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Waste Management

Waste Management - The Challenges Faced by Cities in Developing Countries

Modern cities attract hundreds of residents each year. The desire for a better life, search for education and job opportunities are the leading causes. As it is, some get to achieve their dreams while others do not. However, this paper is not about that. The mass exodus of people from rural areas to the city poses a major challenge to the authorities. Basic housing, transportation and other amenities become scarce. As more people flock to the cities, they exert pressure on existing resources.

In developing countries, mushrooming of slums poses a great headache to city administrators. An increasing city population results in generation of a lot of domestic waste. Garbage disposal has for a long time been considered a huge task. In modern cities like New York, Shanghai or London, waste disposal systems have been made operational to ensure that domestic waste is disposed of properly. Recycling plants help in converting waste paper, plastic, rubber and tin cans into re-usable material.

The case might not apply to say a city in Africa or South America. This paper addresses the challenge of waste disposal and management as well as effects of waste on the environment. Mass exodus to the cities of the world is a continuous thing that affects all generations from the past and present. Western countries have managed to bring the problem under control. Clean cities do not just happen; a lot of work is put towards attaining such a status.

Waste, effects on the environment:

According to JICA, “Pollution problems are also closely tied to the mode of development in developing countries. Despite this, many developing countries either have not developed environmental pollution control measures, or have not provided adequate implementation structures to ensure that policies are effective.” (145, Chapter 6, Environmental Pollution Control Measures.) Waste management and disposal is part of every city’s charter.

Waste refers to any unwanted material. It may also be called trash, garbage or rubbish. It results from consumption of food, water and other items. Improper disposal of waste leads to littering. When waste accumulates, it pollutes the environment and becomes a health hazard. Airborne diseases can occur. At the same time, waste that is not well disposed of becomes an eyesore and foul smell emanates from it. These are but a few of the side effects associated with waste. In the planning of a city, infrastructure is developed in such a way that there are facilities where unwanted stuff can be placed. A company may be contracted to collect garbage and dispose it at a place that has been set aside for the purpose.

A sewage system collects all waste water from the cleaning of clothes, utensils and use of the toilet or bathroom. The water is then directed to a treatment plant. Once it has been adequately treated, it is released to the streams and rivers. Collected garbage is also sorted out into plastics, metal cans and rubber waste. These are taken to recycling plants. The rest is allowed to rot and decompose through a natural process. That is how an ideal modern city is supposed to operate. Efficient disposal and collection of garbage ensures that cleanliness is maintained all round and protects citizens from potential hazards.

Apportioning the responsibility:

City authorities, through the devolved form of government, are given the sole authority of ensuring that there is efficient management of waste. Residents pay taxes to the government. The monies collected are supposed to fund the operations of city councils and municipalities. Governments in developing countries are grappling with issues such as poverty, corruption and debts. As a result, it becomes difficult to have a working system that takes care of the citizen’s requirements.

On the other hand, city residents are partly to blame for the failure of garbage collection and disposal systems in cities. Instead of carefully collecting domestic waste, people have the tendency of throwing waste anyhow. Nobody cares. Such careless attitude is prevalent in the slum areas that keep mushrooming with every development of a major city. Though there are laws governing pollution of the environment, enforcement is weak.

Both the government and their citizens are to blame for this problem. The government pretends that the problem does not exist. Enforcement officers are corrupt. They accept bribes from citizens arrested for dumping and littering offences. On the flipside, citizens utilize any loopholes in the enforcement laws and the gullibility of enforcement agencies. In the process, garbage continues to pile, people fall sick, and the blame game continues. The entire cycle is repeated again. There are no proper policies formulated to deal with waste management and punish those breaking the law.

In their quest to woo investors, developing countries allow the setting up of industries. These provide employment opportunities to citizens. The same industries repay the welcoming gesture by releasing toxic fumes into the environment. Industrial affluent is also allowed to seep into streams, rivers and other water bodies threatening the survival of humans and the surrounding ecosystem. Developing countries governments focus “…on economic growth and profits at the expense of public health” (145, Chapter 6. Environmental Pollution Control Measures)

Stakeholders View of  the Waste Collection Problem:

A huge percentage of the budgetary allocation set by municipalities is allocated to waste management. Indeed, the World Bank concurs “In developing countries, it is common for municipalities to spend 20-50 percent of their available recurrent budget on solid waste management.” This reflects the magnitude of the problem. The report Urban Solid Waste Management further adds “Yet, it is also common that 30-60 percent of all the urban solid waste in developing countries is uncollected and less than 50 percent of the population is served. In some cases, as much as 80 percent of the collection and transport equipment is out of service, in need of repair or maintenance. In most developing countries, open dumping with open burning is the norm.”

Therein lays the problem. Citizens expect their municipal authorities to serve them efficiently. Their expectation is based on the fact that the same authorities collect millions of dollars every year in the form of taxes, service charges, business license fees and parking fees. Ironically, the revenue collected is diverted to other uses. As a result, waste disposal infrastructure goes from bad to worse. It is a common occurrence to find garbage disposal trucks rotting at a municipal yard simply because there are insufficient funds to service or repair them. Water treatment plants are overworked, and equipment keeps breaking down since the plants’ capacity is overstretched. Infrastructure that was hitherto designed to serve a few thousand residents is the same one being expected to handle the needs of the now over a million people residing in these cities.

Since local governments are given exclusive management rights of waste management facilities, the buck stops with them. A citizen’s responsibility ends when garbage is placed at a designated place or when a toiled is flushed.

Measures to address waste management:

On a daily basis, cities in developing countries release tons and thousands of cubic liters of waste. To manage this was strategic planning is required. Municipalities lack sufficient human resource capability to handle the problem. Many waste management officers lack training and experience in handling waste. Hence, out of the allocated resources, funds should be channeled towards training of local authority staff. Dilapidated infrastructure should also be upgraded and repaired.  While presenting a paper at the 7th ISWA International Congress and Exhibition, Hisashi Ogawa wrote in part “Many officers in charge of solid waste management, particularly at the local level, have little or no technical background or training in engineering or management.”

Another measure to address the problem is by giving priority to waste collection. Obtaining funds is a big challenge. This is despite the fact that taxes and levies are collected by the authorities. However, some residents do not have the capacity to pay or are unwilling to do so. This is the case in slums and low income localities where residents expect the services to be provided automatically. Policy makers should devise new ways of collecting levies that are fair and non-retrogressive.

Waste management is not just a public or central government affair. The private sector should be involved. If anything, these are the same investors who set up factories and businesses in the host cities. It would be prudent to engage them in projects that would help boost collection of garbage, finance the acquisition of equipment or participate in public awareness campaigns.

Central governments should empower public institutions that have been entrusted with the responsibility of managing urban waste. These institutions should be given clear mandates on their scope of operation. Their enforcement ability needs enhancement. In so doing, local authorities will have been given an able partner to assist with handling of domestic and industrial waste in cities.

Most developing countries struggle with weak environmental legislation, while some of these laws are fragmented while enforcement is placed in the hands of several agencies. As a result, there is duplication as well as superimposition of duties. For instance, an agency working under the Public Health Act may find itself entangled into the affairs of another operating under the auspices of an Environment Protection Act. According to Ogawa “legislation is only effective if it is enforced.” Hence, clear cut legislation that defines the role of each agency is required.

Are the measures being taken?

Recycling of waste is an option that is being considered by municipalities in developing countries. The pace might be slow, but at least something is being done. Development partners such as the World Bank, African Development Bank and others have been chipping in by funding waste management projects especially in Africa. Such laudable efforts have gone a long way towards the establishment of cleaner cities.

Donor countries have given stringent requirements for qualification to facilitate the release of funds. In Africa, for instance, many countries are reeling under the effect of civil war and poor governance. Their governments have been accused of corruption, mismanagement and persistent human rights abuse. As a result, donors are forced to withhold much needed funds thus delaying the implementation of measures meant to address urban waste management.

Consequences of Poor Waste Management Policies:

In his paper titled “Social effects of poor sanitation and waste management on poor urban communities: a neighborhood%u2010specific study of Sabon Zongo, Accra,” George Owusu singles out Accra, the capital city of Ghana, as a model city depicting challenges of cities in developing countries. Sabon Zongo is a poor locality within Accra. Residents here live under poor sanitary conditions. For example, Owusu cites a situation where due to the residents’ inability to pay for sanitary care; they are left with no choice but to “package their liquid and solid waste in plastic bags and dump them indiscriminately within the community.” The same happens in Kibera, a populous slum in Nairobi, Kenya.

Such incidents create an avenue for the development of waterborne and airborne diseases. Considering the high cost of medical care and poverty in which the residents live, it becomes difficult for them to seek medical care. Water bodies become contaminated leading to a complex health hazard. In the end, funds earmarked for the management of waste disposal are diverted to treating the same citizens under the care of municipal authorities.

Industries whose carbon emissions and waste disposal is unregulated pose a grave danger to people living nearby. Cement factories in Africa have been responsible for respiratory illnesses and other complications. Chemical plants and other industries are equally to blame for the failing health and environmental degradation of the localities in which they operate from. This has seen residents taking to the streets or confronting the factory management in a bid to have some action being taken. Local authorities give lip service when they threaten closure or take unnecessary legal action on the culprits.

The Role of the Local Community, and Government Support in Waste management:

Away from industrial waste, this paper focuses most on domestic waste. According to Owusu, “It is estimated that Accra generates between 1500–1800 tons of waste per day. On average, 1200 tons of the waste generated in the city is collected daily, leaving between 300–600 tons of uncollected waste.” The same situation is replicated in other developing countries of the world. In tackling the challenge, the city’s authority sub-divided the city into zones. A private garbage collection company was awarded each zone. Using the central container system, specially made containers are placed at strategic places and people take their garbage there at no fee. This covers 80% of Accra. The rest is collected through the door-to-door system.

The example of Accra provides an insight on strategies used by cities in developing countries to rid themselves of garbage. The system is also working in Nairobi. The community needs to be sensitized on the importance of proper disposal of solid and liquid waste. This is done through environmental awareness groups. Community toilets have been established in many parts where residents contribute a small fee towards their maintenance and upkeep. As a result, the burden has been eased from the shoulders of municipal councils.

Communities living in cities have also been engaged in cleanup activities. On certain days of the year, people come together and participate in activities that include garbage collection, tree planting. At the end of the event, public talks and environmental shows are screened to the public as a way of creating awareness. Locals have been encouraged to come up with ways of recycling waste paper. In Kenya for instance, the government has established a youth development fund. Youth groups can borrow money to finance waste recycling initiatives. Others have pooled their resources together and acquired small trucks that help in the collection of garbage from households to the city’s dumping site. Indeed the local community is playing an active role in waste disposal and management.

Success Stories On Waste Management:

The success of waste disposal initiatives in Accra is something worth mentioning. Mobilizing people to take responsibility rather than wait for the government has led to a significant drop in disease outbreaks. On the other hand, such efforts have created job opportunities for the youth who would have otherwise been involved in crime and drugs.

In August 2009, the Maldives government sought the assistance of the International Finance Corporation (IFC) in the development of a waste management system involving the private sector. The pilot project was implemented in Male and other islands of Hulhumale, Hulhulle and Villingili. It involved collecting, transporting, segregating and disposing waste in these regions. The project is still ongoing.

In 2002, the Ethiopian government sought support from PPIAF (Public-Private Infrastructure Advisory Facility) to formulate strategies for collection, transportation and disposal of urban waste. Djibouti is another developing country neighboring Ethiopia. It requested for the same type of funding for a solid waste management project that involved the private sector participation. This project purposed to make use of micro-enterprises to collect and carry waste from the source to a municipal council facility under the management of the Office de la Voirie de Djibouti (OVD). The OVD would then transport the bulk waste to a principal disposal site in the city.

These are just but a few of the successful waste disposal projects undertaken in partnership with governments in developing countries. This is evidence of the availability of sustainable solutions to the challenge posed by management and disposal of urban waste.


Developing countries need not have their cities being covered with mounds of garbage. The problem is manageable. However, there should be goodwill from all stakeholders. The local government under whose docket the responsibility lies should be accountable. Funds allocated to them should be used appropriately. The government should hold officers responsible for embezzlement of funds to task. They should be prosecuted and charged to the full force of the law. After these officers serve their sentences or fines, they must be barred from holding or contesting for public office in the future.

As a matter of fact, people residing in such cities should do more than just waiting for waste collection and disposal services. They should demand it! There is no justification for paying taxes and licenses yet no services are forthcoming. Residents should be vigilant and ensure that there is no dumping of waste. Where levies have been agreed upon, all should make a contribution towards that. Public awareness campaigns ought to be strengthened.

Parliamentarians ought to come up with comprehensive legislation empowering local authorities to carry out the task of waste collection and disposal. Other public agencies should be formed and entrusted to oversee adherence to the law take legal action on individuals or corporate bodies that break the law. Good governance should be exercised by governments of developing countries. This calls for a crackdown on corruption in public offices, streamlining tendering processes and carrying out regular audit.

Donors should not be too strict in giving conditions for release of funds. They should stress on accountability. Another way would be the release of piecemeal funds instead of doing it all at once. The projects should be jointly taken between the community, government and the private sector.

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