More than 10, 000 street cleaners are scrambling to clean a city that produces 200,000 tons of waste annually; but their job is a Sisyphean task
In one uncharacteristically dry late morning in July of this year, three women with straw hats, waterproof safety jackets and plastic boots walk at their own speed alongside Roosevelt Avenue at the heart of Addis Abeba. They are wearing the thick latex gloves they use while sweeping the streets; the empty pushcarts and the idle broomsticks, however, are being pushed, thankfully, by their colleagues who are a little ahead of them. The three women look slightly fatigued, but they seem to be enjoying the less demanding hours and less daunting weather. When they arrived at the place around 5:00 am, leaving their houses an hour earlier, it was drizzling. As it is the rainy season this time of year, sometimes the day breaks with a downpour, making it unbearable to move, let alone deal with the garbage thrown overnight on the streets of a city, which six years ago was dubbed “the sixth filthiest in the entire world” by a Forbes Magazine rating. But they can’t afford to be late. They have to grapple with the most arduous parts of their tasks before the hustle and bustle of life seizes the day.
Equipped with cleaning appliances provided by their employer, the Addis Abeba City Sanitation Administration Agency (AACSAA), they started their crusades against litter on the respective roads they were assigned to. “We are particularly aware of the prominence this area holds,” says Selamawit Gebrewold, 38, one of the three women, pointing towards the US$ 200 million worth office of the African Union (AU) headquarters standing a few hundred yards away. “A lot of diplomats and leaders pass through it. So we are extra careful to keep it clean.” That “extra care” involves inspecting each and every inch every now and then, looking for trash thrown out by careless drivers, walkers by or households; sweeping it meticulously, collecting the junk uncompromisingly and finally taking it to the metal containers nearby where the neighborhood waste is amassed before it is driven to the city’s waste disposal landfill.
Addis Abeba aspires to be a clean model city for cities of the continent by 2020, claims the AACSAA’s vision. But considering the mere six years left to hit that deadline, imagining a clean Addis Abeba seems out of horizon, and for many reasons.
A Sisyphean task
One of the most daunting challenges urban centers in developing countries like Addis Abeba face is proper waste management. In their 2011 study titled “Challenges and Opportunities in Municipal Solid Waste Management: The Case of Addis Abeba city, Central Ethiopia,” Nigatu Regassa, Rajan D. Sundarra and Bizunesh Bogale of Hawassa and Haromaya Universities, state that in urban centers throughout African, less than half of solid waste is collected of which 95% is either indiscriminately thrown away at various dumping sites in the periphery of urban centers or at a number of so-called temporary sites, typically empty lots scattered throughout the city.
As demographic and economic growth leads to an increase in amount as well as diversity of waste, the issue of proper waste management becomes complicated. Apart from insufficient financial, technical and human resources that face the job of cleaning a big city in countries like Ethiopia, there are factors specific to Addis Abeba city that exacerbates the problem. According to Nigatu, Sundaraa and Bizunesh, even though the city’s solid waste management dates some three decades back, “the service cannot meet the changing demands. The social waste collection service is unsatisfactory, and scenes of scattered waste are common in most parts of the city.” Despite being the capital with the highest altitude in Africa with an average annual rainfall of 1200mm, for example, the city does not have a commendable sewerage system. This does not only result in roads damaged sooner than the time it takes to build them, but also poses a great challenge on those who are responsible to keep it clean. Three years after negate et.al conducted their research, much of it remains the same, making the job of cleaning it a thankless labor.
AACSAA was established through Addis Ababa City Administration Executive Bodies and Municipal Service Proclamation No. 15/2009 with a mission to “make the city clean by increasing the participation of the society and stakeholders; controlling and following up of how to keep, transport, and collect wastes; developing the city’s awareness; and providing service in a modern and sustainable way.”
According to the agency, as of 2006 Ethiopian fiscal year (2013/14) AACSAA alone has employed more than 4000 street cleaners. This doesn’t include the more than 6000 cleaners organized under 568 Small and Micro Enterprises (SMEs) and private agencies.
Complying with Solid Waste Management Proclamation No 513/2007, which in article 4/2 stipulates, “any person shall obtain a permit from the concerned body of an urban administration prior to his engagement in the collection, transportation, use or disposal of solid waste,” private agencies investing in solid waste disposal handle up to 18% of the city’s collected waste transportation.
The agency’s employees, coupled with the employees under organized SMEs and private agencies are responsible for cleaning the 1807 km asphalt road, 227 km cobblestone paved road and 570 km long of sidewalk that Addis Abeba currently possesses.
Nauseating social behavior
For Selamawit and her colleagues, the execution of much of their job in early hours means having a little “leisure” later to chat and laugh with each other while casting their gazes on the roads, making sure nothing escapes their scrutiny. Oftentimes they are met with disappointment, as it is not uncommon to find the street they help clean only hours ago filled with litter all over again. But there are worse moments.
Kush Gebreyesus, a Coordinator at Woreda Five Sanitation Office in Bole Sub City, who is in charge of 33 street cleaners, of whom 27 are female, identifies truck drivers and animals as the leading causes of urban filth. Yirgalem Arage, 53, and one of Selamawit’s colleagues, couldn’t agree more. In her sixteen years’ of experience on the roads, truck drivers, who think covering their truckloads as a burden to contend with, do not seem to be bothered by the rubbish they litter around as they speed through the streets “sometimes while we are [still] cleaning,” making the their job of cleaning the city a futile exercise. In addition to bad social behaviors like spiting, drivers of the city in general are notorious for the junk – banana peels, plastic bottles, chewing gum wrappers and scratched mobile phone cards among others – they throw out of their windows without the slightest regard to the hygiene of the city they inhabit.
According to an ongoing research titled “Public Environmental Awareness Level of Addis Abeba,” and which has responses from the street cleaners as well as different sections of the society, the researcher Gizaw Ebissa of Green Environmental Consultancy Services and Sustainable Research Based Action identifies public indifference to a clean environment and lack of proper safety measurement as some of the main challenges street cleaners have to face. Display of utter disrespect by throwing waste while a cleaning is in progress undoubtedly brings forth negative outcomes, too.
A document titled Solid Waste Manual: With Respect to Urban Plans, Sanitary Landfill Sites and Solid Waste Management Planning, released in April 2012 by the Ministry of Urban Development and Construction, Urban Planning, Sanitation and Beautification Bureau, reveals lack of public awareness and the issue of attitude as major contributing factors to the worsening of urban filth. According to the manual, “in order to change solid waste management significantly, the behavior and attitudes of individuals and groups in the society will have to change.”
Unfortunately for Selamawit and her colleagues that change is not coming by easy. “People think we are something of annoyances, when in fact we are cleaning the mess they would rather not see,” she told this magazine.
From construction debris to household litter
According to a document: Overview of the City’s Solid Waste Management System, more than 200,000 tons of waste is annually produced in Addis Abeba alone, of which 76% is generated from domestic households. Sweeping accounts only for 6% of the total waste generated. Door to door collection of household waste is done mostly by cleaners, mostly young boys, organized under the different SMEs.
Big state funded development projects and a recent boom in the construction sector means Addis Abeba is in a perpetual state of a city under construction. Construction debris coming from demolished buildings debris and buildings under construction are constant sources of anguish for street cleaners. As it is clearly put in Solid Waste Management Proclamation No. 513/2007 on article 11/3 it is, “prohibited to dispose of litter on streets, waterways, parks, bus stops, train stations, sport fields, water bodies in urban areas or in other public places while litter bins are available.” Furthermore, article 12/2 states that “construction permits shall be issued only when the building contractor deposits a legally valid bond or any other instrument to ensure the environmentally sound solid waste management.”
Any institute that leaves a mess unattended is subject to a fine ranging from 50 ETB to 2000 ETB. However, like many other rules and regulations, when it comes to implementation this one too is not worth the paper it is written at.
Along with the three million plus humans, Addis Abeba is home to countless animals. According to a study, “Dog Bite as a Health Concern in Addis Ababa” conducted by Fasil Mengistu, Kedir Hussen, Abraham Ali, Gorema Getahun and Dessalegn Sifir in 2011, the number of dogs roaming the streets of Addis Abeba is estimated to be around 250 000, of which 120, 000 are believed to be stray dogs. Living side by side with people mostly without careful supervision and care, the animals scatter about everywhere spreading their feces. But that is not the whole story. “Sometimes dead animals are found unattended in residential areas,” says Yirgalem. “Owners are rarely concerned about the bodies of dead family pets. They just throw them out to the streets. On some other times, animals, mostly stray dogs, are run over by speeding vehicles,” she says.
Yirgalem says it frustrates her to see when animals are hit by a car, most people, including drivers and law enforcement officers, do not see it as such. “To be frank, dealing with remains of dead animals is quite nasty,” she says. “It is during those times that the job is very trying. When people look down on me or when I am invisible to them, it doesn’t bother me a bit. I can even say I like it,” but collecting animal corpses is something she can never get used to.
Between the past and the future
A major reshuffle at the Addis Abeba City Administration saw thousands of its employees reduced to street sweepers. Yirgalem was one of them. Before she was demoted to the status of a street cleaner by the city administration for a lack of formal education almost sixteen years ago, she served as a documentation officer, where she said she “hated the office politics. Now I spend my days laboring and sleep like a baby”. Most of those who shared Yirgalem’s fate either left the public sector or managed to land better jobs like secretarial, and office cleaning tasks while she remained on the streets. She doesn’t condemn the move or her lot for that matter. In fact she is grateful. When she thinks about how she would have raised her four fatherless children without the permanent job, she remains aghast. “I am still a civil servant. I can get my pension.”
When asked if she fears for her safely she says is concerned. “Oh, we are all in God’s hands. Who is going to escape their destiny?” However, she thinks the bright yellow “safety coats” that she and her colleagues are provided with contribute to their wellbeing by warning drivers of their existence from afar. Instead of contemplating the dreadful, though, she prefers to be hopeful. Like any civil servant, she is all too aware of the Prime Minister’s pledge to raise salaries. With an animated, expectant face, she whispers, “we will see what will come out of it.”
Last year, AACSAA, has bought 10 main road sweepers which, after undergoing a trial run from December 2013 to February 2014, have fully begun giving service, according to the document from the agency. And the Addis Abeba Sewerage Authority recently said it bought 40 vacuum trucks worth about US$ 10m. AACSAA believes the arrival of the machines, gives it additional resource that is helpful in covering more areas. Recently, it has set a new standard for the city’s roads. Accordingly, Roosevelt Avenue where Yirgalem and her colleagues spend their working days has been labeled ‘Level 1’, which means it needs extra care in cleaning. All the three women knew what that means.
Mahlet Fasil contributed to this story