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Africans Tell the UN to Buzz Off

Thursday, April 28, 2011

This week’s UN Environment Program meeting on insecticide use will surely be enlivened by the Southern African Development Community’s recent decision to start producing DDT to combat malarial mosquitoes.

GENEVA—Two weeks ago the Southern African Development Community (SADC), a bloc of 15 African nations, said it would begin producing the insecticide DDT to combat malarial mosquitoes. This is a necessary reaction to damage caused by the illogical, misguided, and often untruthful campaign against DDT run by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). This disagreement is set to enliven the UNEP meeting on insecticide use this week in Geneva.

For the past 15 years SADC, ably supported by Western donors and notably the United States, has significantly reduced the prevalence of malaria. It has done this by deploying medicines to treat patients and bed nets to protect children. But, overwhelmingly, the success is due to indoor insecticide spraying. Several insecticides have been used, but the cheapest, most effective, and most widely deployed insecticide across the region is DDT.

Malaria kills hundreds of thousands of children across Africa, and tens of millions who survive are left with impaired learning due to the disease. It is difficult to overestimate the importance of combating malaria.

Malaria kills hundreds of thousands of children across Africa, and tens of millions who survive are left with impaired learning due to the disease.

Yet while one arm of the United Nations (UN), the World Health Organization, struggles with limited budgets to help developing nations eradicate malaria, another branch, UNEP, pushes to eradicate DDT.

UNEP obviously is concerned about environmental contamination, and has every right to remind malaria control entities to limit environmental harm when using insecticides. But UNEP has gone a lot further than that.

Under the mandate of UNEP’s Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, which regulates DDT use, in the past few years UNEP has established experiments to demonstrate that malaria can be controlled without insecticides and then ignored its own results, which failed to provide any evidence supporting their supposedly environmentally sound ideas. Although there are no insecticides with DDT’s unique properties (DDT primarily acts as a repellent and not as a toxic agent), UNEP is pushing ahead with efforts to eliminate DDT by 2020. This arbitrary deadline, dreamt up by UNEP officials, violates the Stockholm Convention itself, which expressly excluded any DDT elimination timeline.

UNEP is pushing ahead with efforts to eliminate DDT by 2020, an arbitrary deadline violating the Stockholm Convention.

Aside from violating both the letter and spirit of the Stockholm Convention, UNEP has pressured the WHO to discourage DDT use and has pressured India to stop producing the chemical. This has probably lowered demand for DDT from Indian-government owned Hindustan Insecticide Limited (HIL), which is the last producer of DDT on the planet.

UNEP has not acted alone—it has been spurred on by environmental groups. There does not appear to be much difference between militant greens inside or outside of UNEP. But producers of competitor products to DDT, such as the chemical company Bayer, the agrochemical industry lobby group CropLife, and bed net manufacturers, have quietly also egged on UNEP. With a timid malaria and donor community shying away from conflict, wanting everyone to “sing from the same hymn sheet,” UNEP has had a free run at ending DDT use.

For at least the last decade, Southern African nations have been the most active users of DDT. Health ministers from nations like South Africa and Namibia have consistently pointed out the benefits of DDT to their malaria control programs, and African heads of state that are members of the African Leaders Malaria Alliance recently reiterated their support for DDT. But UNEP ignores such strong support for DDT. Africa’s malarial nations have been struggling to source DDT from HIL in India and there have been shortages of the life-saving chemical.

African nations have been struggling to source DDT and there have been shortages of the life-saving chemical.

And African leaders have had enough. On April 5, SADC wrote to UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner. SADC said “it would be infeasible and highly irresponsible to abandon the use of DDT at any foreseeable date … The SADC Member States therefore reject as premature the efforts of the [Stockholm Convention] Secretariat to eliminate DDT production by 2020, or any other arbitrary deadline, and strenuously protest that the Secretariat undertook this initiative without an express consensus of Stockholm Convention Parties … It is therefore SADC Member States’ firm insistence that the Secretariat suspend all efforts to eliminate DDT production and use.”

With a strident tone unusual for diplomatic correspondence, the letter explains the desire of all SADC member states to have DDT produced within the region, and cleverly asks for assistance of the Stockholm Convention Secretariat, which, under its rules, it is duty-bound to provide: “SADC requests the Secretariat to arrange technical assistance to establish state-of-the-art, bio-secure and eco-secure DDT synthesis and formulating factories in the Region.”

Environmental activists inside and outside UNEP love to hate DDT and will seemingly stop at nothing to ensure it is never produced or used. But there is a macabre irony in their anti-DDT campaigns. With all the technological advancement of the 21st century that now ensures the average person born today will live longer than at any time in human history, SADC will be producing a chemical first synthesized in the 1800s. It is due to decades of anti-insecticides campaigning that there has not been any real investment, public or private, in the search for true replacements of DDT.

SADC is doing the right thing for the health and welfare of its citizens. Let’s hope this move helps change the way the public and the UN thinks about public health insecticides and the life-saving role they play.

Roger Bate is the Legatum Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and Richard Tren is the director of Africa Fighting Malaria.

FURTHER READING: Bate and Tren earlier explained how “UN Falsehoods Cost Lives.” Bate praises “The Excellent Powder,” reveals “Theft and Corruption at the Global Fund,” and discusses “Ensuring the Safety of the U.S. Drug Supply.”

Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.

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