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Swine cull creates sanitation crisis

The Zabaleen, a caste of rubbish collectors that keep Cairo's streets free of rubbish, are suffering under the city's mandate to slaughter thousands of pigs in their community.

A member of the Zabaleen community stands in his family's empty pig pen.
A member of the Zabaleen community stands in his family's empty pig pen.

CAIRO // More than a month has passed since the Egyptian government, citing fears of a spreading swine flu epidemic, slaughtered thousands of pigs in Manshiyet Nasser, a dense community of rubbish collectors and pig farmers that sits just outside Cairo's borders. While the neighbourhood smells slightly less foul than before, the hum of activity is gone. "I feel that we're in the midst of a disaster. Some families do not have any source of income and they're living on the edge," said Izak Michael, who heads a committee of Zabaleen, a majority Christian caste of rubbish collectors for whom waste management is both an occupation and a lifestyle: people here live among both the "If the Zabaleen did not go out and collect garbage, Cairo would be full of it." It is as much a prediction as it is a statement of fact. Cairo's waste management "system" relies on the Zabaleen, who collect 80 per cent of the trash in Egypt's capital, said an official with the Cairo Governorate, who asked not to be named because he is not authorised to speak to the media. Without the pigs that consume the organic waste, the Zabaleen have little incentive to collect the 14,000 tonnes of rubbish Cairenes produce each day. The 65,000 residents of Manshiyet Nasser alone used to collect about 4,800 tonnes each day, 30 per cent of which ended up as low-cost swine feed.

So far, solutions remain elusive. The anonymous waste management official said the government has convened a committee of representatives from several government ministries to find jobs to replace the Zabaleen's lost livelihoods as well as a place for the piles of rubbish that threaten to overwhelm Egypt's capital. "Now we are suffering. 1,500 tonnes of garbage each day is thrown in the streets," said the official, referring to the organic refuse that now goes uncollected. "So this is a very big environmental problem."

That problem might have been avoided had the city government acted earlier to create a modern waste management system, the official said. But the government has relied on the Zabaleen and their unique methods since the 1930s, when they first started using donkey carts to collect rubbish from Cairenes before bringing it back to their homes for sorting and recycling. Living amid the waste of others earned the Zabaleen, who number about 150,000 nationwide, a pariah status that has clung to them for generations. Because of that there has never been much pressure on the Egyptian government to institute a formal waste collection system until now.

Suggestions for how to manage the plight of the Zabaleen, as well as the impending waste management crisis, have not exactly been flooding in. Mustafa Bakri, a parliamentarian in Egypt's People's Assembly, proposed that the government build a new recycling facility to employ another group of Zabaleen who live near 15th of May City, a satellite of Cairo that is also in Mr Bakri's district. "It would be a huge catastrophe if the Zabaleen stopped working," Mr Bakri said. Nevertheless, the Zabaleen continue to collect rubbish for the same pittance they earned before. Some are paid through Italian and Spanish companies that the Egyptian government hired about 10 years ago to manage waste collection. The foreign companies, in turn, hire local "emperors of garbage", who Mr Michael said are responsible for managing and paying many of the Zabaleen at a rate of about 100 Egyptian pounds (Dh65) each month. Mr Michael blames the cosy relationship between the European contractors and the emperors for the current state of affairs. Had the foreign waste management firms hired the Zabaleen directly, he said, the trash collectors might have been less dependent on raising pigs before the government decided to kill the entire porcine population.

The current crisis could be resolved, said Mr Michael, if the foreign companies cut out the emperors and paid the Zabaleen fair wages to do what they have always done: collect and recycle rubbish. Until such solutions arrive in Manshiyet Nasser, its residents will continue to live off the 100 Egyptian pounds per pig that the Egyptian government gave them last month as compensation for slaughtering Egypt's 300,000 swine. mbradley@thenational.ae