. the lead paragraph in the Washington Post’s analysis of the Kyoto Protocol when it came into effect that year: “[Sajida] Khan who has fought for years to close an apartheid-era dumpsite that she says has sickened many people in her predominantly brown and black community outside Durban, South Africa, was dismayed to learn recently that she faces a surprising new obstacle: the Kyoto global warming treaty.” In 2008, the Bank was replaced by an investment company, Tradings Emissions, which acquired the right to purchase one million emissions reduction credits. The firm’s investment advisor Simon Shaw termed Bisasar and the other two landfills “an important project, it is operational, it has a long term future and we anticipate registration shortly. These credits will be a useful addition to our portfolio.”
In March 2009, the municipality registered it on the United Nations list of CDM projects, as active through at least 2014. The four million cubic meters of potential Bisasar Road rubbish that is today’s remaining capacity — on top of 19 million cubic meters in the dump that are already exuding methane — will allow extraction of methane and damaging on-site conversion of electricity for many years to come. Khan believed that the gas should indeed be removed, but through nearby gas pipes, not burned and flared on site. Khan’s goal of Bisasar Road’s immediate closure with conversion of the gas for industrial use a long way from residential areas could have been achieved were there better financing systems available than the unstable carbon market.
In contrast, Christiana Figueres, a former leading carbon-trading expert who in mid-2011 was named Executive Secretary of the United Nations Climate Change Conference, gave Durban’s electricity-from-landfill gas project accolades during the COP17. According to South African press reports, she declared that the United Nations had selected the initiative as one of the world’s ‘top ten renewable energy projects’. Likewise, a World Bank Prototype Carbon Fund website claimed in 2004 that this project “may be a first of its kind for Africa... I think the example we are setting in Durban, working with the World Bank to deal with landfill, is a huge innovation. We are turning dirt and garbage into a raw material that we could grow wealth from. If you wanted to say to yourself, ’we want to be the cleanest city in the world’, waste, in my view, is the best place to start,” said Obed Mlaba, the mayor of Durban.
Not enough facts on the ground
The reality of Bisasar Road as a greenhouse gas mitigation project is also clouded by extremely low extraction statistics. According to the Academy for Science in South Africa, the Bisasar methane flow is about 7000 cubic meters per hour, and notwithstanding the vast investment in piping and extraction equipment, the CDM is only able to extract 2500 cubic meters of methane per hour.
Would donors such as the French Development Agency (AFD) still have invested in the Bisasar initiative, knowing the facts on the ground? Denis Vassuer is a representative of the AFD, a public institution specializing in the financing of sustainable development projects. Asked about investment preferences and cost differentials, he responded that composting projects far outweighed landfill gas initiatives across the board as they facilitated greater complementary ecological, social and community benefits, and he stated that composting projects were ideally suited to countries in sub-Saharan African with humidity and high levels of organic waste in landfills.
Beira in Mozambique, with 80 percent organic waste (currently being converted into fertilizer by Terra Nova), was identified by Vasseur as one successful project. Bisasar — with 59.9 percent methane richness (the product of decomposing waste) — was another. “We should invest in composting first,” he stated, describing already functioning, initiatives in Bangladesh. Given that AFD previously invested nearly $10 million in the project, Vassuer’s overall response, strongly leaning towards composting in similar circumstances, was revealing.
Others, like Cathy Lee of Lee International, a company specializing as Emissions Trading Consultants, strongly advocated in favor of Bisasar as a successful carbon trading project. “There is no way to close this dump, right now. If recycling, composting, waste avoidance programmes were extremely successful, it would be far less needed. But right now that is just not reality,” she said. Later, on the phone, she would concede that everything she knew about the Bisasar dump was learned from newspapers. When asked by a representative of Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) whether recycling and other alternative methods such as waste diversion should be utilised, Lee stated vehemently, “The problem is those are rich countries. You can’t do here, what you can do in Europe.”
A more climate-appropriate approach could have been considered, but was constrained by two factors: a CDM which locked in municipal environmental racism, intra-community conflict, fraud and ineligibility; and adequate financing to pursue a different route. It is because of the dual problem of CDMs — they amplify problems, and they forego alternative options — that this mechanism should be discontinued. The pilot project for South Africa is a case in point.