How South Africa’s Recent Civil Unrest Uncovered An Ecological Disaster

Between 9 and 18 July, South Africans took to the streets in protest of former President Jacob Zuma’s imprisonment for contempt of court. This quickly escalated into civil disobedience as citizens fueled by economic inequality and unemployment became increasingly dissatisfied. After 9 days of civil unrest, largely centered within the eastern province of KwaZulu-Natal, damage to commercial property had amounted to over $1.3 billion USD. Crucial infrastructure, industries and warehouses were also hit as arson and looting became commonplace during some of the worst violence experienced in the post-apartheid era. One such storage facility, namely UPL Limited, became the focus of an ecological disaster placing a spotlight on non-compliance and corruption of national environmental legislation.

UPL Limited (formerly, United Phosphorus Limited) is a multinational company that manufactures agrochemicals and crop solution products. This includes fertilizers, pesticides, plant growth stimulants and soil conditioning agents. With its headquarters in Mumbai, India, UPL products are sold in over 150 countries through its numerous subsidiaries. It is the world’s fifth-largest agrochemical company with an estimated revenue of over $100 million USD in South Africa, and $140 million USD across the rest of Southern Africa.

The new 151,000-square-foot warehouse situated in Cornubia in the port city of Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, was part of a larger mixed-use development project. It recently started operating on April 1st, 2021, storing over 700 chemicals. These chemicals comprised largely fertilizer components and bio-based materials, most of which are highly toxic.

What caused the chemical spill?

Toxic smoke from the UPL Limited warehouse in Cornubia.

On July 12, multiple fires engulfed the warehouse. The blaze lasted for 10 days before it was completely extinguished. However, firefighters could only reach the warehouse 3 days later due to the ongoing unrest. This caused a large proportion of chemicals to break down, creating dense black clouds that spread across the city.

The surrounding residents experienced numerous symptoms from inhaling the toxic smoke. They reported dry throats and noses, shortness of breath, and eye irritation. Residents also reported that their pets vomited for a few days.

In response, Dr. Gerhard Verdoon (UPL Limited’s toxicologist) assured the public that long-term health impacts were of no real concern. However, previous research showed that mortality rates increased significantly within 24 days after exposure to black smoke pollution.¹

The voluminous quantity of water used to douse the fire along, with the delayed action of spill response services, overwhelmed the containment system. This caused an immeasurable amount of chemicals to leak into the surrounding environment. This toxic chemical runoff flowed into the Ohlanga River and the Umhlanga lagoon, contaminating beaches for 25 miles.

It is mandatory for chemical production and storage facilities to have precautionary measures in place. Most popularly, these include “bunds” which are essentially concrete channels designed to prevent hazardous and flammable substances from escaping into the surrounding environment. Unfortunately, this was not the case with UPL Limited, whose facility was not purpose-built to support these measures.

What made matters worse is that the chemicals probably reacted with each other, the fire and the water. These “persistent organic pollutants”, whose combined effects are unknown, have the potential to accumulate along the food chain. This can have long-lasting impacts on both environmental and human welfare.

Environmental impact of the chemical spill

The chemical spill transformed the affected environments into dead zones. Not only was the water discolored but there was an acrid smell that hung in the air. The estuarine vegetation died and various forms of aquatic life washed up near Ohlanga River estuary mouth and adjacent beaches. Authorities reported 3.5 tons of dead fish and crustaceans. Other affected groups included amphibians and birds.

Following the incident, the Sibaya Conservation Trust has installed six water stations to provide wildlife with safe drinking water. Initially, they noticed hardly any birdlife in the immediate area. However, birdlife has slowly increased, as conservationists continue to track sightings.

First-response strategies

In the meantime, authorities restricted access to all beaches and waterways after the water turned a bright-bluish color. Investigations revealed this was caused by some 15,000 kilograms of blue dye that had leaked from the warehouse. The public has also been advised to stop all recreational activities. This negatively impacts subsistence communities that rely on the harvesting of seafood to support their livelihood. According to a human health assessment conducted by Apex Environmental, areas close to the warehouse were deemed inhabitable. Within the vicinity of the warehouse is Blackburn Village, an informal settlement, as well as a private school.

Several days after the fires had been extinguished, the agrochemical giant employed two hazardous clean-up companies to contain the toxic spill. Eight shallow water and eight deep water boreholes were drilled. Water samples confirm that no contamination had occurred. Despite this, bio-remediates were also applied as a precautionary measure in unaffected areas. Bio-remediates are plants and microorganisms that can break down and accumulate contaminants that are otherwise hazardous to most forms of life.

Environmental samples were tested in local and international laboratories. Results from these tests will be used to provide preliminary recommendations, followed by the development of a targeted remediation plan. Unfortunately, the lack of independent sampling remains a grave oversight as authorities are dependent on the full disclosure of original results from UPL Limited.

amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism revealed the chemical inventory housed by UPL Limited. The exhaustive list of toxic chemicals exceeding 6,000 m³ are banned in numerous countries across the globe, including the EU, US and India – but not in South Africa. Examples of listed chemicals include:

  • Over 26,000 kilograms of Masta 900, an insecticide containing the potent neurotoxin “methyl.” Contact with skin, inhalation or swallowing is considered fatal.
  • Over 30,000 liters of MSMA 720, which converts to inorganic arsenic in soil over time. This has the potential to contaminate water sources.
  • Over 40,000 liters of herbicides containing “paraquat,” which poses high risks to all life forms.
  • Over 600,000 kilograms of products using “tebuthiuron,” which is acutely toxic to all forms of aquatic life.

South African government’s approach

The South African government has identified three priority focus areas: (i) to ensure environmental and human health risks are contained, (ii) to provide oversight and guidance to assessment, clean-up and remediation processes, and (iii) to legally investigate the incident in relation to applicable environmental regulations. These priority areas are aligned with the principles outlined in the National Environmental Management Act (1998).

A month after the incident, an oversight visit to the warehouse, Blackburn Village and Ohlanga River was conducted. The following recommendations were made: (i) an assessment report addressing human impacts and the development of chronic conditions, (ii) possible compensation for affected community members, (iii) the availability of appropriate human and financial resources to respond to ongoing investigations, and (iv) the establishment of a multi-stakeholder forum including community members, researchers in health fraternities and NGOs.

It’s promising news that the country’s Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment has also begun investigating the contradictory reports of UPL Limited’s compliance and its chemical inventory. The company is liable to legislative requirements detailed in the Hazardous Substances Act, the Fertilisers, Farm Feeds, Agricultural Remedies Act, as well as relevant by-laws.

UPL Limited was part of a ‘fast track’ investment initiative, so it did not undergo appropriate scrutiny. By law, infrastructure for chemical production and storage must have a high-level environmental impact assessment (EIAs) before construction. Instead, a blanket EIA and subsequent approval were issued covering the infrastructure and activities across the entire development project.

Moving forward

Conservationists suggest that it could take more than five years for the environment to recover. Rehabilitation work would first require all the damaged environment to be removed, followed by dedicated replacement and restoration work. Despite remediation plans, experts suggest that stormwater drains will remain contaminated. In the short-term, expected Spring rains will continue to distribute chemical residues into waterways.

What makes this incident particularly harrowing is that South Africa’s national environmental legislation is one of the most powerful conservation management tools in the world. Not only does it promote the protection, conservation, and sustainable use of the environment and its natural resources, but it also provides a foundation for citizen’s constitutional right to access clean water and air. South Africa’s 1996 Constitution paved the way for an ‘open and democratic’ society prioritizing human values such as dignity, equality, and freedom. It also set a precedent for its citizen’s right to an environment that is ‘not harmful to health or well-being.’

The main lesson learnt from this experience is that social issues lie at the heart of conservation. It does not matter how powerful legislation is, it is clear that in the face of socio-economic disparity there can be unpredictable and unprecedented disasters that threaten the health and productivity of both human and environmental welfare.


  1. Beverland, I. J., Carder, M., Cohen, G. R., Heal, M. R. & Agius, R. M. (2012). Associations between short/medium-term variations in black smoke air pollution and mortality in the Glasgow conurbation, UK. Environment International. 50, 1-6.