Fresh off a plane and sleep-deprived is probably not the perfect preparation to see a beach ball of plastic being cut out of the stomach of a conscious calf. But then I’m not sure what would prepare me.
From seeing the first incision of the knife into the calf’s belly, to watching the dragging out of what looked like its entire congealed green guts, took a heart-stopping 20 minutes.
My queasiness lasted most of the day. And the mound they were pulling out of the belly of this live calf was as big as a baby.
When I picked up the extracted twisted plastic knot, slimy with chewed grass, it was still warm from being inside the animal’s body minutes earlier.
It was also shockingly heavy and terrifically hard.
“It had to come out,” Ethiopian vet, Dr Ashenafi Assefa told us, “If we hadn’t cut it out, this calf would have died.”
This was our introduction into just how prolific the problem of plastic is along the Nile – the world’s longest river. It is affecting animal life, damaging livelihoods and poisoning future generations. And as one political activist told us: “If we don’t do anything to save the Nile, the Nile is going to die.”
The patient we’ve just been watching in Gondar, in northern Ethiopia, was a one-year-old calf. He’d been alive for just 12 months and yet he’d managed to eat enough plastic to fill his stomach so much that he faced certain death unless it was cut out of him.
He was literally eating himself to death on plastic. There’s now so much plastic waste even in remote rural communities like Gondar, that the animals cannot avoid eating it.
“He’ll be back here again soon when his stomach fills up again,” says Dr Ashenafi with the confident air of a man who knows he’s right and who keeps his knives sharpened and ready.
Everyone we spoke to across the five countries we travelled and along the length of the Nile, gave us repeated warnings. The world needs to do something.
Global effort is needed to sort this urgent and huge problem. No one country can do it on its own. Our river is dying. The waterways are choking in plastic. Time and again. Warning after warning. Take action. Take action. Take action now, they told us.
Sound familiar? It should do. If anything, the global coronavirus pandemic has shown how the world CAN collaborate when it has to.
We’ve seen a combined slamming of borders; a uniform shutting of border gates; an international swapping of solutions, ideas and even personal protective equipment as COVID-19 rampages across the earth.
The planet WAS warned of COVID-19. But few countries were properly prepared for the deadly virus. Or if they believed they were prepared, they’re now finding out those preparations have not been enough to avert thousands and thousands of deaths.
There are a host of countries now with teams of scientists all racing to come up with a vaccine for coronavirus. But while the world’s eyes are all focused on COVID-19 – (and how can it be any other way) – the plastic problem that existed before the pandemic is STILL there and it will be here AFTER the pandemic.
And in the meantime, that plastic is growing and growing and choking and stifling our rivers which empty out into our oceans.
Our film, The Plastic Nile, shows how desperately needed international collaboration is, if we are to avoid drowning in plastic – because that is what’s happening. And it’s happening now.
We spoke to illiterate but wise farmers in Egypt who warned us the plastic enemy is killing the waterway they’ve relied on for generations.
They told us, as they sat along the banks of the Nile that is their lifeblood, about how it had changed beyond recognition in their lifetime; how they could scoop water out of the river to drink when they were children but now it’s so clogged and choked with diseased plastic, you can’t even see the water in places.
There is nothing quite so informative and revealing as hearing old men with a patchwork of creases etched into their faces, their hands ingrained with dirt from toiling the fields from aged seven to 70, sitting down and giving you the benefit of seven decades of knowledge.
If they tell me the Nile is sick and they don’t believe their grandchildren will be able to make a living from farming near the waterway because the water is making everyone ill, I believe them.
We spent weeks tracking down smugglers and criminal gangs making, selling and secretly transporting the forbidden cargo of plastic bags in and out of Kenya, South Sudan and Uganda.
It is an international criminal network now making millions of dollars on a black market which has sprung up as governments try to clamp down on the use of plastic – and it’s a network, it seems, which is frustratingly always one step ahead of the environmental police.
Selling illegal plastic bags maybe seen as harmless. It’s not like peddling heroin or cocaine or methadone but its addiction is as strong and its effect maybe just as devastating on the whole of humankind.
My partner and his family were brought up in Ethiopia and eulogised about how beautiful the country of his childhood was. It is. Staggeringly so. The Blue Nile waterfalls are magical. But the country hasn’t avoided the scourge of plastic.
Ethiopia is believed to have the fastest growing plastics industry on the whole of the continent of Africa. Its plastic bag consumption has risen by nearly 16% in recent years and combined with its lack of organised garbage disposal, its heading straight into a plastic bag catastrophe.
Much of the plastic is discarded in the streets and on the land, sometimes stretching out and blanketing impromptu “tips” for miles. It is putrid, festering, alive with bacteria and toxins and it’s not going to suddenly disappear without some tough action.
We discovered when we went to Lake Victoria – one of Africa’s Great Lakes and considered to be the source of the Nile – much more of the plastic is hiding beneath the surface of this huge pool of water.
I dived underneath its waters, now so clouded with dirt that visibility is virtually zero, yet repeatedly came up to the surface time and again with clumps of plastic. I could not see a dicky bird. It was like swimming in a pool of black darkness.
All I could do was hold the hand of Raila, the professional diver I was with, and feel for the bottom. As soon as I touched the bottom, I instantly felt objects and pulled them to the surface. Time and again, I’d pull out huge clumps of plastic. It wasn’t hard. It was horribly, frighteningly easy.
The plastic is laying on top of the Lake Victoria riverbed and it’s also tucked just beneath the sand. It is an island of plastic made up of old nappies, bags, tampons, tubs, containers, cutlery, anything you can think of – all plastic.
Plastic, plastic, plastic, floating, sinking, being buried, laying on top, hiding in the rushes, trapped under the tree roots and hitched on the water vegetation branches. It is everywhere.
A short distance from where we were filming and diving, there was a bloat of hippos – a whole family splashing and snorting water at each other and having a delicious soak in the late afternoon sun. Underneath them, we thought, they’re standing on piles and piles of discarded human detritus.
We didn’t imagine when we set out to investigate the problem of plastic along the Nile that the problem would be quite so endemic but that we’d also meet so many plastic warriors. There’s Tom, a fisherman in Kisumu, who took us in the middle of the night to show us how depleted the fishing stocks are and how the fishing crews are catching plastic as well as fish.
We bonded with Njoki, a kick-ass Kenyan woman who is feistily and fearlessly fighting the criminal plastic bag-manufacturers as well as the corrupt cops they’re in league with.
We spent time with Nhial and his armed guards in Juba as he tracked down and rounded up illegal plastic bag-sellers and tried to educate the population about the evils of plastic.
And we saw the hard work of charity workers in even more remote areas of South Sudan where plastic is the only way they survive – providing them with shelter from the harsh sun, coverage from the soaking rains and a critical mode of transporting essential clean drinking water for not only tens of thousands in the country but millions of others too around the globe.
The answer to plastic pollution is not easy. It is an addiction, a habit we’re struggling to kick but it is also obvious. It is not a question of IF it can be done. The question is can we afford not to?
Watch The Plastic Nile on the new Sky Documentary Channel Monday 1 June at 9pm