Playing with their future

Feature story - 19 November, 2002
Small children flying kites in the clear blue sky. Teenagers enjoying a game of cricket outside their homes while nearby water buffalo cool off in the local pond. Nothing from this scene portrays to me the dark fact that the land surrounding these local homes is polluted with deadly toxic chemicals. However this is one of many communities that live next door to the abandoned Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India and with the poisons left behind by the multinational chemical giant.

Posting warning signs on the site of a toxic waste dump

Tom DowdallOver 500 families live around the area north of the old plant, were the waste effluent from the plant was dumped. A few years ago there was an attempted containment of the waste dump but now the toxic waste is becoming exposed again. Local residents, unaware of the poisons in the soil, have been using it to surface their courtyards and in some instances even to build their houses. When the waste dump becomes filled with monsoon rain, it is regularly used by children for swimming, and I could see people using it as a watering hole for their buffalo. It was unbelievable that there is no fence or even signs to warn people of the invisible dangers lurking in the ground.

Posting signs in Bhopal. So together with local activists and the community we spent a morning posting warning signs in Hindi, Urdu and English, highlighting the dangers of the dump and the responsible company, Dow chemicals. Being a holiday, the local children were out in force to help us with the sign posting but it was sad to think that many will lead lives blighted by the pollution that is literally on their doorstep.

Our scientist on site, Ruth Stringer, summed up the situation "I've investigated chemical contamination in many areas of the world but Bhopal has to be one of the worst cases I've seen. This is just one of the contaminated sites left by Union Carbide. In the factory grounds there are hundred of tonnes of dangerous chemicals which are not safely contained. These, and other chemicals from Union Carbide's operations have poisoned the soil and groundwater that supplies this part of the city. People who survived the gas leak have been exposed to these poisons for 18 years. This dump site and the factory site are dangerous. They must be cleaned up urgently."

Posting signs in Bhopal.Dow chemicals, the world's largest chemical company, brought Union Carbide in 2001 but is ignoring its responsibility to the people of Bhopal. Dow says it "listen[s] and respond[s] to public concerns and "believe[s] in the inherent worth of people", it has not acted on appeals by Bhopal survivors to clean up the area. It has refused to accept responsibility for the contamination, and has failed to properly compensate survivors of the disaster, or to provide them with medical care or clean, running water.

If Dow is really serious about 'caring for communities' I would definitely suggest that the company bigwigs spend a day with the local people of Bhopal to see how toxic waste created by chemical companies, such as Dow, can endanger the health of people every single day. Rather than playing with fine words Dow should be on the ground here turning words into action.

- Tom Dowdall is a Greenpeace International Web Editor on assignment in Bhopal, India