Al-Ahram Weekly Online   22 - 28 October 2009
Issue No. 969
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Garbage Attacks

Where does taxpayer's money go? Asks Farrah Montasser*

Alongside the heavy traffic, garbage has become one of the sights associated with Cairo's streets throughout the last few months. More piles of garbage have mounted on all sidewalks, making it difficult to move around. Areas like Mohandesseen currently look and smell like dumpsters.

Egypt's growing population dumps over 14,000 tons of rubbish a day, inappropriately collected, exposing the country to many health hazards. Since the 1940s, garbage people have lived and worked in the garbage business hub in the Zabbaleen district in Cairo, where they raised pigs that fed on food waste. Families of the Zabbaleen district used to collect 6,000 tons of trash a day, 60 % of which is food waste that was subsequently fed to pigs.

The deterioration of the garbage situation began with the rise of the Swine Flu. As usual, authorities came up with a shortsighted strategy to demolish all pig farms in Cairo in an attempt to control the spread of the H1N1 virus scare.

After the pig cull, they realized that those helpless creatures had nothing to do with the disease; on the contrary, they were ridding Cairo of some of its garbage. To rid Cairo of its accumulated waste, private multinational companies were hired to collect it, promising to employ recycling systems. With pigs being slaughtered, the amount of garbage tripled and the garbage collecting companies found themselves in a dilemma: the amount of garbage that they were supposed to collect was far more than what they were contracted to take care of. Moreover Cairo residents whether in Zamalek or in slum areas were neither aware nor educated nor acquainted with the new system. They had long been accustomed to leaving their garbage bags outside the front doors of their home for the garbage man to collect. The idea of carrying their refuse to dumpsters outside their buildings was very new, and was rejected by most.

To clarify its position, the governorate confirmed that the contract obliged the multinationals to collect trash door-to-door, while the companies claim they were obliged to collect trash in front of buildings "only". Regarding the increased load of garbage, they said that they are not getting fully paid for their extra services. Since the beginning of summer there was nothing but discussions, negotiations, deals and daily statements with nothing actually being done until garbage engulfed the streets totally.

The latest on that issue is that currently new contracts are being written and the Minister of State for Environmental Affairs promised citizens that in two months they will see an improvement in the efficiency of garbage collection with a doubling of manpower, an increase in the number of trucks and street dumpsters, a cleaning of major streets to be carried out twice a day instead of once, and daily cleaning of narrow streets, as opposed to two or three times a week.

One may ask: why didn't the government try to create public awareness regarding waste and garbage collection? One may add that the government's entire focus for the last few years has only been on collecting taxes. Where does taxpayer's money go regarding this crisis? We are left only with strong speeches, negotiations, theoretical plans, and as always very slow actions. Decisions have to be taken swiftly and decisively regarding garbage collection before the sight of garbage is accepted as a fact of life in Cairo.

To create awareness, and educate citizens on the importance of segregating garbage at home to prepare it for recycling is of imminent importance, and aggressive campaigns towards this aim should be conducted through the government's media channels. Such a campaign should become a national project engaging each and everyone. So much can be done when we are all working for a solution.

* The writer is a caring citizen.

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