As the urban population in Nairobi and elsewhere in East Africa grows, so does the solid waste management burden - a situation worsened by poor funding for urban sanitation departments and a lack of enforcement of sanitation regulations.
At least 100 million people in East Africa lack access to improved sanitation, according to UN sources.
“Due to budgetary deficiencies, town authorities find it difficult to address solid waste management in a sustainable manner. In addition, insufficient public awareness and enforcement of legislation is also a hindrance,” Andre Dzikus, coordinator of the urban basic services section of the UN Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), told IRIN.
In Nairobi, a large percentage of solid waste is managed by the private sector and NGOs due to public-private partnerships, says Dzikus.
The city council’s solid waste department, like those in Kampala and Dar es Salaam, is not well equipped, with transport vehicles few and often poorly serviced, despite increasing waste quantities due to rapid urbanization, he added.
Understaffing and a lack of skilled staff in waste management is also a challenge.
Without proper controls, solid waste is often dumped in abandoned quarries or similar sites. In Nairobi, for example, municipal waste is taken to the Dandora dumping site, a former quarry some 15km east.
Dandora slum residents who live close to the dumpsite are therefore exposed to environmental and disease risks, said Dzikus.
“Burning plastic produces very toxic fumes, such as furans and dioxins, which are very harmful to human beings and the environment. Most of the uncontrolled dumpsites are some of the major sources of greenhouse gases contributing to global climate change,” he added.
Although Nairobi has a sanitation policy, the Environmental Sanitation and Hygiene Policy 2007, which recognizes the role of NGOs, community-based organizations (CBOs) and the Kenya Water and Sanitation Network (KEWASNET), often there is little collaboration in service delivery, according to a February report, Comparing urban sanitation and solid waste management in East African metropolises: The role of civil society organizations.
“Sanitation service delivery for the urban poor is a disconnected pluralism between government and NGOs/CBOs institutions,” it states.
Living with waste
More often than not, the urban poor have to make do with living amid waste despite the health risks; child mortality in the slums is 2.5 times higher than in other areas of Nairobi, according to the UN World Health Organization (WHO).
In the Mathare slums, for example, the sight of children playing among plastic bags full of human excrement, referred to as “flying toilets”, is common.
“We use plastic bags to relieve ourselves because the few toilets that are there are too expensive,” Mama Annah, a resident of Mathare, told IRIN.
“If I have to choose between paying for the toilet and buying food, the choice is easily made.”
The improper disposal of faecal matter within settled areas is a major public health problem. “We throw the plastic bags in the streets because there is no other alternative. Our children have no [other] place to play,” added Mama Annah.
Insecurity and a lack of hygiene awareness are other problems.
“I have built toilets and bathrooms several times, but every time it rains, or there is a conflict, they are destroyed. Because of the instability, I take my time before I build a new one,” Simon Macharia, a slum property owner, told IRIN.
“We also have to work together, because every time some of us try to keep clean, someone defecates in front of your door.”
According to WHO, open defecation was the only sanitation practice available to 33 percent of the population in East Africa in 2006. Lack of access to proper sanitation, including clean water, is a major cause of diarrhoea, the second biggest killer of children in developing countries, according to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
Many slum dwellers in East African cities pay five to seven times more per litre of water than the average North American, notes WHO.
And it is children and women who suffer the most due to poor sanitation, according to Akiba Mashinani Trust, an NGO focusing on the rights of slum dwellers in Nairobi.
“One of the health risks women have is [with] reproductive health because they use public toilets that are not properly maintained. Some of them have suffered from urinary [tract] infections,” Edith Kalela, a communication officer at Akiba Mashinani Trust, told IRIN.
The biggest challenge to waste management in the slums is the lack of disposal space, added Kalela. “Since these people live in informal settlements, the government has failed to manage their solid waste.”
Lack of land tenure
Slum residents often do not own the land they live on, risking eviction.
In the Huruma slum area, also in Nairobi, Akiba Mashinani Trust has helped residents obtain some land by negotiation with the government and the city council, for which a communal title deed was issued. “If you have land, you have more prospects to do developments,” said Kalela.
“We help these people build houses that are self-contained. Even if we build toilets, there are over 200,000 households, so how many toilets will we build for public use? A sustainable solution is to help them build a house that is self-contained.”
In the past, the government has attempted to improve living conditions in the slum areas under the Kenya Slum Upgrading Programme (KENSUP), but without much success. KENSUP has recently completed a sanitation project in the Kibera slum, handing over seven water sanitation facilities to community groups there, but there are concerns over the project’s sustainability.
*This article was revised on 14 March to clarify UN-HABITAT’s comments on municipal waste management challenges