Afghanistan’s Overcrowded Capital Submerged in Rubbish

By Yalda Aslami

KABUL, Afghanistan, January 24, 2011 (ENS) – Mohammad Aref and his family are not looking forward to the Kabul summer. Last year, it meant stifling months shut up in the family home in the Khair Khana district, trying to avoid the fetid smell wafting in from the piles of rubbish in the surrounding streets.

“We could not open windows to let in fresh air in any of the rooms all through the summer,” the 40-year-old said. “The stink, the mosquitoes and the flies would not allow us to do so.”

Although there are neighborhood rubbish bins, Aref complained that they were so large and unwieldy that people cannot fill them with rubbish, and the municipality does not empty them on time. This means that foul-smelling heaps of rubbish continually pile up on every corner, attracting flies and vermin.

Kabul residents cover their noses but they cannot avoid the stench of garbage, September 2010. (Photo by Naser Khan Mansouri)

His concerns are shared by many Kabul residents and public health officials, who complain that illegal rubbish dumping and inefficient waste disposal systems are leading to an environmental crisis in this overcrowded city.

The public health department calculates that Kabul’s residents produce some 3,500 metric tonnes of rubbish daily. Around 3,000 containers are placed around the city to collect waste, which is then gathered and transported to the Gazak area, 30 kilometers (20 miles) away, for burial.

But the current system cannot cope with the needs of the city’s five million inhabitants; its population swollen by migrants from Afghan provinces seeking better security and employment prospects. According to governmental officials, more than 60 percent of the houses in Kabul are illegal, adding to the problem of rubbish disposal.

It’s not just that the heaps of waste blocking streets and alleyways are unsightly and emit a rank smell. The problem is leading to serious public health problems, experts say.

“Rubbish is an environmental hazard, because when it mixes with the dust and wind it spreads diseases such as skin infections and diarrhea,” said Zemarai Haseen, who specializes in pediatric medicine at Kabul University’s medical school.

Pools of stagnant water harbor mosquitoes, which can lead to outbreaks of malaria. The uncollected waste also allows sand flies, which spread leishmaniasis, to thrive.

Kabul’s residents and the local authorities disagree over who is to blame for the deteriorating situation.

Nesar Ahmad Habibi Ghori, director of the cleaning department of Kabul municipality, said residents had refused to work together with the authorities to keep the city clean. Instead, he said, they simply dumped their waste outside their homes and premises.

“Unfortunately, our people do not respect cleanliness and cooperate with us,” he said. “When a shopkeeper throws rubbish outside his shop, he is fined two US dollars. But he is prepared to pay twice that to avoid taking his garbage to the specified [rubbish container] location.”

Najibullah, a shopkeeper in Kabul city, admitted that he did indeed leave his rubbish outside his shop, arguing that this was only because the municipality had not provided enough bins.

Collecting trash in Kabul, January 8, 2011 (Photo by Neil Schneider)

“The area specified for the rubbish containers by the municipality is very far from my shop,” he said. “I cannot just leave my business and customers to take two empty cartons to the garbage. I want the municipality to put the containers near to our shops.”

Others say that the international forces have also contributed to pollution in the city.

A number of complaints from both locals and officials have arisen over the dumping of waste in the Hudkhel and Pol-e Charkhi areas of Kabul, some 10 kilometers (6.5 miles) from the city center.

Abdulghani, a Hudkhel shopkeeper, said that vehicles transporting the contents of septic tanks from coalition bases have been known to empty their loads near local people’s houses.

“All the people in the area are bothered by the stink,” he said. “We complained to the government several times, but no one was able to stop it.”

Habibi Ghori said his department had complained to the NATO-led security mission, ISAF, and even asked the Ministry of Defence and the Council of Ministers to intervene to prevent the foreign forces from unloading their solid and liquid waste in prohibited areas.

“We collect the waste in Kabul city with difficulty, with the negligible facilities we have, and transport it to the Gazak area,” he said, “but the foreigners unload their waste inside the city, despite all the possibilities and equipment they have.”

An ISAF press officer said in response that contractors they employed to dispose of waste may have violated some conditions of the agreement and that they were investigating.

Kabul girl with her trash bag, October 20, 2010 (Photo by Lauras Eye)

“The [international] forces care about the environment and try to eliminate waste using special methods,” the press officer said, adding that spot checks had been ordered on the contractors to ensure they were carrying out their work in accordance with proper practice.

Children pick through garbage on a Kabul street, September 2010. (Photo by Lauras Eye)

Meanwhile, the Kabul municipality said that they lack sufficient capacity to deal with the city’s rubbish problems.

“The cleaning department of the municipality has 3,300 workers and around 115 to 130 trucks,” Ghori said. “We can’t serve the five million population of Kabul city with these resources.”

To this end, he said that his department is conducting a trial scheme in a number of neighborhoods in which they provided households with plastic bags to collect their waste, paying them 10 US cents for each full bag as an incentive.

“This has created an income for some children and individuals who are unemployed,” Habibi Ghori continued. “They collect the plastic bags from behind the doors of the houses, bring them to our workers and get paid. We are considering implementation of the plan also in other parts of the city soon.”

The scheme seems to have already had some success. Farid, a resident of the Kart-e Parwan district, said, “Before, Kart-e Parwan was very dirty, the people were troubled by stinking rubbish and our children suffered from all kinds of diseases.”

“When the municipality started the plastic bag distribution plan, our areas started becoming cleaner, because unemployed children and individuals come and collect garbage from behind the houses.”

Ghori said that cooperation between the authorities and the public is the only way to solve the problem, adding, “People should play their own part in keeping the city clean.”

{This article was originally published January 20, 2011 by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.}

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2011. All rights reserved.