A Desert Capital Drowning in a Sea of Rubbish
NOUAKCHOTT — Bright coloured plastic bags blow in the desert wind like flags marking the dozens of rubbish dumps that circle the capital Nouakchott. Waste disposal has yet to be embraced in Mauritania where until recently, the majority of the population lived a nomadic way of life.
Around Nouakchott, dunes of sand have been replaced by piles of rubbish - tin cans, cartons, chewed up and burnt out hunks of wrecked cars, old shoes and an assortment of other urban waste.
Ahmed Ledib, 13, and his eight-year-old brother Ser and their friend Tank scrounge anything they can sell from the mountains of rubbish. They don’t go to school, instead their mothers needs their meagre earnings to buy food.
“We look for aluminium cans. We put them in 50 kilo sacks and then sell them for 2,000 Ougiya [US$ 6]. But some of the bigger cans can be sold separately as cooking pots if they’re good enough,” said Ahmed as he rifled through the stinking fly-covered waste that stretched as far as the eye could see.
Ser has found a small pink plastic lizard with only one foot missing – his best find of the day so far. Though Ahmed is not impressed as it won’t make them any money.
“Sometimes, we get sick. But generally we’re down here everyday,” said Ahmed, standing only metres away from the rotting carcass of a horse. The air is a putrid mix of decay and acrid burning plastic.
The dump Ahmed and Ser work over is one of three officially designated collection sites for rubbish from Sepra Municipality, which has 70,000 low-income residents.
From here government trucks scoop up the filth to take it to a landfill site 40 kilometres south along the road to Rosso on the Senegalese border.
But the authorities make no effort to get household waste from people’s homes to these collection points.
“As there is no provision for getting the rubbish from people’s homes to a designated dump, poor communities have a real problem with waste management,” Mohamed Ould Tourad, director of Tenmiya, a local environmental organisation said.
As a result, the streets of Sepra – like much of the capital - are choked with litter, rotting food and unofficial dumping sites have sprung up all over the place.
According to Tourad, the problem is made worse by Mauritania’s nomadic traditions.
“Mauritanians are still nomads. They live life like they are still in a tent – leaving their rubbish behind them. They keep their houses clean, but they think nothing of the rubbish outside their door,” he explained.
But with the help of Tenmiya, Basra – a 5,000-strong community within Sepra Municipality - has cleaned up its act.
Sarr Soda who has lived in Basra for 10 years, notices the difference. Her brick house was one of the first to go up in the area which has since swelled with new arrivals from all over Mauritania looking for work.
“Over the last five years lots of people have moved here. As more people came, the amount of rubbish in the streets increased also,” she explained.
But she added that things had got much better since Tenmiya launched a collaborative clean-up campaign in 2003.
With the help of small grants totalling less than US$110,000 from the United Nations Development Fund (UNDP) and the French government aid agency, Tenmiya worked with the local authorities and the private sector to set up a refuse collection service in Basra.
Part of the money was spent on buying bins – old oil drums – that were issued to each household. The rest went into a reeducation campaign that reminded local people of the link between poor waste management and disease.
Now Basra residents have their bins emptied every third day by a team of 10 men who use donkey carts to transport the rubbish to the government collection point.
But the real success of the project is that it is financially self-sustaining.
“Each household pays 400 Ougiya [just over US $1] per month and in return one of my men takes away their rubbish at least three time a week,” said Demba Aw who proudly operates the Economic Group of Rubbish Collectors, or Recoms-GIE for short.
Besides giving Aw and his colleagues the right to charge for refuse collection, the local municipality has also authorised them to levy 1,200 Ougiya (US$4) on-the-spot fines on people caught dumping rubbish illegally in Basra.
Those who don’t want to be fined, have to take their rubbish to the nearby dump themselves.
And to make sure that the roads and public places stay clean, a voluntary action group goes out with brooms and buckets at least one every month to clean up the neighbourhood.
“The system is so successful, the residents in neighbouring community number five want the same service, so I am expanding my operations,” explained Aw.
“I’m going to have to charge them more – 500 Ougiya [about US1.50]- as they are further from the dump, but they will still get a good deal,” he said, “and it’s generating employment!”
Abdulahi Kamara is 27 and took a job as bin-man after he was forced out of Cote d’Ivoire when civil war erupted in September 2002.
“I was looking for work and then this came along,” he said. “It’s not what I’d prefer to be doing, working with rubbish all day, but these days any work is a good thing. I’m trying to save my money so that I can get married.”
*Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), part of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA
Independent from France in 1960, Mauritania annexed the southern third of the former Spanish Sahara (now Western Sahara) in 1976, but relinquished it after three years of raids by the Polisario guerrilla front seeking independence for the territory. Opposition parties were legalized and a new constitution approved in 1991. Two multiparty presidential elections since then were widely seen as flawed, but October 2001 legislative and municipal elections were generally free and open. Mauritania remains, in reality, a one-party state. The country continues to experience ethnic tensions between its black population and the dominant Moor (Arab-Berber) populace.
Overgrazing, deforestation, and soil erosion aggravated by drought are contributing to desertification; very limited natural fresh water resources away from the Senegal, which is the only perennial river; locust infestation.
Most of the population concentrated in the cities of Nouakchott and Nouadhibou and along the Senegal River in the southern part of the country.
Population: 2,998,563 (July 2004 est.) 0-14 years: 45.9% (male 689,371; female 686,486) / 15-64 years: 51.9% (male 767,551; female 788,520) / 65 years and over: 2.2% (male 27,106; female 39,529) (2004 est.)
Half the population still depends on agriculture and livestock for a livelihood, even though many of the nomads and subsistence farmers were forced into the cities by recurrent droughts in the 1970s and 1980s. Mauritania has extensive deposits of iron ore, which account for nearly 40% of total exports. The decline in world demand for this ore, however, has led to cutbacks in production. The nation's coastal waters are among the richest fishing areas in the world, but overexploitation by foreigners threatens this key source of revenue. The country's first deepwater port opened near Nouakchott in 1986. In the past, drought and economic mismanagement resulted in a buildup of foreign debt. In February 2000, Mauritania qualified for debt relief under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative and in December 2001 received strong support from donor and lending countries at a triennial Consultative Group review. In 2001, exploratory oil wells in tracts 80 km offshore indicated potential extraction at current world oil prices. A new investment code approved in December 2001 improved the opportunities for direct foreign investment. Ongoing negotiations with the IMF involve problems of economic reforms and fiscal discipline. Substantial oil production and exports probably will not begin until 2005. Meantime the government emphasizes reduction of poverty, improvement of health and education, and promoting privatization of the economy.
50% of the population is below poverty line (2001 est.).
source: http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/mr.html 11mar2005