Al-Ahram Weekly Online   10 - 16 June 2004
Issue No. 694
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Unfinished business

Greater Cairo's clean-up campaign has a long way to go. Dena Rashed examines an increasingly fractious problem

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Greater Cairo's privatised waste management system is failing

Two years ago Greater Cairo embarked on an ambitious project to overhaul the city's waste management system. Solid waste collection was privatised, with contracts awarded to Spanish and Italian companies, just as the Governorate of Alexandria out-sourced its garbage collection to the French company Onyx four years ago.

But the experience of Cairo and Giza governorates has been far less smooth than that of Alexandria. Giza, which privatised its garbage collection last, continues to suffer the consequences of a far from regular clean-up system -- painfully apparent in litter-strewn streets.

The governorate contracted two foreign waste management companies, the Spanish FCC and the Italian International Environmental Services (IES), to dispose of the 3,000 tons of garbage it daily generates.

In recent months, though, residents of the governorate have been voicing increasingly vociferous complaints that the companies are working well below full capacity. The streets are not as clean as they were during the first days of the privatisation. Both company workers, and garbage receptacles, appear to be increasingly thin on the ground.

The same, though, cannot be said about the garbage collection fees that Giza collects from its residents. These are linked to the electricity bills -- the more electricity consumed by a household or business, the more they pay for their garbage removal. And in addition many residents continue to pay the traditional garbage collector, zabbal. After almost one year of trials, the system appears to be failing.

Khaled El-Alami, managing director of IES, admits the service has deteriorated. "It is true IES's work is usually better but the fault is not ours," he says. "If we are only paid a fraction of the money our contract with the governorate stipulates we cannot provide a better service."

A recent strike by IES workers drew attention to the problems the company faces with the governorate. Although the majority of workers were paid at the end of the strike many of them are uncertain about their future.

"We demand that the governorate pay the company its dues so our salaries will not be delayed again," said Wessam Ali, a garbage collector and father of four.

"I am still studying for my diploma, I have a family to support and I am engaged," said Khaled Alian, "so I desperately need this job."

The company has an obligation to pay the salaries of the 3,000 workers it employs, an obligation which, El-Alami says, is increasingly difficult to meet when the governorate refuses to pay the company in full for its services.

"This month we had to pay the employees from our pockets to save the situation," he said, "but we can't do that each month."

El-Alami pointed out that IES has only received LE7 million out of the LE36 million the company was contracted to receive over the past 11 months. "Our Italian partners are skeptical about future investment in the governorate and are not planning to finance the project from their own pockets," he said.

"Although the governorate is collecting fees from residents for garbage collection we have not been receiving our money," he added.

El-Alami is shocked at how quickly the situation deteriorated following the signing of the contract.

"We never expected things to turn out as badly as this. The shame is that if a breach of contract happens thousands of employed people will lose their jobs."

"We are resorting to all the legal channels of arbitration because the governorate is breaching the contract," he said. IES has taken its case to the Ministerial Committee for Settling Disputes.

Officials from FCC, the second company contracted by the Giza governorate, are less forthcoming about any problems they might be facing. Since the company began operating in Egypt in May 2003 it has avoided releasing any statements. Company officials refused to comment on persistent rumours that it, too, was receiving only a fraction of the contracted figure.

Abdel-Hamid Nada, head of the Giza Cleanliness and Beautification Authority (GCBA), has a different take on the story, claiming "the two companies have taken the money the governorate owes them until 30 April 2004." "We don't owe them anything," he insists.

The two companies, Nada says, have received LE18,400,000 over the past year. The initial contracts, though, were valued at LE80 million per annum over 15 years, which means they have received less than a quarter of the agreed sum.

Nada counters that the companies are contractors hired to do a job. If that job is not done as specified then the GCBA deducts the money allocated for it.

According to their contracts the companies are subject to GCBA supervision. Any delays or failure to complete contracted tasks results in penalties being imposed. Nada claims the companies are free to review any penalties with the GCBA. El-Alami says that his company has not been allowed to review the penalties in detail. IES has also faced problems with the zabbaleen (traditional garbage collectors) who have been sub-contracted to collect garbage on the old door-to- door system. "We already pay the zabbaleen LE435,000 per month for this service. Yet the GCBA has penalised the company LE1,500,000 per month for shortcomings in their work."

IES is currently working at only 30 per cent of its total capacity. Nor is the picture any cleaner in areas serviced by FCC. The result is that residents are paying for a service they are not getting.

The companies continue to use the unsanitary landfills the governorates were using before the privatisation of garbage collection. Sanitary landfills have yet to be established, and land earmarked for them remains under dispute between the two governorates and other authorities.

Mohamed El-Reedy, deputy general manager of AMA, the Italian company in charge of cleaning North Cairo's seven districts, says that despite problems his company has been able to operate properly. "We have bought two composite factories that are being renewed," says El-Reedy, whose company also formulated a system incorporating the existing zabbaleen.

With three foreign and one local company employed, garbage collection in Cairo appears to be running more smoothly than in Giza.

Mohamed Laban, head of the Cairo Cleanliness and Beautification Authority, believes the companies are doing a good job on the main streets but are less good when it comes to side streets.

"We have 1,000 employees who monitor the work of the companies over Cairo but problems remain in altering old habits and behaviour. We are working on awareness programmes that will encourage the people to help the companies achieve their goals rather than hinder them."

In the meantime, though, we all continue to skirt the garbage.

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