A short walk or drive on major streets in Ethiopia’s fast-growing capital, Addis Ababa, reveals how this city of more than 5 million inhabitants is facing huge challenges from solid waste disposal. Many street corners are littered with plastic bags, bottles and aluminium cans. At first glance, there seem to be only sparse efforts by city officials to remove the dirt from the busy streets of Addis, which is home to various continental and international organisations like the African Union and the UN- Economic Commission for Africa.
The city dominated international media headlines on March 12th, 2017 when a mountain of rubbish at a massive dump on the outskirts of the city collapsed, instantly killing more than 100 people. The accident, which happened at the Koshe landfill, was considered by many at the time as a disaster waiting to happen, with authorities accused of turning a blind eye to a growing solid waste management problem experienced by this enormous city.
The Koshe landfill is so massive that it has become part of the urban landscape, sprawling over an area the size of 36 football pitches and attracting hundreds of waste pickers who make their living from salvaged rubbish.
Reporters witnessed bodies being pulled out of mud and stick houses as relatives waited for news of the dozens that had gone missing. The Associated Press reported at the time that it was unclear what had caused the collapse, though residents said that the dumping of rubbish had intensified at the site months before the accident.
“About 20 to 30% of the waste generated in Addis Ababa remains uncollected and makes the city environment aesthetically unpleasant and affects the city's public health,” wrote Professor Meine Pieter van Dijk from Unesco’s Institute for Water Education. “The six major sources of solid waste in Addis Ababa are households, street, commercial institutes, industries, hotels and hospitals. Most of the solid waste materials produced by households are disposed without adequate care.”
In recent years, however, city officials appear to have taken note of the problem and have started new and innovative solid waste management schemes. One of the most notable is the state-of-the-art waste-to-energy plant that in recent weeks started incinerating more than 1,000 tons of solid waste every day from the Koshe landfill, turning it into energy. Though it is not yet running at full capacity, it is hoped to supply Addis with 30% of its household electricity needs while meeting European standards on air emissions.
“This project shows how ambitious Ethiopia is to deal with its waste problems and also to embrace clean and renewable energy,” said Samuel Alemayehu, an official at the Repi waste-to-energy plant. “In fact, it will be a model for many other plants like this that will be constructed across the continent and beyond.”
But still Addis Ababa continues to suffer from poor solid waste management that has hindered development, lessened the aesthetic beauty of the city and most importantly endangered the lives of its residents.
“Solid waste management has not been given the amount of attention it requires,” wrote Meaza Cheru from Helsinki Metropolitan University of Applied Sciences. “The insufficient management and lack of attention to the matter can be observed from the unbearable litter in the rivers, drains and streets in Addis Ababa. It is obvious that immediate action is needed in the solid waste management sector.”
Recently, the privatisation of waste collection in Addis Ababa using groups of entrepreneurs seemed to have eased the problem to a considerable extent. Nevertheless, solid waste management in the city is still handled primarily by the city government.
“The city of Addis Ababa is a prime candidate for private sector involvement in waste management as effective household collection will reduce the amount of open disposal sites and bins on city streets,” wrote Matthew Cheever from the Environmental Policy Review group at Colby College. “The main issues in both urban areas are the lack of lined, covered landfills available to receive waste. If government and NGO actors are also able to construct modern lined, capped landfills, then unlined drinking water sources can be better protected, lowering rates of water contamination, and preventing disease and illness.”
In 2016, it was estimated that the city of Addis Ababa generated upwards of 0.5 kg per capita of waste per day, with more than 350,000 metric tons collected each year.