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Cry Me a Lake: Crime Against Nature

By Alemayehu G. Mariam

Cry Me a River, Cry Me a Lake

Amina was crying her eyes out. You could see the tear tracks on her tormented face. She is a victim of unimaginable tragedy. Her entire family has nearly been wiped out. She is heartbroken. Sobbing uncontrollably, she covers her downcast eyes with her calloused fingers. She tells Al Jazeera TV’s People & Power program[1] her story:

I gave birth to nine children. Six of them died. Makida. Hadiri. Tahiri. Sultan. Kasim. Kalil. Three survived. My husband also died. I have lost seven members of my family. They were all vomiting and having diarrhea with blood in it. We visited a health center but we were told the problem is associated with water. I feel sad about my dead children and I awake at night thinking of them, and I now worry if my remaining children will survive. I don’t even know if I will survive. Except for God we have no hope.

How did Amina’s children and husband die? They drank the water from Lake Koka, once a pristine lake located some 50 miles south of Addis Ababa. A bearded middle-aged man explains in disgust and frustration:

It is better to die thirsty than to drink this water. We are drinking a disease. We told the local authorities our cattle and goats died due to this water, but nobody helped. We are tired of complaining.”

Another local resident scoops a palmful of the algae-matted green lake water and describes with total resignation the devastation wreaked upon the communities surrounding the Lake Koka:

The main problem here is the water. People are getting sick. Everyone around here uses this water. There is no other water. Almost 17,000 people this water. They come from 10 kilometers away and use this water. The water smells even if you boil it; it does not change the color. It is hard to drink it. The people here have great potential and we are losing them, especially the children. I am upset but I don’t have the ability to do anything. I would if I could, but I can’t do anything.

A district health worker offers clinical diagnosis and morbidity analysis of the polluted water of Lake Koka:

The people in Ammudde [Lake Koka area] are more sick than the other people who are not using that water. It will be about two-thirds more… Most of them have stomach disease and diarreah is common. They are drinking the water that is contaminated from the [leather] factory, so they get sick from that chemical. So my colleagues [and] everybody from this area believe this. We know this is real…

The CEO of the Ethiopia Tannery Share Company, Reg Hankey, denies the tannery is discharging toxic waste into the lake. “It is clearly not from our operation”, says Hankey. He suggests that there may be multiple sources of pollution. One must “look at where the river comes into the lake. We are aware of just as many reports [of pollution] about the river before it gets anywhere near the lake.” An anonymous employee of the Ethiopian Environmental Protection Agency explains, “There are some government institutions that focus on the investment part… on the economic part than the environment part. As a professional, you have to be angry. It makes me angry now.” A young and passionate Ethiopian environmentalist forcefully declares “investment at the cost of environment is nothing.” A world renowned scientist from the University of Durham, U.K., after analyzing water sample from Lake Koka, determined the sample had high concentrations of the microcystis bacteria, which he said forms “one of the most notorious algae” and are among “some of the most toxic molecules known to man.” After viewing the Al Jazeera video, the scientist comments Lake Koka was “one of the worst he had seen anywhere in the world.” It’s all in the two-part Al Jazeera report.

Plague of the Green Death

There are some 21 tanneries in Ethiopia. The Ethiopia Tannery Share Company located in Koka is said to be the largest factory in Ethiopia with 800 employees. According to published statistics, Ethiopia produces 2.7 million hides, 8.1 million sheepskins and 7.5 million goatskins. In 2008, leather exports (second major export constituting 15 per cent of total foreign earnings) generated revenues of US $39.9 million. In December, 2006, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) held a meeting to boost the export of hides, skins and leather in Ethiopia by 74% over the next three years.

The head of the Ethiopia Tannery Share Company denies responsibility because he believes the rivers feeding Lake Koka are polluted by multiple sources of pollution upriver. According to the Ethiopian Environmental Protection Agency, “A number of pollution related studies have confirmed that about 90% of industries in Addis Ababa are simply discharging their effluent into nearby water bodies, streams and open land without any form of treatment. In the 1992 to 1994 wastewater facility Master Plan project the country study reported that out of 70 factories 56 (or 80%) were dumping their untreated effluents into nearby watercourses and urban streams.”[2] But the evidence of pollution in Lake Koka is entirely consistent with tannery-generated pollution in rivers and lakes in Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, the Phillipines and Mexico. Chemical analysis of Lake Koka water sample showed the same high concentrations of dissolved and suspended solids, chloride, ammonia and other heavy metals routinely used in tanning leather in the countries mentioned. Chromium, a well known cancer agent, was found abundantly in the Koka water sample. The morbidity patterns are also similar to the countries mentioned above: A very high percentage of tannery workers and individuals in communities drawing water from Lake Koka suffer from gastrointestinal, liver and other dermatological diseases specifically associated with tannery chemicals.

Human Rights and Environmental Safety

The right to a safe environment is protected by “constitutional” and international human rights laws. Article 44 (1) of the constitution of the ruling regime in Ethiopia provides: “Everyone has the right to a clean and healthy environment.” Article 92 provides “1. The State shall have the responsibility to strive to ensure a clean and healthy environment for all Ethiopians. 2. Any economic development activity shall not in any way be disruptive to the ecological balance. 3. The people concerned shall be made to give their opinions in the preparation and implementation of policies and programs concerning environmental protection. 4. The State and citizens shall have the duty to protect the environment.” Article 16 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (Banjul Charter) requires state parties “to take the necessary measures to protect the health of their people and to ensure that they receive medical attention when they are sick.” Article 24 further declares that “All peoples shall have the right to a general satisfactory environment favorable to their development.” Article 18 of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa provides that “women shall have the right to live in a healthy and sustainable environment”, and requires states to “regulate the management, processing, storage and disposal of domestic waste” to advance this purpose. In 1995, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (Communications 25/89, 47/90, 56/91 and 100/93, Joined) determined that the failure of the Government of Zaire to provide basic services such as safe drinking water constituted a violation of Article 16 of the African Charter.

Article 24 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child provides that state parties to take special care of children “through the provision of adequate nutritious foods and clean drinking water, taking into consideration the dangers and risks of environmental pollution.” The 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment declares that “man’s environment, the natural and the man-made, are essential to his well-being and to the enjoyment of basic human rights–even the right to life itself.” Principle 1 of the Stockholm Declaration which establishes the linkage between human rights and environmental protection declares that “man has a fundamental right to freedom, equality and adequate conditions of life, in an environment of a quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being.” In 1990, the U.N. in Resolution 45/94 recalled the language of the Stockholm Declaration in asserting that all individuals are “entitled to live in an environment adequate for their health and well-being.”

Amina and her six dead children and husband — Makida, Hadiri, Tahiri, Sultan, Kasim, Kalil — had rights specifically protected by international and “constitutional” law. So do the sick, suffering and dying people of Ammudde in the vicinity of Lake Koka. But for those in power it is a simple case of mind over matter. They don’t mind, and Amina, her family and the people of Ammudde don’t matter!

Who Killed Lake Koka? Who Killed Amina’s Children and Husband?

Who is responsible for the death of Lake Koka? And Amina’s husband and children? Did Chromium, Cadmium, Arsenic, Microsystsis Aeruginosa kill them? No. Official neglect and indifference killed them. Those who claimed to have the public trust, but turned a deaf ear, blind eye and muted tongue, are responsible. Those who slammed the official door in the face of the Ammudde resident who complained about “drinking a disease” are responsible.

There is an Ethiopian Environmental Protection Authority with 24 separate “powers and duties” to protect and preserve the environment. There is even an Environment Council chaired by the “Prime Minister”. The ruling regime is expert at sounding out hollow words and phrases: “polluter pays”, “criminal liability for polluters,” “intergenerational equity not to compromise the needs of future generations”, and so on.[3] Perhaps most revealing of the regime’s depraved indifference to environmental issues is its legal defense of the first public interest environmental case ever litigated in Ethiopia. In 2006, Action Professionals’ Association for the People, a civic society organization which uses litigation, education and advocacy to promote a wide range of social causes, filed action alleging violation of the Environmental Pollution Control Proclamation (No.300/2002) and other international conventions and sought to hold the “government” accountable for failing to mitigate the discharge of untreated solid and liquid wastes into the Akaki and Mojo rivers. In its defense, the “federal government” wimped out and dodged all responsibility arguing that jurisdiction for such environmental matters lay with the regional environmental bureaus. They claimed the “federal government” did not have authority to interfere with regional autonomy! But in February, 2008 the “House of People’s Representatives” imposed export taxes up to 150% on raw and semi-processed hides and skins.

Clean Affordable Technologies Are Available for Safe Tanning

There are affordable clean technologies that can be used to permanently and significantly reduce the health and environmental risks associated with waste discharge of hazardous substances used in the tanning process. They are in effect in many places where tannery-generated toxic substance abatement and neutralization has been required. For instance, in 1996, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, the Indian Supreme Court ordered the closure of more than 500 tanneries for environmental non-compliance. They were able to reopen many of them using affordable clean technologies such as low-salt systems and indefinite recycling of the chemical “liquors” used in pickling leather. Last August, the All India Skin & Hides Tanners and Merchants Association led a delegation to establish a strategic partnership with the leather industry in Ethiopia. Clean technology transfer from India could be made within the framework of such a relationship. Other clean technology efforts have shown success in León city in north central Mexico, and in Bangladesh and Pakistan. The available technologies are cost-effective with significant mitigation effects and include, among others, installation of sedimentation tanks, end-of-pipe abatement devices, pretreatment of wastewater to met set standards, high exhaustion methods to ensure more of the chrome in the tanning bath actually affixes to the hide, substitution of biodegradable enzymes for lime and sodium sulfide, vegetable tanning instead of chrome, recycling of dehairing bath and chrome with a significant reduction in discharges in lakes and rivers.

Ethiopia is Facing Ecological Disaster!

The Lake Koka environmental disaster is only the tip of the iceberg. Ethiopia is facing an ecological catastrophe: deforestation, desertification, soil erosion, overgrazing and population explosion. Hundreds of square miles of forest land and farmland are lost every year. The Ethiopian Agricultural Research Institute says Ethiopia loses up to 200,000 hectares of forest every year. Between 1990 and 2005, Ethiopia lost 14.0% of its forest cover (2,114,000 hectares) and 3.6% of its forest and woodland habitat. If the trend continues, it is expected that Ethiopia could lose all of its forest resources in 11 years, by the year 2020. [4] The wild animal population is declining due to deforestation, and hundreds of plant and animal species are facing extinction. [5]

Cry Me a River, Cry Me a Lake, Cry My Beloved Country!

Ethiopia is becoming dystopia – a society in which the conditions of life are characterized by misery, poverty, oppression, violence, disease, famine and pollution with a brutal regime at the top. Amina and her children are the symbolic faces of an impending environmental disaster in Ethiopia. The outlook is grim. Dr Gedion Getahun, Research Scientist at the Environmental Radioanalytical Chemistry in Mainz, Germany writes, “In Ethiopia, the biodiversity is treated in very awful manner. The destruction of natural habitat as well as a threat to the flora and fauna and other biological resources diminish the economy of the country. This affects the country’s wealth and with it, the existence and the well being of the nation.” [6]
Our duty to protect the environment is not only to Amina, her three surviving children and the people of Ammudde. Our duty extends to Amina’s grandchildren and the generations yet to be born in Ammudde and elsewhere in Ethiopia. As the young environmentalist told Al Jazeera, development and “investment at the cost of the environment is nothing”.

It is a sad irony of our times that we are able to transform the barren deserts into fields of plenty in the name of development and investment yet turn our life-giving lakes and rivers into troughs of poison. It is a mistake, a colossal folly, to measure our progress in the fistful of dollars gained from leather and flower exports. The true measure of progress is our ability to institute the rule of law and guarantee each Ethiopian the right to life (a land free of lakes and rivers that are poisoned), liberty (a land where the government fears the people) and the pursuit of happiness (a land where each Ethiopian has the opportunity to reach for the stars). For Amina and her children — Makida, Hadiri, Tahiri, Sultan, Kasim, Kalil — I will cry me a river. For the people of Ammudde, I will cry me a lake. For our beloved Ethiopia, I will cry me an ocean!

Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink!

[1] (part 1) (part 2)

3 thoughts on “Cry Me a Lake: Crime Against Nature

  1. Wow!

    What a heart-wrenching story. I have a love-hate relationship with Prof Al Mariam. If only he could turn his hate for the Ethiopian government into some useful advice

  2. Weyane knows that their days are numbered and they might as well milk every penny that be gotten regardless of the consequence. Beside they are saving bullets.What a work of are for this wrenched country detained to be a failed country like that of Somalia

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