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Urban Governance.Informal Sector & Municipal Solid Waste in Cairo

From: Laila Iskandar Kamel, Egypt
Category: Category 2
Date: 15 Mar 2000
Time: 12:04:29
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Urban Governance, The Informal Sector and Municipal Solid Waste in Cairo

Laila Iskandar Kamel, Managing Director Community & Institutional Development (C.I.D.)

This paper examines the strong interconnections between a cityís urban resettlement plans and their effect on the service it receives in the area of its solid waste with specific reference to the semi-formalized waste collectors of Cairo.


When the garbage collectors first migrated from their rural communities in the south to Cairo in the late forties and early fifties, they lived close to the neighborhoods they were serving. As the city grew, they were directed by local authorities to move out to the edge of Cairo. Each and every time, they were assigned a farther location on which to settle. They have living memories of the horror of evictions and a city that never regarded their work as valuable. In 1974, the choice to settle deep in the ëbellyí of the Mokattam hills was made consciously and collectively in order to avoid further eviction.

They have never stopped serving the city at great financial and personal cost. Let me enumerate some of these costs: unremunerated labor ñ they were never paid for the service of climbing up and down multi-story buildings in Cairo difficult working conditions - particularly for women who had to sort garbage manually an extremely hazardous health situation harsh living conditions ñ they always lived in neighborhoods that had no infrastructure -- children had to walk 1-2 hours to fetch a drink of water. Working conditions which excluded children from schooling, education or health

In 1990, when they were asked to convert from donkey-pulled carts to motorized trucks, they did so. Over the years, they expanded their service of the city as it grew, in spite of the fact that urban plans for the city kept pushing them farther out from the points they were serving. The official estimate of fee for service never included cost recovery aspects so they were never able to maintain a new fleet of trucks, improve their trade or upgrade their working methods. Furthermore, they had to split the fees they collected from residents with a middlemen group, the ëwaahisí, who organized collection routes. The latter had also migrated to Cairo ñ even before the zabbaleen ñ from the oases (waahat) of Cairo, hence their name ñ waahis.

The Role of Community Development Associations in Grass Roots Development

The Improved Livelihoods of the Zabbaleen

In 1986 the Association of Garbage Collectors for Community Development (AGCCD), registered in 1976, launched a recycling micro-enterprise program by introducing plastic granulators, cloth grinders, paper and cardboard compactors. Many of the zabbaleen phased out their animal breeding activities and converted to informal sector workshops recycling non-organic waste. This was an indigenous, informal private sector activity: local technologies created employment for neighborhood youth, increased family income, which led to the education of girls and the upgrading of trucks, as well as an incalculable amount of learning around the tools and machines they were now using for recycling. This made Mokattam the major trading center for plastic, paper, cardboard, metal and others. This pioneering experience received international accolades in the Earth Summit in Rio, 1992.

In 1984 the Association for the Protection of the Environment (A.P.E.) established its composting plant in the heart of the neighborhood. This was a major breakthrough for the zabbaleen as they were now offered a place in which to rid themselves from the accumulation of animal waste in their homes and animal pens, at no cost. A.P.E. in turn used the income from the compost to support a nascent income generating rag recycling project for girls and women, a paper recycling project for girls, a childrenís club, literacy classes, field trips, health projects, and more. This project received the Nobel of the Environment award ñ the Goldman Environmental Prize for Africa in 1994 as well as the UNEP Global 500 Youth Award in 1996.

The Living Conditions of the Informal Sector Recyclers

In the late seventies and early eighties community-based organizations were registered in Mokattam. A water and wastewater system was installed in part of the neighborhood. Roads were paved several times, schools were built, wastewater trucks emptied out septic tanks, outpatient clinics were established, micro-enterprise recycling industries were launched, garbage collection was motorized, health programs were implemented, income generating projects for girls and women were implemented, day care centers cropped up in the neighborhood.

Thus the two community development associations in Mokattam played a major role in upgrading the solid waste system conducted by the informal sector collectors and recyclers, in improving their living conditions and their livelihoods. They each partnered with the community to deliver different community-based development inputs, such as: credit, income generation, health, literacy, training, institutional building, womenís empowerment, family planning, improved technology, advocacy, etc.

Much improved for the residents but a number of serious, negative conditions prevail: garbage still arrives in the neighborhood unsorted. What is not fit for recovery and trade is left on the streets to rot or burn. Women and adolescent girls still sort rotting filth manually. Hospital waste still arrives mixed in with kitchen waste. Health hazards from broken glass, infections from syringes and sharp metal still occur. Animal pens contain the animals somewhat but their presence in the neighborhood still creates an unsanitary condition in the home and on the streets. Burst sewage pipes constantly threatened the health of the population.

Thus, while the livelihood of the community improved drastically, living conditions did not improve by the same quantum leap.

In 1994 A.P.E. branched out into another settlement in Cairo, Tora and mobilized the Mokattam youth to initiate urban upgrading and development activities in a neighborhood similar to theirs. They are now the experts who became the catalysts for the empowerment of their social group. In 1998 A.P.E. moved its composting plant to Qattamiya as the urban environment in Mokattam and Manchiyet Nasser had become densely built up and populated.

Concurrently with the transfer of the composting plant to Qattamiya, a resettlement plan for the Tora zabbaleen was implemented. This plan did not call for the removal of the zabbaleen from their homes, but only for the removal of their garbage sorting and animal breeding activities ñ from Tora to Qattamiya. This move has resulted in significantly increased costs to the waste collectors. They bear the total burden of the costs associated with their service, prior to the move and these additional costs. In order to develop a sustainable and equitable system that is efficient and just to the zabbaleen, a detailed review and change of the service fee structure has to be immediately implemented.

The actual cost of the service will depend on the distance from collection point to transfer station (be it the home of the recyclers for recovery or to a transfer station) to the point of final disposal, be it an uncontrolled dumpsite or a sanitary landfill. Thus urban resettlement plans for informal sector operators of any kind need to take these issues into account. If Cairo is ever to have an efficient solid waste system urban governance has to examine the following aspects of the service that is offered to residents of the city:

The Future of Solid Waste Systems in Egypt

The new national trend in Egypt for the solid waste sector is to institute public-private partnerships where municipalities will play a different role from the one they previously had played. Burdened by an impossible task of keeping neighborhoods and towns clean, they have asked to be relieved of the responsibilities of the solid waste chain (collection-transport-transfer-sorting-recovery-recycling-composting-land filling) and have invited the private sector to step in. Municipalities must now learn to put together good tender documents, invite pre-qualifying bids, receive and evaluate bids, contract with the winning bidder, set performance indicators and monitor contracts.

Since no private sector companies with a strong track record in solid waste exist in Egypt, it is expected that local contractors will bid with large international companies in large urban centers like Alexandria, Cairo, etc. This risks supplanting the most efficient door-to-door collection system by large-scale, inappropriate technologies that will not generate the same 7-8 jobs per ton of waste collected, nor recover 80% of the waste collected - which the current informal sector system does. Numerous studies, focus groups with residents, pilot projects, etc. point to the fact that the zabbaleen are the only group which possesses the longest track record of any other group in Egypt, in the solid waste sector. Yet they have not been given enough merit for their expertise because of a number of reasons:

They are perceived to use a backward system, lacking modern equipment and hygienic practices. It seems to escape many that the principal reason for this is the fact that they have never been paid enough for their service and therefore have never been able to upgrade their equipment or their practice.

Furthermore, the original zabbaleen were farmers who sought a livelihood from breeding farm animals. Their children, the present zabbaleen, would like to practice their trade in new modern ways. They need to be taught just as much as the municipalities, how to become engaged in the new, proposed system. If they are not, the future system will result in a dirtier city as it will not be based on resource recovery, or on door-to-door collection. More pressure will be placed on landfills and precious land surrounding Cairo.

The contractual basis on which local authorities engage the informal sector operators differs from the one by which they engage the new private sector companies which have penetrated the solid waste sector recently. The new companies purchase tender documents, bid competitively, sign a contract twith the Cairo Beautification Authority and get their contract fee from the same Authority. They are not left open to the risk of some residents paying for the fee-for-service and others not doing so. The informal sector operators, on the other hand, have to pay a deposit ëinsuranceí to the Cairo Beautification Authority up front, in return for the right to service a specific number of apartment blocks. They have no guarantee that these blocks are all inhabited, that residents will pay or that they will recover their cost. Thus they are forced to live off the recovery of recyclables, trade them and re-manufacture them.

It is therefore imperative to teach them how to enter this new competitive bidding process in the new, proposed system. It would be a great loss to the sector if Cairo were to lose their valuable expertise ñ built over four decades in the capital. It is also imperative to build on local experience in implementing at-source separation schemes. It is important to view the cost-recovery issues and connect them to the fee-for-service issue. It is important to collect fees from Egyptians in ways that do not leave them a choice to pay or not to pay.

As a consequence of this situation, the Association for the Protection of the Environment tested the possibility of at-source segregation of residential waste in two neighborhoods in Cairo and established that it would work. Pilot projects in Beni Suef (rural), Nuweiba, South Sinai (coastal) and Maadi, (urban) Cairo, replicated this intervention.

The merits of the system at the macro and micro levels need to be enumerated: A system which recovers 80% of municipal household waste Employment creation for unemployed youth at the rate of 7-8 jobs per ton of waste collected Income directed towards the education of girls Income which guarantees food security, improved health and nutrition Uncontaminated organics for the production of a higher grade compost Entrepreneurship and skills acquisition outside of formal school systems The production of new materials from existing ones The protection of the earthís non-renewable resources The protection of land from being used as sanitary landfills The protection of the air from the uncontrolled burning of garbage The creation of learning environments where youth learn to operate, maintain and repair machines The application of science in informal learning settings The generation of income The preservation of family-style, family-owned businesses The creation of economically thriving communities The creation of supporting industries The fostering of an inventive, innovative spirit The transfer of technology between and among communities

Integrating Urban Upgrading, Technology Transfer and Improved Service

The issues touch upon all informal sector activities in Egypt, not just the waste collectors. Urban governance plans need to re-assess established practice of urban resettlement plans which move people out of their exiting neighborhoods and into farther ones from the hub of economic activity in the center.

With each plan to move the informal sectorís activities further out of the city, the risks of poorer service, joblessness and social instability increase. These either come about as a result of longer distances, higher transport costs, prohibitive maintenance costs, higher labor costs and higher stoppage rates. Or, conversely, it could come about as a result of the informal sector workers leaving their trade and suffering the negative aspects of unemployment ñ temporary or otherwise.

A new vision which integrates urban upgrading of informal sector communities needs to be developed. One where residents can remain in their neighborhoods and be left to practice their trade but where infrastructure and neighborhood upgrading really takes place. A plan where micro-enterprise workshops are upgraded and new appropriate technology inputs convert people from negative practices to better ones. A plan that will reap the benefits of the cumulative experience of community-based organizations and grass roots development interventions. A plan that will formalize the informal sector into formal sector companies, with attendant learning and technology upgrading.

Cairo, March 2000


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CID-Community & Institutional Development

(The paper is a contribution to the debate on cities, presented at a World Bank conference which was held in Cairo on "Voices for Change - Partners for Properity" for the MENA region).

Last changed: March 13, 2002