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A look at Durban’s ‘cancer alley’

John Vidal
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The Durban Harbour.Photo: Reuters
The Durban Harbour.Photo: Reuters

The smells drifting into the cramped office of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance range from sweet and sickly to stomach-churning. Volunteers and others who work with the small group can see oil and gas plants, refineries, landfills, agro-chemical works, shipyards, paper mills and a massively expanding port. 

"We have high levels of air pollution which would be unacceptable in the U.S. or anywhere in the rich world. Nearly 70% of all South Africa's industry is concentrated here. It stinks," says Desmond D'Sa, who co-founded the coalition of environmental, community and church groups in 1995 and who this week has won a Goldman award, the world's most valuable international prize for grassroots environment work. 

D'Sa refers not just to the smells that waft around south Durban, but to the 300,000 people, including some of South Africa's most disenfranchised, who must live cheek by jowl with more than 300 industrial plants. Many, like D'Sa's own family, were forcibly moved there in apartheid days. 

Racial and environmental injustice went together, he says. "There were smokestacks everywhere, chemical works, emissions. We were gasping for breath. We began to understand something was very wrong." 

By the 1980s, south Durban had become known as "cancer alley" and the toxic capital of Africa, with the highest rates of cancer and asthma on the continent. More than 100 smokestacks belched out over 50m kg of sulphur dioxide each year, children in local schools had three times the rate of respiratory diseases as those living outside the area and nearly everyone had skin ailments and diseases. 

The area is still massively polluted, he says, with regular chemical fires and innumerable leaks in the oil and gas pipelines that crisis cross the communities. 

A smell chart

D'Sa, a former chemical worker and union leader, worked to organise the diverse south Durban communities to confront government and industry. He helped develop a "smell chart" to help people identify which toxic chemicals they were being exposed to, trained people to measure pollution and has taken companies to court and closed down hazardous waste sites.

The biggest threat, he says, is the planned expansion of Durban port to a monster development able to handle 20m containers a year - nearly 10 times as many as today. It would mean south Durban becoming a construction site for decades, the devastation of several suburbs and an inevitable increase in air pollution.”— © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2014


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