Kabul Slowly Cleaning Up its Act

City officials seek to address capital’s increasingly serious garbage problem.

Kabul Slowly Cleaning Up its Act

City officials seek to address capital’s increasingly serious garbage problem.

On Kabul street corners, goats graze, children collect plastic bottles from mounds of garbage and open sewers flow by.

It’s a feature of everyday life in the capital, noticed by citizens and visitors alike. Health and medical professionals say the failure of the municipal government to provide the most basic services is jeopardising the health of everyone who lives here, especially that of children. City officials say they are working hard to overcome the problem.

In poor neighborhoods like Andarabi street, in downtown Kabul for example, children run and play their games around great piles of garbage only steps away from municipal offices. The first thing one notices walking past Mohammad Jan Khan road and turning down Andarabi is the overpowering stench. The second is the large number of children playing around this health hazard.

“The piles of garbage threaten our children’s health every minute of every day,” Asifa, a mother of two, told IWPR, “but we can’t afford to move away. Rents are affordable here and I am a widow and the sole supporter of my children.”

Khan Agha Aseel, an official with the Kabul office of the Geneva-based World Health Organization, WHO, warns about the diseases carried by flies and rats swarming around Kabul’s dumps, “Rats carry the bacteria which cause plague in humans, and both rats and flies carry leshmaniasis which cause an open sore that is very difficult to heal.”

Dr Nasim, a surgeon at the Wazir Akbar Khan Hospital, said he is seeing a lot of children with this type of sore, “Some of these lesions are contagious. We know that the main cause of leshmaniasis is garbage and pollution. As the weather gets warmer each day and garbage is not removed, these children run the risk of catching not only skin conditions but also diarrhoea and other stomach diseases.”

In May, the 2-year-old niece of Mohammad Arif from the village of Chinar on the outskirts of Kabul died of dehydration caused by diarrhoea and vomiting. Chinar is one of eight villages outside the capital where garbage from the city has been taken and dumped in huge open-air pits. The rubbish is neither buried nor sprayed with insecticides or other poisons. The result has been an increase in health problems among all residents, but particularly children.

Fifteen-year-old Fawzia must cross a dump every morning on her way to school. “I hold my nose with my scarf because I want to protect myself from the fumes. The municipality is working on other problems in the city, but not garbage,” she said.

Waheeda, an Andarabi street resident, thinks waste disposal is a major problem. “I have to carry dough every day past this pile of garbage,” she said, gesturing to show how she must wave off swarms of flies as she takes dough she has prepared for her family’s daily bread to the neighbourhood bakery.

But Ashraf Hashimi, a shopkeeper on Andarabi street, thinks refuse is only one of the many difficulties Kabul citizens have to deal with,

“ We also have no electricity and no water, so garbage problems seem small by comparison.”

Hasibullah Asghari, the deputy mayor of Kabul, said the city has begun to clear the piles of rubbish from the major streets and public areas, “After that we will continue on the side streets and we will ask residents to bring their litter to specific disposal sites. I admit the municipality has been weak in this effort but without better cooperation from the people, we can’t be successful.”

A representative of the residents of Andarabi street, who preferred not to be named, said the authorities haven’t done much for them. “The municipality is doing nothing and the people of this street are too poor to remove the garbage themselves. They can’t hire trucks. Most don’t even own a wheelbarrow,” he said.

But Mohammad Daud, an engineer who works at the Kabul office of the international aid agency, CARE, said following an agreement between his organisation and the Kabul municipality, more than 400 truck loads (or 60,000 cubic metres) of garbage was removed from Andarabi street five months ago.

Since then, he said, the government shifted its focus to cleaning up the city’s system of open sewage canals, which pose as great a health hazard as the dumps. As a result, the people of Kabul are temporarily faced with the sight and smell of piles of black sludge lining the sides of the streets in the city’s centre as it is extracted from stagnant canals.

Deputy mayor Asghari explains that one problem is the city only has about 300 very old trucks, most of which are currently in serious need of repair. “In January we signed an agreement with India to provide 105 new trucks, including some modern disposal loaders capable of processing up to 6 cubic meters of garbage at a time.”

Bashir Ahmad, deputy director of municipal planning, told IWPR that following a meeting with UNAMA (UN Assistance Mission for Afghanistan), the city was divided into 16 zones to be placed under the jurisdiction of four NGOs (CARE, ACTED, Mercy Corps and Medair) who have agreed to undertake the proper disposal of garbage in their zones.

Ahmad said in the recent past NGOs like UN Habitat, CARE and Rural Reconstruction helped transport over 200,000 cubic metres of rubbish and war debris out of Kabul. The NGOs’ employ local residents to help with the clean up, providing some much needed employment.

Nasrullah Habibi, President of the UN Habitat project, said the UN is providing fuel on a daily basis for the municipality’s 40 working trucks and has created local city councils to work with residents. “The purpose of these councils is to encourage people to take part in cleaning up their city,” he said. UN Habitat has hired 117 workers for these councils, mostly women, who will go from door to door to explain the importance of family hygiene and also the benefits of maintaining a clean environment.

Habibi’s colleague, Dr Nazeera, who is in charge of regional health education at Habitat, said, “We are also encouraging basic health education for people by putting up posters about germs, diseases and the symptoms of diseases. We explain how to keep the environment clean and how to use clean water. People have responded positively to this programme and have asked for more information.”

Najibullah is an editor at the Bakhtar Information Agency and Arifa Barat Neksiar is an independent journalist in Kabul.

Support our journalists