Ethiopian garbage landslide tragedy highlights harsh living conditions

Ethiopia has observed three days of national mourning as the estimated death toll in Addis Ababa’s garbage landslide rose to more than 110. A mountain of rubbish at Koshe, the city’s primary garbage landfill for more than half a century, collapsed last Saturday. By some accounts, more than 150 people were at the area when the landslide occurred, which means that dozens are still missing.

The city administration concedes that close to 50 makeshift homes on the landfills are destroyed. Speaking with journalists on Tuesday, the city’s mayor, Diriba Kuma, called on donors to help in the efforts to rehabilitate the victims of the tragedy. The administration says more than a 100 households are relocated. However, bereaved families and relatives of those missing do not shy away from expressing their anger at the government.

“Nobody is helping us. We are doing all the digging ourselves,” Kaleab Tsegaye, a relative of one victim, tells the Reuters news agency. “It is shameful.” An old woman speaking with the U.S. broadcaster, VOA, alleges she personally paid money in order to extract the bodies of her six children and grandchildren from the pile of debris.

Daniel, a 20 year old resident of the area on the other hand says that the government has provided excavators that do the actual digging of the pile. However, “people of the area are doing a lot in finding buried bodies, especially on the actual night of the accident.”

Hassen, another resident of the area for the past seven years, calls the administration’s efforts “half-hearted,” since it is concentrating on digging up the bodies only rather than helping survivors too. “Nobody seems to care for the survivors enough. Many of them are staying at relatives’ and friends’ houses with all their properties gone,” he says. This sentiment is shared by Daniel who says he lost a friend in the accident: “I know a lot of survivors who are staying at strangers’ houses; they don’t even have spare clothes,” he says.

For Hassen, the government has been neglectful of the extremely poor people who depend of the landfill for their livelihoods for years. Everyday more than 500 people, mostly women, are believed to roam around the damping site looking for items which can be sold. “Accidents and deaths are common,” says Hassen. “Many of the [waste-pickers] experience health problems frequently.”

People living in and around the landfill always expressed their desire to move to another safer area “but they are left without options,” adds Hassen.

Close to 300,000 tons of waste are collected from the residents of Addis Ababa, most of which is dumped at the 24 hectare Koshe site. While many waste-pickers live in shabby houses they built on the edges of the landfill, others from nearby areas also arrive at the place very early in the morning and spend at least half the day bent, looking for valuable items according to Hassen. “They collect anything from plastic bottles to pieces of metal and sometimes food,” he says. “If you look at them from [an overpass bridge close by], it’s really hard to identify them from the dirt.”

True Concern for Compassion, a now defunct local non-governmental organization tried to offer alternative means of incomes for the people depending on the landfill, “but these attempts have largely been unsuccessful mainly due to lack of financing,” says a woman who worked on the project. Many of the waste-pickers do not have skills they can use outside the landfill that might help them earn income. “So we tried to help them start very small businesses that do not immediately require skills they do not have; we also tried to make sure their children have sufficient school materials,” she says.

In 2013 the government began construction of a 120 million USD clean energy project at Koshe which is said to generate 50 megawatts of electricity from the rubbish upon completion. Following that a new, 137 hectare waste disposal landfill was built in Sendafa, on the outskirts of the town and dumping waste at Koshe was halted. However, since farmers around the new landfill blocked the dumping of waste, forcing rubbish to pile up in different neighborhoods in city, Koshe resumed its service.

A chief researcher at Amnesty International in Ethiopia, Fisseha Tekle argues that there were not enough concrete actions to remove people from the area prior to this accident. The government’s claims of development come short of “taking residents out of this deplorable situation,” he said in a television interview.

The woman who worked for the non-governmental argues that the living condition of the people who reside in and around Koshe has not received attention as much as it should. “I could only hope this horrible tragedy at least changes that,” she says.