Environment, Headlines, Middle East & North Africa

ENVIRONMENT: Cairo Sinking in Garbage

Cam McGrath

CAIRO, Sep 18 2009 (IPS) - Garbage collectors in Cairo's Giza district have resumed work, but it could take weeks to clear the 25,000 tons of garbage that accumulated during their month-long strike, and longer still to solve the underlying problems.

Garbage piled up in Giza district in Cairo. Credit: Cam McGrath/IPS

Garbage piled up in Giza district in Cairo. Credit: Cam McGrath/IPS

"We're drowning in garbage," says Hany El-Sayed, a butcher whose shop overlooks a metre-high pile of flyblown rubbish. "Some of us hired a guy with a truck to remove the pile, but next day it was back, and bigger. When people heard we were removing the garbage they brought everything they could carry and dumped it here."

Street corners and vacant lots in Giza district became makeshift landfills after a row erupted in August between Giza Cleaning and Beautification Authority (GCBA) and Italian waste management firm International Environmental Services (IES), which holds a concession for garbage collection in parts of the populous district.

The two sides have been in a simmering contract dispute since 2003. IES says its 15-year service agreement requires it to clean the streets assigned to it once a day. GCBA expects streets to be kept clean at all times, and says a clause permits the authority to levy fines if the Italian company fails to meet expectations.

The fines have been excessive, complains IES spokesman Ahmed Nabil. He says the government agency is deducting over 60 percent of the firm's monthly service fee to cover the fines and taxes it imposes. This has left the company unable to pay its employees, repair equipment or replace stolen bins – which has hampered its ability to carry out the service.

An IES employee, speaking on condition of anonymity, accused government officials of assessing arbitrary penalties to pad municipal coffers. Unpaid collection fees and hefty fines have already forced two of the four foreign waste management companies contracted in 2001 to pull the plug on their Cairo operations.

The contract dispute between GCBA and IES has been brewing for years, but it boiled over this summer as a consequence of a rash and poorly studied government decree. In April, Egypt's health minister ordered the slaughter of all 300,000 pigs in the country as a precaution against swine flu. The cull, which the World Health Organisation criticized as entirely unnecessary, removed a cornerstone of the capital's integrated waste management system.

For decades, trash collectors known as zebaleen have made a living going door to door in Cairo to pick up garbage, which they take to their impoverished communities for sorting and recycling. The government's decision to hire foreign companies to manage garbage collection created a conflict with the city's 60,000 zebaleen, but an agreement was soon reached by which the firms subcontracted zebaleen to collect the garbage from residences and deliver it to bins on the street, where company vehicles would transport it to landfills and composting depots.

"The system had its problems, but it was a workable arrangement," says Ibrahim Attia, a collection supervisor for GCBA. He said the zebaleen supplemented their meagre incomes by removing organic and recyclable items from the garbage before delivering it to the curb. This reduced the overall volume of waste that the foreign companies had to collect.

The nationwide pig cull upset the equilibrium, says Yasser Sherif, general manager of Environics, an environment consultancy firm. "The problem is that the zebaleen were collecting the organic material to feed to their pigs as part of an efficient system of recycling garbage. Now that we don't have any pigs, nobody's really sure what to do with all the organic waste."

Once the incentive to recycle organic waste was removed, the zebaleen stopped processing it, and the volume of rubbish reaching the curb increased sharply. Some zebaleen sought to recover the losses to their recycling and pig-raising operations by charging households additional fees for collection. To avoid paying, many residents have resorted to dumping their trash illegally.

The larger volume of garbage has put more pressure on Cairo's waste management firms. Bins must be emptied more frequently and fines are levied whenever municipal officials discover piles of dumped rubbish. The firms are floundering, and citizens complain that the city has become a giant landfill.

The breakdown was inevitable, observes Sherif. "If you remove an element from a system, it may adapt somehow, but did anyone think how this system would adapt?"

IES agreed to resume full collection service this week after scaling back operations due to financial constraints. The company has entered negotiations with municipal officials to resolve longstanding contractual issues, but experts say a better sorting and recycling system is needed to cope with the 13,000 tons of trash that Cairo produces each day.

Suggestions have included increasing landfill and composting capacity, paying zebaleen to deliver organic waste to compost plants, or establishing goat farms outside the city to fill the role once occupied by hogs. One of the more promising ideas is to introduce the concept of source segregation, where households pre-sort garbage into organic and dry waste.

"If we can convince people to separate their waste into organics and solids we would spend 10-15 percent less on waste management," says Amin Khayal, head of Solid Waste Management at the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA). "Solid waste is easily separated into textiles, metals, etc. once you remove the organics. The organic waste can go directly to the compost plants to be made into fertiliser, while the separated (solid component) will require only half the labour to process."

Source segregation is already in practice in many developed countries, but trials in various Egyptian communities have shown some limitations. Participation rates ranged from 35 to 90 percent. Researchers found a correlation between household income and the willingness to participate – the poorer the neighbourhood, the higher the compliance.

Khayal is cautious. "We must give (homeowners) incentives if we are to have any chance of succeeding," he says.

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