After facing difficulties in providing their essential service to Egypt's environment, the Zabaleen community is finally getting government recognition as part of scheme designed to clean up our country.
It's is practically impossible to avoid the garbage strewn just about everywhere you look in Egypt. The sad thing is that this wasn't always the case. Sure there was garbage, but at the same time there was once a viable and profitable ecosystem established by the Zabaleen that recycled almost all the garbage collected. After swine flu and successive governments unfortunately decreased the operations, the community is finally being officially co-opted into Egypt’s clean-up efforts
The Zabaleen are a Christian community that migrated from upper Egypt to the outskirts of Cairo in the 1940s. To make ends meet, this poor community sifted through garbage in search of food for their pigs, and any valuable they could keep. With the help of NGOs, who provided the Zabaleen with recycling plants in 80s, they began recycling about 9000 tonnes per day. Their facilities recycled plastic, paper and metal, while organic waste was fed to the pigs, and their waste was sold as fertilisers to farmers. It was working that is until a series of events that effectively destroyed the system and their livelihoods.
The first was back in 2009, when the fear of a swine flu epidemic led to the killing of 300,000 pigs, despite the insistence of WHO stating that they weren't responsible for the disease. Then there were attempts to privatise garbage collecting that failed, and then finally there was Morsi's promise to clean the streets in a hundred days, which somehow only seemed to make things worse.
Luckily the tide is turning, thanks to the leadership of Leila Iskandar, who became minister of the environment after the fall of Morsi. Working with the Zabaleen for four years now, Iskander understands their importance and has reversed previous governments policy, emphasising that the community have an important role at the core of waste management. As such, they have been called upon to join the efforts of cleaning up Egypt and work is being done to give them official status as part of the programme. So far the Zabaleen union, made up of 44 local waste disposal companies, using a labour force of 1,000 families, have been officially registered with the ministry.
The Ministry of Environment is also launching a public awareness campaign to get people to sort organic and non-organic waste before they leave it on their doorstep to be collected. "Of course that will take time," said Iskandar to The Guardian, while admitting that she still did not have the few hundred thousand dollars required for this project. "In the first six months we want to provide a free service, because people here are fed up with paying for nothing over the past year."
This is the kind of thinking that is required for a new Egypt. If we manage to bring awareness and change our waste habits, we will be cleaning up our global image at the same time, ushering a wave of tourists that leave Egypt with a new sense of respect.