Let us spray

The Stockholm Convention to reduce the use of chemicals like DDT will be a disaster for the developing world.

Various Authors

Topics Politics

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President Bush expects the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) – which aims to ‘eliminate or reduce the release of POPs into the environment’ – to be ratified by the Senate in the next few months. The only potential barrier is a lobbying effort to prevent the inclusion of the insecticide DDT in the Convention.

But those who want DDT struck off the Convention are unlikely to succeed. There are some powerful voices calling for the Convention to be ratified, including Christie Whitman of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and it looks set to go through. This will be a disaster – because DDT remains the most effective weapon in the fight against malaria in the third world.

European Union nations have already ratified the Convention, and the USA remains the last stumbling block before it can come into effect. The EPA is pushing hard for ratification by February 2003. Its enthusiasm is not surprising – this is the organisation that found its feet and established its political influence over the banning of DDT in 1972.

This decision to ban DDT in the USA was based more on politics than scientific evidence. The judge who presided over the scientific hearings ruled that, based on the available evidence, DDT should not be banned. But he was overruled by William Ruckelshaus, the then head of the EPA, in what seemed like a move to flex his political muscles.

Neo-Malthusian environmentalists pushed for the ban on DDT, even though the insecticide saved lives in disease control around the world. Now the EPA has convinced itself, and others, that the Stockholm Convention will be good for the health of those in developing countries by winding down the use of POPs.

Nothing could be further from reality. Many poor countries rely on chemicals like DDT to save lives from age-old diseases like malaria. While the Convention gives DDT an exemption for public health use, it makes trading in DDT more difficult and expensive – effectively forcing developing countries to use more costly and less effective alternatives.

Compromising the disease control programmes of some of the world’s poorest countries to suit some fanciful environmentalist agenda is by no means good for health in the developing world.

Consider Mozambique, one of the poorest countries in the world. This nation is reliant on aid and is desperate to attract foreign investment – a fairly forlorn hope, since 17 years of war and periodic flooding have left it with a terrible infrastructure.

The 2001 floods also brought a new peril to Mozambique: malarial mosquitoes. They are breeding out of control in the dissipated floodwaters, spreading malaria to tens of thousands.

Malaria kills thousands of children a year in Mozambique. Official figures claim there were 1200 deaths from 100,000 cases of malaria in 2001 – but this is a serious understatement. In 2000, there were over 70,000 cases in the Kwa Zulu Natal province (KZN) of South Africa, (the mosquito species responsible had not been seen in South Africa for decades and arrived from the highly malarious Mozambique).

Malaria levels in KZN are lower than those in Mozambique, which is far more populous than KZN – so Mozambique’s number of cases is likely to be well over one million. Chronic underreporting of Mozambique’s malaria crisis seems to have become routine, and Mozambican authorities are keen to keep the issue from potential investors.

There is no doubt that the Mozambican floods of 2000 caused a surge in malaria, but rates were already far higher than they should have been. Sensible malarious countries around the world continue to use DDT to prevent malaria transmission, by spraying the inside of buildings where people work and sleep. DDT is the most effective mosquito repellent pesticide and easily the cheapest. So for poor nations, it makes perfect sense to use it.

Under pressure from green groups, South Africa, the richest country in Africa, stopped using DDT in 1996. But it started spraying again in 2000, once malaria rates had climbed. After DDT was reintroduced, the number of malaria cases and deaths were reduced by a remarkable 80 percent. South African officials have encouraged Mozambique to do the same, but there has been no change in Mozambican policy.

There are rumours within South Africa’s business community that Mozambican officials have received pay-offs from Western chemical companies producing alternatives to DDT. Although there is no evidence for these claims they still persist – largely because the realities of not using DDT have been so devastating for Mozambique’s population. There must be some good reason for Mozambique’s refusal to use DDT, people say.

In truth, the even-more bizarre reason for Mozambique’s stance on DDT is that officials, including health minister Francisco Songane and head of spraying programs Avertino Barreto, suggest that the pesticide should not be used because it will be ‘phased out of production soon’, and ‘Northern countries don’t use it so it must be bad’.

DDT production does not need to be phased out. India and China still produce it in substantial amounts. But it is worth analysing the second explanation given by Songane and Baretto, since it illustrates the broader problems of poor countries.

It is true that Northern countries don’t use DDT, and most haven’t for over 20 years. The USA stopped using DDT in 1972, and Britain stopped a few years later. But these countries have been free of endemic malaria (and other airborne parasitic diseases) for over 40 years – largely due to an enormous eradication programme that used DDT as its weapon of choice.

Furthermore, these countries can afford a variety of alternative solutions to their problems. For instance, non-persistent pesticides best deal with nuisance mosquitoes and agricultural pests, since spraying occurs outside where persistence may lead to harmful environmental effects. But for the poor of Africa, indoor spraying, with cheap and persistent pesticides, makes sense. This is because funds are limited for repeat spraying, it is unlikely to harm the environment, and spraying is crucial for repelling mosquitoes. So the analogy provided by Minister Songane, about not using DDT because the North doesn’t use it, makes no sense.

But on another level, it is understandable. If the men at the US Agency for International Development say that countries like Mozambique shouldn’t use DDT, and make it increasingly difficult for them to get hold of the pesticide, then there is often very little that the leaders of developing nations can do about it. This illustrates some of the dangers of an environmental agenda developed in the West being forced on nations in the South.

Most of the lobbying against the Stockholm Convention is based around the DDT issue. But the attempt to wind down the use of DDT isn’t the only problem with the Convention. Most developing countries still rely on many of the so-called ‘dirty dozen’ POPs targeted by the Convention as part of their production processes. Chemicals that the North used successfully to generate wealth and prosperity are now being denied to the less developed South.

The North can sell this as a philanthropic treaty because of the potentially negative impact of POPs on the environment (though the science behind these claims is highly questionable). None of the rich nations of the North that backs the Convention needs these chemicals, as they are now advanced enough to use alternatives.

Forcing poor countries to use more expensive technologies, and imposing risk profiles that are more relevant to Sweden or Canada, only serves to keep these countries poor. By continually moving the goal posts through the misuse of environmental and labour standards, the North provides some imaginary protection for its own wealthy residents at great cost to those in poor nations.

Environmental ideology ought to have no place in the determination of malaria control strategies. It is too dangerous. Developing countries need to be able to use whatever technologies are appropriate to their income levels and risk profiles. The eco-imperialism inherent in the Stockholm Convention will simply shut off a number of development options for the developing world, keeping it poor and unhealthy.

The EPA should stop being so disingenuous and admit that the Stockholm Convention will only be of benefit to special interest groups in the North.

Dr Roger Bate is a director on the International Policy Network in London. Richard Tren is director of Africa Fighting Malaria, based in Johannesburg.

Read on:

Why we need DDT, Dave Hallsworth

Without DDT, malaria bites back, by Roger Bate

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Topics Politics


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