Pollution and Waste
Pollution and small islands
Pacific island countries, like the rest of the world, face serious problems with disposal of wastes and pollution. Organic and most metal wastes can be recycled, and this is practised in a limited way in most rural areas. Increased urbanisation and growing populations have accelerated problems with the collection and disposal of both solid and liquid wastes. Every year the importation of packaged consumer goods adds to the growing amount of non-biodegradable waste. Pollution from industrial waste and sewage and disposal of toxic chemicals are significant contributors to marine pollution and coastal degradation.
Manmade chemicals, many of them very toxic, can be difficult to recycle and expensive to destroy. Most wastes, hazardous or not, are simply dumped together at the nearest available government owned land. In Fiji, Tonga, and Vanuatu, for example the public dumps are in mangrove forests and the Department of Health dusts them regularly with pesticides and rat poison.
Perhaps more dangerous is the widespread use of toxic agricultural chemicals in areas where these can later pollute rivers and groundwater sources. Groundwater contamination is common in fresh water sources adjoining agricultural areas.
Pollution from wastes has serious implications for the small island developing states. These problems fall into three categories. (I) aesthetics, (ii) human health (iii) environmental degradation.
Costs of pollution to the tourist industry
Since tourism is the great economic hope for the Pacific islands, ambient beauty has a cash value. Yet in most of the Pacific islands, tourists are confronted with litter; wrappers and aluminium cans line the roads, fast food plastic packaging is heaped on the edges of scenic overviews, disposable diapers drift through the clear waters or tangle in the branches of corals. Open municipal dumps are often close to major urban centres and almost always on fire, with the aromatic fumes distracting from the romance of the tropical atmosphere.
Costs of pollution to human health
Human health is, indirectly, endangered by litter. The mosquito that carries the dengue fever abrovirus is a “domesticated” insect. It breeds in water trapped in cans, old tyres, jars, and plastic containers. Dengue epidemics are common in the Pacific islands. A study in New Caledonia, for example, found the epicenter for a recent outbreak of dengue in a squatter city where litter was abundant. There are 23 different strains of dengue, most of them debilitate the victim for several weeks to several months. One variety causes internal haemorrhaging and can be deadly. In 1998 an epidemic of Dengue spread across the South Pacific. Fiji spent millions of dollars combating the disease. More than 6,500 people required hospitalization.
Improper disposal of waste also contaminates water supplies. Sewage contamination of water is common in all island countries of the region and few streams and even many ground water supplies, are safe for human consumption without treatment. Diarrhoea - often related to water related diseases - was the third most common cause for hospitalization in the Pacific islands. In Kiribati, diarrhoea and other water related diseases were the number one cause of death (WHO 1984). In Ebey Lagoon, in the Marshall islands, where pollution levels have reached 25,000 times higher than WHO safe levels, epidemics of gastroenteritis were almost impossible to control (Keju and Johnson, 1982). Cholera, which caused diarrhoea and dehydration, killed 18 people in Kiribati in 1977 and initiated renewed efforts at improving sanitation and water supplies (Kiribati UNCED 1992).
Droughts and subsequent floods amplify water related health problems. Leptospirosis and Amoebic dysentery both increased following the prolonged droughts in 1987. Leptospirosis is transmitted by contamination of water supplies by rat or dog urine. Amoebic dysentery is transmitted by sewage contaminated water. In New Caledonia and French Polynesia Leptospirosis increased from 9 cases in 1987 to 87 in 1988 and 158 in 1989. It fell again in 1991 in parallel with the incidence of Amoeboensis. In French Polynesia, leptospirosis hospitalized 100 out of every 100,000 people in 1992. This compares to 0.4/100,000 cases in France.
Environmental costs of pollution
Environmental degradation from pollution indirectly impacts human health through reduction of food security, loss of drinking water supplies, and loss of economic opportunity.
The major industries in the small island states are agriculture, tourism, forestry, mining and fisheries. All of these generate wastes – some a by-product of the activity, some a necessary part of the product stream. By-product wastes are generally the result of poorly managed operations and include siltation (from mining and land clearing during agricultural of forestry activities), oil pollution (used oil from machinery and from accidental spills), poisons (from pest control), and miscellaneous plastic trash (old fishing gear, plastic sheeting, drums and bags). Production wastes include organic wastes from food processing, chemical wastes (from oil palm refineries, mining processes, wood treatment).
Hazardous chemicals and nutrient pollution find their way into the marine environment via effluents, dumps, storm runoff, sewage, and wind-blown dust. These cause environmental insults to inshore estuarine and marine environments. This is especially damaging to coastal marine nursery areas like sea grass beds, coral reefs, and mangrove forests. While many of these effluents cause local environmental insults, siltation, oil pollution, poisons and plastic trash contribute to extensive, damage to inshore marine environments.
The islands are just the exposed peaks of the great mountain ranges of the Pacific Ocean. Ocean currents form eddies around these mountains and it is in these oceanic vortices that many sea creatures proliferate in their planktonic stages. The lagoons of atolls and bays of high islands are also key areas for planktonic development. Air blown dust, smoke, and fresh water storm run-off from the islands carry oil soluble man-made toxins from gardens, food processing areas, kitchen sinks, and municipal dumps onto the surface layer of the sea. The sea surface micro-layer is a vital nursery for the vast majority of all marine organisms and, because of its special characteristics, is easily polluted by man-made chemicals.
Almost all of the multitude of marine species of fish, plants and invertebrates shed their eggs into the sea water. These float, and so almost all sea creatures spend the most delicate first few hours of life close to the micro-layer boundary at the sea surface. Under normal conditions, this layer is enriched by a very thin layer of natural oils, slowly digested by special marine bacteria. The nutrient enriched surface layer of the sea is thus the largest single nursery environment of the planet. Tests have demonstrated that this critical habitat is polluted by heavy metals, agricultural poisons, and beak-down petroleum products. Bioassays demonstrate that these toxins can and do kill the eggs and larval stages of fish and invertebrates. Scientists are concerned that this problem may be contributing to the global decline in marine communities and fish populations.
Pollution from mining
Mining is a non-renewable activity and environmental management is essentially a process of removing the minerals with minimal harm to the environment and maximum profit to society. There are four kinds of mining in the Pacific islands: (i) mineral extraction (nickel, gold, silver, copper, iron, uranium, titanium); (ii) coal mining; (iii) construction mining (for fill, building stone and cement); and (iv) oil and gas extraction. Each activity has it’s own environmental impact during extraction, processing, and transport.
PNG, New Caledonia, the Solomon Islands and Fiji are the major mineral mining centres in the sub-region, and PNG also produces petroleum and natural gas, mostly from off-shore wells. Mining in all these countries results in unavoidable localised environmental damage. Regulations attempt, with varying degrees of success, to mitigate damage from mine tailings, processing fumes, and siltation of streams and rivers. In New Caledonia and PNG, for example, minerals are taken by strip mining in mountainous areas. The more rugged the terrain, the more practical difficulties in preventing massive siltation of waterways. Prior to the 1980’s there were few, if any, environmental precautions taken with mining activities. Siltation of waterways and coastal areas was common. Even after regulations were enacted the practicalities of mine operation in rugged terrain often precluded effective environmental protection. For example, siltation settlement ponds at the OK Tedi gold mine in PNG were destroyed by an earthquake but the mine was allowed to operate anyway. Sediments polluted the Fly River damaging coastal gardens and fisheries. Local land owners successfully sued the mine owners and forced construction of new settlement ponds but the success of these will tested by future earthquakes and torrential rains.
Hazardous wastes and the Pacific Islands
In the late 1980's there were at least 10 attempts to use Pacific islands as a place to install hazardous waste dumps, incineration sites, or storage areas. These were sophisticated proposals with a multitude of financial benefits. The governments of Oceania rejected the proposals on environmental grounds. The Basal Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal (1989) entered into force in 1992 to ensure that transboundary movement of hazardous wastes are consistent with the protection of human health and the environment. In 1994, the Basal Convention was strengthened, outlawing export of hazardous waste for final disposal from OECD to non-OECD countries. The revised Convention agreed to phase out transnational shipments of waste destined for recycling by 1998.
In 1995, the South Pacific Forum presented its members with the Waigani Convention to Ban the Importation into Forum Island Countries of Hazardous and Radioactive Wastes and to control the Transboundary Movement and Management of Hazardous Wastes within the South Pacific Region.
Costs associated with the Waigani Convention include each country: (i) banning import of hazardous and radioactive wastes; (ii), minimising the production of hazardous wastes; (iii) establishing proper disposal methods for hazardous wastes; (iv) developing national legislation to prevent and punish illegal trafficking of wastes; (v) consider becoming signatories to the London Dumping Convention, the SPREP Convention and the Basal Convention. The Convention was signed in Port Moresby PNG but by 1999, only FSM, Fiji and PNG had ratified the Convention.
Radioactive Waste Shipments
The shipment of radioactive wastes through the region is of great concern to the Pacific island leaders. At the 1999 Thirtieth South Pacific Forum meeting, “The Forum noted the constructive dialogue that had taken place between Forum members and government and nuclear industry representatives from France, Japan and the United Kingdom on the current liability and compensation regime for the shipment of radioactive materials and MOX fuel through the region. It reaffirmed its desire to continue to pursue discussions with France, Japan and the United Kingdom on a liability regime for compensating the region for economic losses caused to tourism, fisheries and other industries affected as a result of an accident involving a shipment of radioactive materials and MOX fuel even if there is no actual environmental damage caused.”
SPREP’s Pollution Prevention and Waste Management programme assists countries in preventing, reducing and managing pollution and wastes, including the development and maintenance of national and regional emergency response and planning capabilities. The programme commenced in 1995 with a terrestrial and marine component. The terrestrial component targets solid waste management and minimisation, chemical management, waste water management and land use planning.
An EU-funded Regional Waste Education and Awareness Programme began in 1998 to improve public knowledge and awareness of the problems of solid wastes. The two year, US$700,000 project aims to; (i) review and acquire information on solid waste management in 9 Pacific island countries; (ii) develop and distribute a multimedia regional programme of general waste awareness education; (iii) identify, develop, and implement country and theme specific awareness and education campaigns; (iv) identify priority legislative measures relating to waste management; and (v) encourage and assist the implementation of recycling activities.
SPREP and the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) have developed a Strategy and Workplan for the Protection of the Marine Environment in the South Pacific. The Strategy will assist with technical, legal and scientific cooperation between Pacific Island countries for the protection of the marine environment from pollution from ships and related activities, and the mitigation of the environmental impacts of such pollution. The strategy identifies six key activities: (i) operational discharges from shipping; (ii) coordinated marine pollution emergency response; (iii) control of waste disposal at sea; (iv) management of the port, estuarine and coastal environment; (v) acquisition of baseline data on marine environmental conditions to assess potential impact of pollution; and (vi) legal and institutional aspects of shipping and marine pollution.
A SPREP workshop in 1998 reviewed a proposed draft of a regional contingency plan for a major oil spill, and agreed to finalise it by June 1999. In addition, government and oil industry representatives from Australia, France, New Zealand and the United States outlined assistance that could be provided by their countries. In addition to agreeing to move forward with a regional contingency plan, the workshop also agreed that each country will; (i) develop a national marine pollution contingency plan; (ii) establish a national marine pollution committee; (iii) develop national marine pollution laws and regulations; and (iv) that governments and the oil industry will work closely together to develop these initiatives.
SPREP is also a member of the Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-Based Activities. The Global Programme of Action 1995, was initiated by UNEP in recognition that up to 70 per cent of marine pollution is derived from land-based sources. Seven key areas are targeted and SPREP will assist member countries with reduction of pollution from: (i) persistent organic pollutants including pesticides; (ii) sewage; (iii) heavy metals; (iv) excessive nutrients from organic sources and sediment mobilisation; (v) oils and solid wastes including plastics, and litter; (vi) radioactive substances; and (vii) physical disturbances including habitat modification and destruction.
SPREP’s Management of Persistent Organic Pollutants in Pacific Island Countries project aims at identification of and removal of stocks of unwanted and waste chemicals and clean up of contaminated sites. SPREP will produce a comprehensive database on types, quantities and locations of waste chemicals and unused pesticides in the region. All chemical and oil contaminated sites in the region will be identified, and a preliminary assessment made of the extent of contamination.
The project will also: (i) coordinate on the job training in safe methods of sampling, identifying, handling and storing chemicals (ii) produce a report assessing the facilities and technical expertise available to Pacific island countries to manage waste chemicals and contaminated sites; (iii) produce a technical document detailing appropriate procedures for identifying and safely handling unlabelled substances and produce plans for appropriate storage facilities in each country; (iv) assess disposal options for waste chemicals, including the criteria decision makers should consider when arranging transport or treatment of waste chemicals; (v) provide education, awareness and capacity building programmes to reduce future problems with hazardous wastes and contaminated sites; (vi) review existing government legislation and regulations dealing with management of waste chemicals and contaminated sites, assess the effectiveness of current legislation and make recommendations for any necessary improvements. The project includes the Cook Islands; FSM; Fiji; Kiribati; Marshall Islands; Nauru; Niue; Palau; Samoa; Solomon Islands; Tonga; Tuvalu; and Vanuatu.
Not much progress
The current SPREP programmes reflect similar past programmes with little noticeable progress in any of the categories. For example, the island people in the sub-region were made very aware of hazardous and solid waste issues during the period when importation of hazardous wastes nearly became the region’s economic mainstay.
The local hazardous waste problems that existed in the Pacific in 1988 remain unchanged in 1998 and, after ten years, the urgent need to prevent transhipment of hazardous wastes and deal with local hazardous wastes has not enticed Pacific island countries to participate in the Basal Convention nor the Waigani Convention.
The new Strategy and Workplan for the Protection of the Marine Environment in the South Pacific differs little, in substance, from Convention for the Protection of the Natural Resources and Environment of the South Pacific Region (SPREP Convention)(Noumea 1986). The SPREP Convention focussed on reducing, controlling or preventing pollution from ships, land-based sources, sea-bed activities, radioactive wastes, nuclear testing, dumping and atmospheric sources, and the prevention, reduction and control of damage caused by mining and coastal erosion. Article 14 obliges Parties to take "all appropriate measures" to protect and preserve rare or fragile ecosystems and depleted, threatened or endangered flora and fauna as well as their habitat in the Convention area. The SPREP convention included two protocols: (i) Protocol Concerning Cooperation in Combating Pollution Emergencies in the South Pacific Region (1986); (ii) Protocol for the Prevention of Pollution in the South Pacific Region by Dumping (1986).