Managing Cairo’s solid waste: We need to get our hands dirty too

Cairo alone hosts 17 million people. Seventeen million people purchasing and consuming, and, according to official figures, producing every day an average of 15,000 tons of solid waste. The World Bank reported in 2005 that 88 percent of the collected waste is then disposed of in open dumps in urban areas, or left in the streets.  Many Cairenes complain, but others seem oblivious to the fact that their children are growing up in a huge rubbish dump, or that they themselves can actually take part in changing the situation.

In 2003 the government decided to enforce a new garbage collection policy by privatizing waste management and bringing in European companies to do the job. Citizens were also expected to foot the bill as part of the policy. The government charges an annual fee of US$500 million, added to electricity bills, a payment method that has since been re-evaluated. It entailed that citizens dispose of the garbage themselves at collection sites or using bins, bins that were not accessibly placed and often could not be found. 

Citizens have not accommodated themselves to the new system and still expect door-to-door pick up of garbage. When there was no formal system of waste collection, the garbage collectors, known as the Zabaleen, created an informal garbage collection system that was effective and formed an integral part of Cairo’s solid waste management system. The foreign private companies eventually realized the need for the Zabaleen and eventually subcontracted them. However this arrangement failed, as the companies underpaid the Zabaleen

People then began paying the Zabaleen on the side to pick up their garbage from their home. This was in addition to paying for the new policy via their electricity bill, a policy which had proved to be ineffective. 

Furthermore, with the old system the Zabaleen re-used and recycled 80-90 percent of the garbage they collected. Today the garbage collected by the private companies is crushed and therefore cannot be recycled; it can only be dumped. The Zabaleen however, who are unable to recycle compressed garbage, sort the garbage they pick up from households and resell it.

As part of their solid waste management system the Zabaleen would remove the organic items found amongst the waste and feed them to their pigs. However concerns over the spread of the H1N1 virus (otherwise known as swine flu) led to a nationwide pig cull, which seriously disrupted this system. No pigs, no incentive to get rid of the organic waste, and so the garbage is left on our streets.

The role of the Zabaleen in tackling this problem was never considered at any of these stages and therefore the pigs, which were an integral part of their recycling system, were not considered either. The result: A strike was called by the Zabaleenin the Giza governorate, leading to large trash pile-ups in the city center.

And in the midst of these problems, the government omitted to develop awareness campaigns to expose people to the positive attributes of this new, yet failing system. All the average citizen had knowledge of was the shortcomings of the foreign contracts.

So as the garbage crisis escalated, people began to ask: Did policy makers examine the implications of bringing in foreign contractors, as opposed to supporting and increasing the capacity of community-based initiatives?

This led environmentalists to lobby for the inclusion of community groups like the Zabaleen, NGOs, and ordinary citizens, in the waste management process.

They argue that citizens can play different roles in solid waste management. What is key is that they should adopt behaviors that facilitate solid waste management systems.  

As proven in many developed nations, a sustainable way to combat this issue is to develop policies which aim to get people to sort their own garbage by separating organics and solids.

Another additional communal task would be facilitating one location per street for garbage disposal and therefore pick up.

The Zabaleen could then collect the sorted garbage and recycle the inorganic waste, and the organic waste would be turned into compost to be used as fertilizer. Citizens could help with this by lobbying for a new mechanism funded by the government post the pig cull to turn organic waste into compost.

However, to engage community residents to participate, the municipality must develop a relationship with them. If citizens are able to elect community leaders to act as liaisons to the municipality then these leaders can provide support to the solid waste management system.

These leaders, elected by their neighborhood, would have the support and respect of their neighbors as well as be in key positions to understand their needs and monitor the progress of waste collection. Community leaders also have the ability to mobilize those who live in their neighborhood as well as to exert pressure.

There are examples of models globally that include community participation in solid waste management. The most successful model was one started by an NGO based in Madras, India called Exnora International.

Exnora institutionalized the idea of community groups managing waste collection.They develop civic units made up of households from a street, with elected officers to monitor progress. Civilians sort, donate and employ someone responsible for collecting waste from door-to-door, and deliver it to a municipal transfer station or bin. There are more than 5000 civic Exnora units in India, covering about 30,000 streets and settlements.

A model like this can easily be replicated in Cairo as the local Zabaleen already informally pick up the waste from each household. All that is needed is for communities to formalize this process, develop relations with the municipality, and monitor the progress of their street.  

Citizen participation is key to combating this issue, through using such methods, but before existing policies are changed to include citizens, people must believe they can participate in that change.

According to the United Nations World Population Prospects, nearly one in every five Egyptians is between the age of 20 and 29, and it is projected that the population in this age group will grow by 20 percent between 2005 and 2025. Planning practice in Egypt has neglected this group of youth. Yet it is this group that is the most active in its demands on resources, contributing to consumption and in turn creating much solid waste.

Yet these statistics are bound to change as Egyptians–particularly youth–begin to demand change. Perhaps increased awareness is what we can attribute to the recent rise in organized political protests.

The internet and social networking sites have broadened people’s reach and given citizens a way to voice their opinions and attract the masses. Blogs or groups on Facebook–started by youth–often translate into actual civic movements.

This generation is online and eager to absorb information, and it is this exposure that can spur on civic engagement. So if active civil participation is key to policy reform and change, then perhaps online social networks will bring us together to get our hands dirty and to clean up Egypt.

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