A new wave of environmental degradation is threatening Africa's environments, it is not the effect of climate change, but electronic waste dumped in Africa by some Western countries in the form of computer donations and other electrical gadgets.
Computers and other second-hand electronic gadgets dumped to most, under the guise of donations are causing more problems for the environment as they cannot be easily disposed due to chemical and other compositions that make them harmful if disposed without due care.
Worse still, the donating countries are well aware of the fact that most African countries do not have incineration facilities to burn this toxic waste. Resultantly, they are making it a point that they follow up on their garbage by establishing recycling and incineration plants.
By so doing they have made it a point that they hold Africa at ransom, since all countries receiving the donations will always turn to the West for better recycling and incineration equipment .
Tendai Mudangwe, the information and communication technology co-ordinator with the Women's University Africa, told the delegates at the recent Information
Technology and Cyber Security Conference in Harare that electronic waste from computers and other gadgets is seriously threatening the environment hence the need to come up with a legal framework on their disposal.
ICT equipment contains harmful metals which may react with water purification chemicals if they are not properly disposed of; there is a greater need to be
considerate of the environmental risks caused by e-waste.
Because of generous donations that come in, most institutions are finding themselves with warehouses stockpiled with unnecessary computers and other gadgets that they are finding difficult to dispose of.
Mudangwe suggested that such organisations should increase the usefulness of such gadgets by constantly upgrading obsolete equipment to avoid dumping it onto the environment.
While the rapid spread of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) has attracted public attention, both on the positive step such as towards the reduction of the digital divide and on the negative effects of bad management of waste of electrical and electrical equipment (WEE or e-waste) on the environment and human health.
According to information from some ICT websites Ghana accounts for mountains of hazardous waste weighing about 40 million tonnes every year. The waste, mostly from Europe and North America, is burned, albeit in a hazardous effort to recover valuable metals.
A researcher at the University of Zimbabwe told the same summit that poor people in Africa cannot afford to process Europe's electronic wastes and called for the need to have a comprehensive framework on the disposal of gadgets whose shelf life has expired.
"We, however, continue to receive these gadgets some even past their shelf life and it is costing us and the environment. In other countries the used gadgets are collected and burnt in search of precious metals such as copper," the researcher said.
Miffed by this e-waste glut, some 50 organisations that include partners in the industry, country representatives, academia and non-governmental organisations came up with an initiative called STEP (Solution to E-waste Problem).
The main objectives behind STEP are to optimise the life cycle of electrical and electronic equipment by improving supply chains and reducing contamination. It also seeks to promote re-use of the electrical devices in place of disposing and exercising the disparities such as the digital divide between the developed and industrialised nations as well as increasing scientific public knowledge on e-waste.
STEP culminated from research conducted in 2003 at United Nations Universities (UNU) to find the relationship between electronic devices, especially computers and the environment.
This led to the publication of a book project called "Computers and Environment 2003".
The concept is the brainchild of Klaus Hieronymi (Hewlett Packard), Eric Williams (UNU) and Axel Schneider (PT PLUS) and is based on empirical evaluation and integrates a comprehensive view of the social and environmental and economic aspects of e-waste. STEP discourages illegal activities related to e-waste including illegal importation and reuse or recycling practices that are hazardous to human health and environment.
It seeks to promote safe and eco- energy-efficient, re-use and recycling practices in Africa and around the globe in a socially responsible manner.
In 2002 the Stockholm Environment Institute warned that a business-as-usual approach to economic development is likely to trigger "events that could radically transform the planet's climate and ecosystems". The report further stated that global poverty, continued inequity, and the degradation of environmental resources could cause society to reel "from one environmental, social and security crisis to the next".
In 2005 the United Nations released the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Synthesis Report. This was a result of a four-year global study of Earth's environment, involving more than 1 360 experts from 95 countries.
The report contained a stark warning: "Human activity is putting such strain on the natural functions of Earth that the ability of the planet's ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted."
In its 2010-2014 Strategic Plan, Zimbabwe's ICT Ministry set a target to increase national tele-density by 10 percent. This means the country experienced an upsurge in the use of computers, cellular phones and other electronic gadgets.
A paper on ICTs and women development said that while the problem of e-waste in Zimbabwe was not documented, the increasing importation of electrical and electronic devices, some of them with a short life- span, is a threat to the environment.
These sites are usually frequented by the urban poor and unemployed scavenging for reusable plastics or metals for resale, posing serious health hazards to themselves as well as residents near the dumps.
The short lifespan of most of these gadgets was confirmed by the United Nations Environmental Programme through its reports and the warnings of dangerous amounts of increasing e-waste, which is often dumped in waste disposal sites.
Although there is no public acknowledgment of willful importation for dumping in Zimbabwe, this is happening.
There is no empirical proof on the deliberate importation of electrical devices for dumping in the country, although it is there. But the truth of the matter is that there is a very low level of e-waste readiness. Discussions with ministries and departments on ICTs, the environment and waste management revealed there is neither awareness nor preparedness at all on issues of e-waste management.
Association for Progressive Communications (APC)'s senior official Alan Finlay issued a paper on e-waste. He contends that there is a positive correlation between the economic strength of a country and the levels of e-waste.
Environmental Management Agency said the extent of e-waste in the country was not as bad as in other developed countries due to their economic status.
The reduction in prices of ICT material has given birth to an upsurge of electronic devices bought from other countries. Some gadgets are second-hand products and would either come as donations or at very cheap prices.
"Within a short space of time the gadgets would not be working and companies would just dump them in their offices," noted EMA.
The problem is immense and is mainly caused by the pack rat mentality within most organisations where office equipment especially computers are kept in storerooms then later discarded because they have become obsolete. The situation also applies to cellular phones.
However, EMA encouraged citizens to employ waste management concepts that include reuse, recycle, reduce, recover, redesign, refuse and rethink.
World Links Zimbabwe, an organisation whose focus is to facilitate the use of computers, urges schools to bring obsolete computers to their workshop in Harare. World Links has a recouping programme where computers are broken down to their basic parts; reusable parts are put back to use and the waste is sent to municipal dumps and landfills, but still this does not solve the problem.
However, with no incentives given to the schools to respond positively, the programme is facing challenges. This means most computers will remain gathering dust, and taking up valuable space in institutions.
According to the World Computer Exchange, an average computer may contain up to 1 000 toxins including lead, mercury, cadmium and other heavy metals that are known to cause damage to the nervous system, the brain, the kidneys, and can cause birth defects and cancer.
It is estimated that up to 40 percent of heavy metals in landfills come from electronic equipment discards.
The Waste Management Department of the Municipality of Harare has protocols of proper disposal for hazardous waste, but does not address the proper treatment of e-waste.
The Basel Action Network's International Toxics Progress Report Cardalso confirms that Zimbabwe has not yet ratified the Basel Convention.
According to the UNEP report, since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, Zimbabwe has made efforts towards enforcing and strengthening existing legislation, the establishment of a Radiation Protection Services Department, the institution of a Hazardous Substances Control Advisory Board, and the introduction of hazardous waste management regulations and national guidelines for the disposal of hazardous waste for local authorities.
The Hazardous Substances and Articles Control Act, provides the legal framework for the control and management of toxic chemicals but is silent on e-waste. The most recent legislation is Statutory Instrument 10 of 2007 which covers disposal of dangerous waste products.
But as the West continues to dump its waste the headache remains, could this be some form of still holding a grip in Africa through this electronic waste glut?