I remember the first time I saw a local Lusakan finishing their drink and shamelessly throwing the plastic bottle onto the street. It was about that time that I started looking around and noticing the sheer volume of rubbish scattered around the roadsides, piled in makeshift dumping sites, and blocking the open concrete drainage systems, which are so synonymous with the city of Lusaka. My work placement with Trashback, a waste management consultant dealing in recycling and responsible waste management (especially in the compounds, which are the name given to Zambian shanty towns), has made me more aware of the issue and taught me a lot about the multi-faceted problems facing waste management in Zambia.
The problem of education is obviously part and parcel with the issue of waste disposal in Zambia. From discussions with people, I found an alarming misunderstanding of the connection between the ways in which people dispose of their waste and diseases, such as malaria and cholera, and even the floods caused by the blockages in the drainage systems. In Misisi for example, one of the poorest shanty towns in sub-Saharan Africa, there is a dumping site affectionately known by the locals as Blue Waters. Blue Waters is an old quarry in the middle of the compound which has since filled up with water and pretty much all of the rubbish made by the 80,000 – 90,000 people who live in the compound. Even the school I visited in Misisi proudly told me that they collected all of their rubbish in bins before disposing of it in Blue Waters, which is conveniently located directly behind the school. I was even more shocked to find out that Blue Waters is not only the dumping site, but also a source of drinking water for many of the locals, a popular swimming location, and a place where the locals like to fish for their dinner.
At first I thought: if only the residents of Lusaka knew how much damage they were doing by dumping their rubbish in the streets or burying it in the ground, we could make all the difference. I could even return to Blue Waters in a few years time and find it spotlessly clean, marvelling at my own brilliance and wondering why-oh-why nobody had ever thought of this before. The solution unfortunately is not this simple. What would be done with the rubbish created if it wasn’t dumped, burned or buried? Lusaka has no public bins; not only in the compounds, but also in the centre of town, which is where our previously mentioned friend threw his recently finished Mahau bottle. It’s also worth keeping in mind that we are talking about the capital city of Zambia, a place where public bins could be easily placed and the waste disposed of. A large majority of Zambia live in rural populations, a lot of which do not have access to roads.
The question, especially within the compounds, of whether to pay for the one meal that is eaten a day or pay for the collection of their waste by private companies is a no brainer for most. They would rather dump, burn or bury their rubbish, which they see as the solution to deal with the short-term problem at hand. The problem of global warming and environmental sustainability is too far from their reality to radically alter their behaviour.
The provision of bins and the collection of waste is also not on top of the political agenda in a country that suffers one of the highest rates of HIV in the world and experiences at least eight hours of power load-shedding every day in almost all parts of the country – that is those which are lucky enough to have access to power. When the majority of the voting population do not understand the real world, long term effects of poor waste management this issue is exacerbated. It is also the people living in the compounds who suffer the most from the lack of waste management in Lusaka. Even if they were aware of the problems that they face, the compound residents generally do not vote.
Trashback operate in the waste-management vacuum that all these aspects have created, offering a private-sector solution to the problem where their collectors and waste aggregators get monetary incentives for the collection of recyclable materials. This is certainly a step in the right direction. It offers the people within the poor communities a real world solution to their problems, while also stunting the environmental and social impact of poor waste management.
Behavioural change is one of the hardest things to obtain when trying to make a tangible impact on poor and detrimental practices in the developing world. The problem, as with all aspects of international development, is too complicated to solve in a short blog or to offer a full set of full proof solutions to. The task at hand is a hard one but one but one of the most profound issues facing Zambia today so therefore something that requires immediate attention.