Civil Society voice their concerns at National Workshop on Health Care Waste and Incineration

Previously, civil society have not been given a platform to voice their concerns regarding the health impacts that health care waste and incineration has had on their quality of life, and only recently has civil society taken a stand to say that “enough is enough”, and have to sort ways to voice their concerns in a legitimate manner, so as to stop the practice of environmental racism

It was in April 2002, that groundWork in collaboration with the Global Anti-Incineration Alliance (GAIA) and Health Care Without Harm (HCWH) held its National Civil Society Organisation Strategy Workshop on Healthcare waste and Incineration. The workshop was conducted over four days between the 5 – 8th April. The first three days was a gathering of civil society organisations to formulate strategies surrounding health care waste and incineration. Through the discussions that flowed from the workshop, on the fourth-day civil society gave feedback to key government officials and politicians who were invited to listen and respond to our concern.

The reason for the workshop was due perhaps to the irony of the health care sector, in that some of the practices of this sector are polluting and are damaging to human health. In South Africa, stories abound of illegal dumping of health care waste, nurses flushing health care waste down toilets, health care waste being stockpiled in houses and health care waste incinerators operating at conditions way below what is acceptable to public health and safety. The workshop was conducted in order to expound on outputs for both incineration and health care waste such as developing a civil society policy response and activist strategy, creating awareness, discussions around developing a regional collaborative network and regional structure, etc. The workshop, therefore, seeked to share these struggles and to bring them together in order that a more supportive mechanism nationally and regionally could be developed so as to make our campaigning more successful.

I was happy to see a large number of local civil society participants who had availed themselves and travelled from as far as Johannesburg, Swaziland, Mozambique, Port Elizabeth and the Philippines so as to provide input at the workshop. During the course of the workshop, I was delighted to see how all civil society participants seemed to get along so harmoniously. To me, it was because they had come together with a common vision and had shared similar experiences related to the struggles of community injustices in their areas, and due to the fact that private companies and certain industries have continually failed to neglect the concerns of civil society.

groundWork was honoured to have KwaZulu-Natal Agriculture and Environmental Affairs MEC, Narend Singh, open the workshop. I was glad to hear from the minister during his speech that there was an urgent need to adopt alternative technologies for dealing with health care waste, and that he hoped that developers would look into this direction for the future. However, I was disappointed to hear that the minister considered it impractical to rule out incineration completely, especially for handling domestic waste in our country. Considering the potential impacts that incinerators pose to human health and the environment, such as causing cancers, birth defects and decreased fertility in humans, and considering that globally, there has been an uproar from civil society concerning incineration, I found this to be totally unacceptable. However, I hope that through further pressure from civil society around these issues, such views by government will be eradicated.

What was encouraging to see at the workshop was how enthusiastic civil society was in listening to the concerns being presented by their counterparts. The first session of the workshop addressed concerns around health care waste, whilst the second session addressed concerns surrounding incineration. Presentations related to both these issues were given by various regions. Participants included various hospital institutions in KwaZulu-Natal, NGO’s from Swaziland (Yonge Nawe) and Mozambique (Livaningo), the Fairest Cape Association, Gauteng government, the Legal Resources Centre, the Wildlife and Environmental Society of South Africa (WESSA – KwaZulu-Natal and Port Elizabeth), as well as the Anti-Incineration Alliance (AIA) and the Sasolburg Environmental Committee (SEC).

We were fortunate to have Manny Calonzo the GAIA Secretariat from the Philippines where incineration is banned, at the workshop who was responsible for giving us his insight into alternative technologies, “What is possible, why and where is it being used?” as well as a presentation on GAIA the international network, and “How GAIA can assist Southern Africa.” Manny being a gentle and very spiritually inclined person has always shown passionate for the work that he does and was able to effectively demonstrate in his discussions that alternative technology is the way to go.

On the last day of the workshop, were presentations by civil society to politicians and government officials. I, like the rest of my groundWork team, were thrilled to see that some government officials and politicians who were not given a personal invitation to the workshop, had heard about it and had made themselves available. For myself, this represented a positive sign, showing that many officials are understanding that healthcare waste and incineration issues are pressing problems that need to be dealt with in an appropriate manner and that the concerns of civil society are genuine.

We were glad to have the honourable deputy minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, Rejoice Mabudafhasi, giving our opening address to political decision makers and civil society at the workshop. We as a civil society were glad to hear from the deputy minister that they will be ratifying this convention together with other chemical conventions before the World Summit on Sustainable Development that South Africa will be hosting in August 2002.

I found this statement by the minister to be of utmost importance considering the fact that the proposed rotary kiln incinerator in Sasolburg, Free State for hazardous waste being proposed by Peacock Bay Environmental Services has been a contentious issue that has caught the attention of environmental and civil society groups from around the globe. Many participants at the workshop noted that the Stockholm Convention gives preferential treatment for the use of non-combustion-based approaches to the management of waste.

Overall, my feelings about groundWork’s CSO workshop were awe-inspiring. The gathering led to the adopting of the Isipingo declaration on eliminating the harmful impacts of Health Care Waste and Incinerators in Southern African communities. Letters of support against incinerator processes were also drawn up at the workshop. These included support for WESSA (PE) in their fight against the Pelts incinerator and the Sasolburg Environmental Committee (SEC) for the Peacock Bay hazardous waste incinerator.

Overall, I felt that the workshop was of tremendous success. I hope that the workshop will provide government with an informed and concerned opinion reflecting the voice of civil society, and that government and civil society can work together so as to transform the health care industry so it is no longer a source of environmental harm by eliminating pollution in health care practices without compromising safety or care. We must work together to achieve this by promoting comprehensive pollution prevention practices, supporting the development and use of environmentally safe materials, technology and products, as well as educating and informing health care institutions, providers, workers, consumers, and all affected constituencies about the environmental and public health impacts of the health care industry and solutions to its problems.

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