11 - 17 July 2002
Issue No. 594
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Recommend this page

Dumping the zabaleen

In a desperate bid to clean up the heaps of garbage in Egypt's major cities, the government has sought help from abroad. But what about the traditional garbage collectors? asks Dena Rashed

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The traditional garbage collector is uncertain about his future
Giza has become the third governorate, after Alexandria and Cairo to hand over garbage collection to foreign companies. The contracts signed with the Spanish firm FCC and the Italian firm Jacuzzi last week are vague, however, with respect to the role of the zabaleen -- Egypt's traditional garbage collectors -- once these firms take over the job. Those currently working in the garbage industry include door-to-door garbage collectors, owners of garbage collection cars, garbage sorters, garbage traders and the bosses who run the business in each district.

Under the new deals, the foreign companies are to collect an estimated 3,000 tons of garbage daily starting six months from now at an annual cost of LE80 million for the next 15 years. Before they begin their collection activities, the two firms are to build a recycling plant and a fertiliser factory.

"We will finally be able to provide the people of Giza governorate with a clean environment, and put an end to hazardous garbage dumps," Hosnia Abdel-Rahman, the deputy of Giza's Cleanliness and Beautification Authority (CBA), told Al-Ahram Weekly. She said that the contracts stipulate that the foreign firms are to work with the zabaleen, on condition that the traditional garbage collectors dispose of the garbage in the sanitary waste dump in Shabramant near Saqqara rather than in informal dumps.

Nonetheless, the new waste-management plans present a threat to garbage traders such as Said Sawi.

Sawi's job begins after the garbage is sorted by the zabaleen, when he buys items such as bones which he then resells to be used to make glue. "If the garbage goes directly to sanitary waste dumps, I, along with many others, won't have a job," he complained. "There are many others who trade in plastic, paper and aluminum; they and their families depend on this business for their livelihoods."

"It is inhuman that these informal dumps continue to be found in populated areas," countered Abdel-Rahman, "the animals living side-by-side with the residents there." She said that if the zabaleen cooperate with the foreign firms, "they will surely be rewarded".

Cairo Governor Abdel-Rehim Shehata last month signed contracts with two Spanish firms for garbage collection in the eastern and western districts of Cairo. The deal costs LE115 million annually for the next 15 years, and the firms are expected to collect some 8,000 tons of garbage daily once they start business early next year. Two other contracts are also expected to be signed with Italian firms for the southern and northern districts. These firms will collect garbage from households and businesses, sweep the streets, manage already existing fertiliser factories, collect medical waste and build a sanitary waste dump.

But some of the zabaleen seriously doubt that citizens will even cooperate with the private firms. A garbage collector, who preferred to remain anonymous, said that Egyptians are used to door-to-door service and would not place their garbage in the public containers which will be placed in front of buildings. "They will need someone to do this for them on a daily basis," he argued. "They need us."

Surrounded by piles of garbage in Zarayeb Al-Me'timidiya, an informal dump waste site in Giza, the zabaleen continue to sort the garbage, despite knowing that in six months they could lose their lifeline. "We know that private companies are going to take over garbage collection soon, and I have no idea how we will deal with them," despaired Attala Boutros, one of the estimated 6,000 zabaleen in Zarayeb Al-Me'timidiya.

In Alexandria, the French company Onyx, which is part of the international conglomerate Vivendi Environment signed a $446 million deal for the treatment of one million tons of waste per year over the next 15 years. Onyx, which began its work in Egypt last year, has been successful so far in cleaning up the Mediterranean city and did not face any problems with the zabaleen. An informal agreement was worked out between Onyx and the zabaleen, but Boutros, a garbage collector for 20 years, believes it will be much harder to reach something similar in Giza or Cairo, "because the zabaleen community in these two [Greater Cairo] municipalities far outnumber those of Alexandria", he said.

Another community of almost 30,000 garbage collectors and their families lives in Muqattam in south-east Cairo. "We asked the governorate to put a clause [in the contracts] acknowledging our existence and stipulating cooperation between us and the firms," Ishaq Mikhail, the head of public relations for the Garbage Collectors' Association (GCA), told the Weekly. "But the governorate said this wasn't possible". Mikhail added that his community is being ignored despite having met Shehata several times. "We want the garbage because it is our lifeline," he stressed.

Interviewed by the Weekly a few months ago, Antonio Canale, the representative of the Italian company AMA -- which is expected to sign contracts to provide service in southern or northern Cairo -- said that in the beginning his company was not aware of the scale of the problem. "We did not expect there would be such a large problem with the traditional garbage collectors," Canale said. AMA's spokesperson, Amr Hussein, said that the company was deeply concerned over the fate of the traditional garbage collectors, but the anticipated agreement with the Cairo governorate will not mention the zabaleen.

As the start date for foreign firms' work in Giza looms only half a year away, the zabaleen continue to worry about their future, according to Mikhail. Sawi, on the other hand, believes that if the zabaleen feel very threatened they should take action. "Imagine what Giza or Cairo would look like if the zabaleen went on strike for three days?" he said. "Just imagine".

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