Unintended Consequences: Garbage Problem in Egypt

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Living in a desert, we have become accustomed to having sand surround us: in the streets, on the cars and balcony, in the distance, everywhere practically. But as of recent, what's become more of a nuisance than the amount of sand is the amount of garbage littering the streets and the growing amount of attention upon it. "I didn't expect so much garbage to be everywhere. I don't remember this about Egypt," says Seham Kafafi, an AUC student who recently has moved back to Egypt from abroad.

The cycle that has been effective in Cairo, until recently, included the Zabaleen (or garbage people) collecting the 10,000 tons of daily garbage, sorting out as much as 80 percent of recyclable material, and then feeding the remaining organic waste to the pigs. But when the Egyptian government gave out orders in May 2009 to slaughter all the pigs in the country, in an effort to combat swine flu (H1N1), the results were noticeable all throughout Cairo: trash piled up by bins, an overwhelming amount of flies, and in some areas, a notorious stench.

Stemming from the slaughter of over 300,000 pigs, the garbage is slowly taking over the city. It is noticeable everywhere, even in upper-class neighborhoods, like Heliopolis. Before, if someone were to pass by Manshiet Nasser on the Autostrade, one would probably notice the amount of garbage. Now, the three-story-high piles of garbage are definitely something that cannot go unnoticed.

What many people do not know is that the Zabaleen people were providing a grassroot garbage collection program for the inhabitants of Cairo. Their model of collection was named one of the world's most innovative and efficient waste disposal methods and has been imitated throughout other worldwide cities. The cost of the Zabaleen's program? Nothing; it also simultanesoulsy employed many Egyptians.

And then what does the government decide to do? Pay foreigners to do it in an attempt to "clean up the Zabaleen way of life." In January, government officials signed $50 million contracts with Spanish and Italian companies that are supposed to collect the city's trash, clean streets daily, and build landfills and recycling centers; where it is estimated that only 20 percent of what is collected will be recycled.

Since the government's concentration of power is at the top, the amount of actions done without the consideration of their consequences has led to a multitude of social, enviornmental, and political problems; the pig problem being a prime example. Prior to the decision, it was announced that the H1N1 virus was not spreading from pigs, and Egyptian officials belatedly recognized this point. Because of their inconsistency, the more people are surrounded by garbage, the higher their chances are of becoming infected with another, possibly life threatening, disease.

A trash collector, who preferred to remain anonymous, emphasized that the garbage is his life, "many people don't notice what we do for them, but now they can see with their own eyes that our way of life is essential. We are not dirty," he continues, "we just want to provide for our families in any way and it [happens] to be garbage."

Residents need to take action and pressure the officials in charge to clean up the city through sending photos of garbage piles in their area to the media, write complaint letters and get together in a committee or form a group for a cleaner city. We need to revisit our littering and disposal patterns as well as our garbage quantities.

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