Editorial: Trashy Nightmares

Rania Al Malky
6 Min Read

Egypt’s psychotherapists are in business. Not only will they be hired by poor unfortunate souls driven to the edge by stress, noise, air pollution, injustice, oppression and corruption, but one big smelly affair has been added to the mix: ubiquitous piles of nauseating garbage lining every street corner and square in its sprawling capital.

To all those psychiatrists out there, it’s time to get a crash course in dealing with trashy nightmares. It will certainly pay off.

I have personally experienced my first garbage-triggered temper tantrum a few days ago. The sight of heaps of disgusting garbage around almost one third of Amman Square, smack in the middle of Cairo’s relatively upscale Dokki district, was more than my nerves could handle.

That same night, a recurrent bad dream would wake me up, out of breath, my heart thumping and limbs shaking. In it, I see a mountain of refuse covered to the tip with plague-infested rats ready to pounce on any moving target.

Cairo’s garbage problem has become unbearable and it has spread from plaguing informal housing areas, to what was considered uptown areas like Mohandiseen.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen the on-going rift between the foreign cleaning companies, the government and the traditional garbage collectors reach a dangerous (bordering on life-threatening) stand-off.

The three Italian and Spanish multinational cleaning conglomerates introduced in 2002 to modernize the country’s waste disposal system and to come up with a lucrative, technology-operated recycling scheme, eventually learnt that they couldn’t handle the job without the help of the traditional zabbaleen (door-to-door garbage collectors). And indeed, a year after they began operating, the companies enlisted their help, despite the fact that these companies were paid a fee of LE 500 million a year added to the electricity bill.

What the government didn’t realize was that Manshiet Nasser’s 60,000-strong zabbaleen community was doing a lot more to recycle and keep the city clean than they care to admit. So when, in a most random knee-jerk reaction to the global H1N1 virus pandemic, the government decided to cull the pigs that fed on the organic waste collected by the zabbaleen, it was only a matter of time before they stopped collecting it.

Little by little, we started seeing more of Cairo’s daily 13,000 tons of garbage is piling up on the streets. The zabbaleen would sort through the trash for the recyclable material they can sell, and leave behind all the organic waste they used to feed the pigs.

Without the help of the traditional zabbal, the Italian company (the only remaining one since the other two Spanish companies pulled out) was powerless, its contract now possibly on the verge of termination.

So in one fell swoop, and despite advice from the World Health Organization as to the irrelevance of culling the pigs to the spread of the swine flu virus, the government caused a complex health and sanitation crisis which, in the best case scenario, will take a year to solve.

Take the Naples waste management crisis as an example. The crisis began in December 2007, but was only finally resolved around the same month in 2008, during which time the Italian government appointed a special waste commissioner, created more landfills, built incinerators and enlisted the army to help confront the ensuing environmental catastrophe.

In Egypt, we have yet to learn about a broad plan. Why hasn’t the army been asked to step in, the way it did during the bread crisis a year ago and, rumor has it, during the public transport drivers’ strike a couple of weeks back? Why is it that despite the fact that almost 96 percent of Egypt’s surface area is desert, the government hasn’t built more landfills and failed to mobilize its huge human resources to organize and upgrade the existing and extremely efficient zabbaleen system?

A study conducted by the Research Institute of Land and Water Environment has even revealed that the garbage of Cairo is one of the richest in the world, generating annual revenues that could exceed LE 5 billion. One ton of garbage, says the report, could be worth up to LE 6,000 ($1,090) since it contains a lot of recyclable material useful in a multitude of industries.

Instead of using the knowledge and the facts that we generate to develop our own waste-management infrastructure and make money out of it, the government outsourced the “problem and in the meantime, made strategic decisions that helped collapse the flimsy system it had put in place.

Again, the Egyptian government shoots itself in the foot, leaving behind 80 million victims of incompetence, corruption and lack of planning.

Rania Al Malkyis the Chief Editor of Daily News Egypt.

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