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Bhopal waste

May 31, 2012

Development experts and environmentalists in Germany are at odds over a plan to dispose of toxic waste from Bhopal, even though the move is highly welcome in India.

Image: AP

The toxic chemicals in question originate from the site of the 1984 Bhopal disaster in India, which killed thousands of people and contaminated the surrounding area.

Much of the waste dates from before the accident at the Union Carbide pesticide plant. The earth around the site contains somewhere between 25,000 and 50,000 tons of toxins, which are steadily seeping into the groundwater and polluting the water sources of nearby slums.

The German Agency for Technical Cooperation (GIZ), a state-owned service that provides technical expertise to developing countries, has offered in a first step to dispose of 350 tons of the residues at a highly-sophisticated incineration plant in Germany - a move that Indian officials have warmly welcomed because the country has no appropriate disposal facilities of its own.

GIZ logo
German technology for disposing toxic waste is supplied by GIZ experts


The idea, however, has been condemned by environmental groups in Germany, notably Greenpeace and the nature conservancy, BUND.

No one disputes that Germany's high-tech plants are capable of dealing with the waste, but the environmental groups are concerned that accepting the cargo would set a precedent, triggering a kind of toxic waste tourism to Germany.

In fact, the German disposal companies do stand to gain lucrative contracts, worth as much as 1.5 million euros for the first shipment.

The environmental groups insist that the toxic waste needs to be disposed of in the country of origin, despite the lack of proper facilities in India.

"It must be disposed of locally," said Claudia Baitinger, a hazardous waste expert at BUND.

Material left behind at the Bhopal plant is just rusting away
Material left behind at the Bhopal plant is just rusting awayImage: AP

Greenpeace chemicals expert, Manfred Santen, takes the same view: "We do not want highly toxic substances being shipped halfway around the world," he said.

The GIZ rejects this view, saying that the technology is complex, and that building such a facility in India and training the staff would be very costly and take years to complete.

But BUND spokesman, Rüdiger Rosenthal, told Deutsche Welle that the GIZ argument doesn't hold water. "The 350 tons the GIZ intends to take is literally just a drop in the bucket, considering that up to 50,000 tons of earth need to be disposed."

"Since the waste has to be packed in containers for transport to Germany anyway, it could just as well be stored in India until a proper disposal facility is built there," he added.

Ecology versus economics

The issue has generated an embarrassing clash, pitting technical experts and scientists who want to help developing countries against environmentalists who support the so-called "polluter pays" principle.

Survivors hold posters as they wait for the verdict in the premises of Bhopal court in Bhopal, India, Monday, June 7, 2010. The court on Monday convicted seven former senior employees of Union Carbide's Indian subsidiary of "death by negligence" for their roles in the Bhopal gas tragedy that left an estimated 15,000 people dead more than a quarter century ago in the world's worst industrial disaster.
Survivors are still waiting for the accident site to be cleaned upImage: AP

Indian environmentalists, for their part, although happy the waste may be leaving, nevertheless support their German counterparts. They think that Dow Chemical, which bought Union Carbide in 2001, should pay for the disposal of the toxic waste, and not the Indian government.

"It is absolutely unacceptable that the Indian government use public funds to pay for cleaning up the mess left behind by Union Carbide," said Greenpeace India spokesman, Rampati Kumar.

They have no problem, however, with the waste being shipped to Germany since India has no suitable disposal facilities.

The gas leak in Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh state, killed at least 15,000 people. The waste destined for Germany is not connected to the toxic methyl isocyanate gas that leaked from the plant in 1984, but comes from indiscriminate dumping at the site in the decades prior to the deadly accident.

Author: Gregg Benzow
Editor: Anne Thomas