Accountability, the Roman way
As with many other public services issues in Egypt, solidarity should not be viewed as just a virtue but as an absolute necessity, writes Herve Pourcines*
In many countries recent rapid urbanization has led to fundamental socio-economic change, often at a high social and environmental cost. Among the consequences of such major development is the fact that, with people and business activities concentrated in specific areas, solid waste production increases dramatically. The way these wastes are handled, stored, collected and disposed of can pose risks to the environment and to public health, and this has become a major challenge for society.
Egypt is no exception to these global trends of urbanization and rising solid waste generation. More than 25,000 tons of solid wastes are generated in the country every day with Cairo accounting for about 50 percent of the total. (1) Consequently, the problems and issues of Municipal Solid Waste Management (MSWM) in large and crowded urban areas are of immediate importance.
This has been acknowledged by the Egyptian government, which enacted the 1994 Environmental Conservation Law and which implemented a 10-year action plan to promote efficient use of the country's natural resources, to improve land, water and air quality standards, to develop effective solid waste management techniques and to preserve the country's heritage. (2) However, rapid and unchecked population growth has overwhelmed the capacity of authorities to provide even the most basic services. Typically less than 70 percent of the waste produced in Egypt is managed by some form of public or private sector collection, disposal or recycling operations. (3) As a result, the uncollected waste, which is often also mixed with human and animal excreta, is dumped indiscriminately in the streets and in drains, so contributing to flooding, breeding of insect and rodents and the spread of diseases. Furthermore, even collected waste is often disposed of in uncontrolled dumpsites or burnt, polluting water resources and air. (4)
While urbanization in developing countries has contributed to wealth accumulation, it has also been accompanied by an alarming growth in the incidence of poverty. Today, one out of four people in cities of the developing world lives in "absolute poverty," while another one in four is classified as "relatively poor". (5) Throughout Egypt, it is traditionally these urban poor that suffer most from the life-threatening conditions deriving from deficient MSWM. This is because authorities tend to allocate their limited financial resources to the richer areas of higher tax yields where citizens with more political pressure reside. However, today, even privileged neighborhoods in Cairo are suffering from severe environmental degradation due to a city-wide deficient SWM. And, unsurprisingly, it seems that it is these new dangers posed by rising levels of uncollected solid wastes in richer areas that have led to more assertive calls for further legislative intervention and reforms in MSWM to safeguard social interests such as public health, the environment and even the aesthetics of Egyptian cities.
However, perhaps more important than adding one more layer of legislation or implementing any new SWM plan is the need for ordinary Egyptians and authorities alike to acknowledge publicly the fact that the two most central issues to the SWM problem are that of its financing and that of accountability for results.
Over 90% of the costs of SWM are operating expenses involving the collection, the transport, the storage and the disposal of waste into controlled dumpsites or sanitary landfills. (6) Once these controlled dumpsites are full, they need to be foreclosed in a way that will prevent any contamination of soil, air or water resources. The alternative, leaving dumpsites open and un- managed -- which is the situation in the majority of dumpsites in Egypt today (7) -- is tantamount to creating environmental time bombs. In the end, all these necessary activities have costs that need to be comprehensively financed by either a fee or a tax.
If one accepts this principle, then the question is who should pay this fee and how should it be collected? In my opinion, the most obvious answer is that the person or entity responsible for producing solid waste should be the person or entity paying for the disposal of that solid waste. This requires that the disposal fee should be actually paid by households and corporates, whether owning or renting their residence or premise. Moreover, such fee should be collected as part of a larger municipal tax to cover other urban and environmental expenses, such as maintenance of roads and sidewalks, maintenance and upgrade of the underground sewage and of the power and various utility grids or the development of public recreational areas, among many other municipal public services that are in dire need of development. Each of these costs should be borne directly by the beneficiaries of the services and should be collected directly by municipal authorities and/or governorates.
To estimate the amount of SWM funds that need to be collected, one can use the Philippines as a benchmark because it has a GDP per capita and a population relatively comparable to Egypt (8). There, the average annual cost of disposing waste in 2002 was $23 per ton (9) and it is expected to reach an average of $30 per ton in 2009.
In Cairo, where each household is thought to produce an average of 1.5 tons of waste per year (10), if one takes an annual disposal cost per ton of $30 (similar to the Philippines), then the average cost per household should be $45 per year or about 245 Egyptian Pounds. With an estimated 3 million households in the Greater Cairo area, the city's total annual budget for solid waste disposal should be approximately 735 million Egyptian Pounds or about USD 135 million. (11) If one includes all other urban and rural areas of Egypt -- with rural areas producing 46% less waste per capita per day (12) -- the total annual SWM budget of Egypt should be around USD 520 million per year. This would represent a very substantial improvement over past budgets considering that annual public SWM expenditure for the whole of Egypt for 2003- 2008 has been estimated at USD 182 million only. (13)
Considering the sheer magnitude of the SWM problem in Egypt, the amount of EGP 245 per household appears at first reasonable and within reach in terms of fee or tax collection per household. However, since at least 50 percent of households in urban areas are suffering from either absolute or relative poverty (14), it is hardly conceivable that these households could afford the EGP 245 annual fee for waste disposal. Consequently, it will be necessary to request that the richer 50 percent of households supports and pays for the poorer 50 percent; thus bringing the annual disposal cost per paying household to EGP 490. It is important to acknowledge that with regards to the SWM issue, as with many other public services issues in Egypt, solidarity should not be viewed as just a virtue but as an absolute necessity.
In the end, whatever the final correct amount of SWM financing needed in Egypt, the pre-requisite for the creation of a SWM municipal tax - or other needed taxes that are "local" in nature - is the decentralization of power, budgets and competencies from the State and Ministries to the Governorates and to the Municipalities. Indeed, problems of solid waste management vary per neighborhood and even per city and so do solutions and budgets needed to solve these problems. Therefore, local authorities should be best suited to define budgets, collect fees and implement efficient and tailored SWM programs. Provided, of course, that such local authorities are accountable for their management of the solid waste disposal and are sanctioned and replaced in case they are not doing a job satisfactory to their constituents. That, in turn, should require that local municipal authorities are actually elected by a true popular vote for a fixed term mandate, which according to UNDP has not been the case (15).
The ancient Romans had a tradition: whenever one of their engineers constructed an arch, as the capstone was hoisted into place, the engineer assumed accountability for his work in the most profound way possible: he stood under the arch. To transpose this would be to ask government officials to stand in the middle of the garbage until it is gone. Somehow I have the feeling that a lot of people would be actually willing to pay to witness this.
Sources: (1), (2), (3) American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt's website: Environment Section, 2009; (4), (5) EAWAG-SANDEC: "Solid Waste Management in Developing Countries", by Chris Zurbrugg, 2003; (6) Economy and Environment Program for Southeast Asia -- Research Report No. 2005-RR1 -- "Implementation and Financing of Solid Waste Management in the Philippines" by Zeinada Sumalde, 2005; (7) Mediterranean Technical Assistance Program -- Summary Report on Solid Waste Management in Egypt, 2008; (8) CIA Website, The World Factbook, 2009; (9) Economy and Environment Program for Southeast Asia -- Research Report No. 2005-RR1 -- "Implementation and Financing of Solid Waste Management in the Philippines" by Zeinada Sumalde, 2005; (10) Mediterranean Technical Assistance Program -- Summary Report on Solid Waste Management in Egypt, 2008; (11) Note: this amount includes upfront costs: depreciation of vehicle and equipment, depreciation of landfill, and operating costs: salaries, wages & benefits, maintenance, power & fuel, supplies, travel, contract service/rental, oversight & support services, back-end costs, others; (12, 13) Mediterranean Technical Assistance Program -- Summary Report on Solid Waste Management in Egypt, 2008; (14) EAWAG-SANDEC: "Solid Waste Management in Developing Countries", by Chris Zurbrugg, 2003; (15) UNDP Website -- Program of Governance in the Arab World -- Egypt: Local Elections, 2009
* The writer is a management consultant for strategy and organisational efficiency