By Jorrit Meulenbeek
Street News Service
In 2007, late president Levy Mwanawasa launched the ambitious Keep Zambia Clean and Healthy campaign. Three years later, sponsored garbage cans on Cairo Road and other high-profile areas in Lusaka are the most visible result. But these cans are few, and almost always full to the brim and surrounded by a heap of garbage.
For most Zambians, the gutters by the roadside serve as trash cans. Nobody seems to be ashamed to be seen throwing a bottle or can in there. In the poorer residential compounds and around the market areas in town, smelly heaps of waste are common. They sometimes get as big as real dump sites, just steps away from where people buy their food.
"People just open their car window and throw out their bottles," says taxi driver Ricky Mukube. "Even I do it. It is very bad I know."
Having traveled to other countries in the region, he feels Zambia is one of the worst when it comes to waste.
"In Botswana it is much cleaner. There, when they find you throwing something in the road, you get a fine. In Zambia we are far behind."
Eight years ago, with the waste problem reaching its worst level, the city council of Lusaka, Zambia's capitol and largest city, embarked on a new course of action, leaving waste collection in the hands of private contractors who discovered there was money in waste. This approach worked wonders. In 2001 only between 8 and 15 percent of waste was being collected. Now this is more than 40 percent.
Michael Kabungo, environmental manager at Lusaka's Waste Management Unit, is quick to admit that this growth mainly took place in the richer residential areas. There people are both willing and able to pay for waste collection. The problem remains in the capitol's sprawling compounds, where the majority of its residents live in poor conditions.
"The private sector is not interested in servicing those areas," Kabungo says.
Small community-based companies are now trying to fill that void, paying people a small fee to go around with wheelbarrows and pushcarts, gathering garbage and transporting it to a central place. From there the city's Waste Management Unit comes to collect it, and pays the company for each full container.
The Chunga waste disposal site, Lusaka's only official dump site, is where the collected waste goes. Even there, the situation is far from ideal, though part of the site has already been upgraded. The Environmental Council of Zambia has recently sued the City Council over the management of the site.
People from the surrounding compounds come the site to scavenge for recycling materials, and, what is much worse, food. In the rain season the entrance is so muddy that waste trucks can not reach the landfill and are forced to dump their load somewhere in front. Because the management lacks excavators and other equipment, most of the waste is not actually buried and covered, but is left on the surface.
Worrying as Lusaka's waste situation may be, it is still a shining example compared to many other areas in Zambia, where hardly any waste collection is taking place. But it is Lusaka's high population density that makes it a bigger problem here.
After some months of extreme heat the rain season brings some relief but the combination of excess water, high temperatures and piled up waste forms an excellent breeding ground for diseases like cholera.
In Kanyama and Chawama, crowded compounds just outside central Lusaka, the drainage system here just can not keep up with the rainfall. The waste problem contributes to this, as floating garbage often clogs pipes and drainages.
"Every year again government ends up evacuating people out of there and having to take care of them," says Irene Lungu of the Environmental Council of Zambia. "This costs a lot of money, that they should rather spend on doing something about the waste problem."
Chimba Chileshe, a resident of Chawama, is not too worried about contracting cholera from waste.
"That only happens when you are careless," she says.
Still, she feels waste is a big problem in her area, and she herself struggles with the question of where to take her waste.
Right now she mostly uses a pit behind the houses to empty her garbage bags, like many others in her neighborhood. But officially that is not allowed and during the rain season inspections are more frequent. Another popular option is dumping it by the railway: "A lot of people do it, but if they catch you doing it they can even take you to the police."
Both waste manager Kerbing and environmentalist Lungu stress that the attitude of Zambians has to change.
People tend to think waste collection is a service that government has to deliver for free, but waste management costs money. The problem is only becoming more urgent now that sites people use for dumping and burying waste are quickly running out, says Kabungo. And more and more people are starting to see the health risks, making them more willing to pay for getting rid of their waste.
"In the rain season the amount of waste collected actually goes up, because people get scared of diseases," Kabungo says.
"Maybe we'll have to start paying for it some time soon," Chimba Chileshe adds.
Does she actually consider doing this? She laughs: "Sometimes."
The reality remains that for most Zambians, the majority of whom live below the poverty line, paying for waste removal is just not an option. As the government also lacks the means to seriously scale up on waste collection and processing, the main hope for solving this problem is fixed on community initiatives and on the drawing board of the policy makers.