Cairo refuse collection goes belly up after pigs culled in swine flu panic
WHEN the government killed all the pigs in Egypt this spring – in what public health experts said was a misguided attempt to combat swine flu – it was warned Cairo would be overwhelmed with refuse. And it is.
The pigs used to eat tons of organic waste. Now the pigs are gone and rotting food piles up on middle-class and poor streets alike.
Ramadan Hediya, 35, who makes deliveries for a supermarket, lives in Madinat el Salam, a low-income community on the outskirts of Cairo. "The whole area is trash," he said. All the pathways are full of trash. When you open up your window to breathe, you find rubbish heaps on the ground."
What started out as an impulsive response to the swine flu threat has turned into a social, environmental and political problem for the Arab world's most populous state.
Cairo's rubbish garbage collection belonged to the informal sector of the economy. The government hired multinational companies to collect the refuse, and the companies decided to place bins around the city. But they failed to understand the ethos of the community. People do not take their garbage out. They are accustomed to someone collecting it from the door.
For more than half a century, those collectors were the Zabaleen, a community of Egyptian Christians who live on the cliffs on the eastern edge of the city. They collected the rubbish , sold the recyclables and fed the organic waste to their pigs – which they then slaughtered and ate.
When the swine flu fear first emerged, long before even one case was reported in Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak ordered that all the pigs be killed in order to prevent the spread of the disease.
When health officials worldwide said that the virus was not being passed by pigs, the Egyptian government said that the cull was no longer about the flu, but was about cleaning up the Zabaleen's crowded, filthy, neighbourhood.
That was in May. Today the streets of the Zabaleen community are as packed with stinking trash and as clouded with flies as ever before. But the Zabaleen have done exactly what they said they would do – they stopped collecting most of the organic waste. Instead they dump it wherever they can or, at best, pile it beside bins scattered around the city by the international companies that have struggled in vain to keep up with the rubbish.
"They killed the pigs, let them clean the city," said Moussa Rateb, a former rubbish collector and pig owner who lives in the Zabaleen community. "Everything used to go to the pigs. Now there are no pigs, so it goes to the administration."
The recent refuse problem was compounded when employees of one of the multinational companies – men and women in green uniforms with crude brooms dispatched around the city – stopped working in a dispute with the city.
The government says that the dispute has been resolved, but nothing has been done to repair the damage to the informal system that once had the Zabaleen take Cairo's rubbish home.
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